Leaders from two community theatres share tips and trades on how to create and maintain a dynamite volunteer program.
Do you currently have what you consider to be a successful volunteer program? If so, please briefly describe the program (ie: 'We have approximately 100 volunteers who serve as ushers, assist in administrative work, and who 'work' at our fundraisers. We have a lead volunteer who handles all the scheduling and that person works with the Executive Director.')
Respondent 1: We have approximately 200 vols. We have a volunteer coordinator that keeps a master list and subcategory lists of names and skills of those who have offered to help. No one gets paid, from board members , exec committee members, director etc.
Respondent 2: Well, of course, 80% of the people who participate with us are volunteers. And the rest are seriously underpaid theatre artists. We do have a program which handles our front of house volunteers.
How has your volunteer program improved over time? Please provide a specific(s) example or explanation if possible.
Respondent 1: We have maintained the list for many years. Updates were a nightmare to maintain. Now we use excel and email to stay in touch and confirm updated info. A volunteer does this. She took over the task recently and is doing quite well so far.
Respondent 2: We began using online software a few years ago to reach out to, educate and schedule volunteers. The software gives them instructions about the various tasks and let's them see who they are working with etc. It will send a reminder to them the week and day before they are assigned to work. It also allows our house manager or board member to reach out to the group when we need more help. It works reasonably well.
How do you hope your program or efforts develop or improve in the next 5+ years?
Respondent 1: We will be hiring an executive director next year to coincide with the completion of our newly remodeled theatre.
Respondent 2: Recently we have been working on making sure our volunteers have a great time when they work front of house so they will tell their friends and come do it again.
"We have a LOT of people in our volunteer system, but only about 25% of them volunteer regularly. Many sign up because they wanted to see a particular show for free. My goal is to make sure that they had such a great time, and loved the show, so they will do it again."
Who leads or spearheads the volunteer program or efforts at your community theatre? Do you think that person or position is appropriate for the task?
Respondent 1: A volunteer does this. She took over the task recently and is doing quite well so far.
Respondent 2: One of our board members, our paid house manager and the artistic director work together to track, train, schedule, and encourage those volunteers. It really takes all three of us to get the job done and is an ongoing activity.
What do you believe is the key to a successful volunteer program for the volunteer? For the organization?
Respondent 1: Recognition and gratitude for helping.
"We have an annual member party as well as an annual awards party."
Respondent 2: Make sure your volunteers have clear, pleasant work tasks to do. No one wants to stand around doing nothing. Communicate with them clearly and in a timely fashion and say THANK YOU.
Do you have a dynamic or innovative method for volunteer recruitment? For retention? Any recruitment or retention ideas you want to try but haven't?
Respondent 1: We also have a detailed ‘job description’ for those who agree to help. It is difficult to keep people interested if they are only asked once a year to help.
Respondent 2: We make sure we set aside seats, even to sold out shows, so that the volunteer can see the show when they come to volunteer (it is a drive for some of our folx). That actually has gotten us a few new volunteers because it was they only way they could get a seat to a sold out show, then they had fun selling concessions and did it for the next show. I don't know how dynamic that is, but it seems to work.
What three qualities or skills makes an ideal community theatre volunteer?
Respondent 1: Willingness to work, courteous, and a self starter.
Respondent 2: Flexible, personable, passionate about my theatre.
Is a successful volunteer program more about leadership, payoff, or vision?
What are resources or tools you think best supports a successful volunteer program?
Respondent 2: There are lots of online platforms that help with scheduling and communication. We also use social media as a link to those resources.
What is a specific example of how volunteers are instrumental to your theatre?
Respondent 2: Well, when you have a sold out house and no one to sell concessions....for us that is a big loss of income. Though can I say a bad volunteer is worse than no volunteer. It is amazing how one bad apple can spoil the whole barrel!
What are your thoughts and/or practices in volunteer recognition?
Respondent 2: We give them tickets and we honor a volunteer of the year at our annual gala. This year it is a woman who took tickets over 40 times last season. Now THAT is a good volunteer!!
What are some creative or unique tasks you have given or do give your volunteers?
Respondent 1: Set design and construction, intensive fund raising.
Respondent 2: Dealing with drunks. Yea, we try not to give that task too often.
What is your single piece of advice (or describe a challenge) you have about organizing/coordinating/scheduling volunteer assignments?
Respondent 1: Keep everyone on the list informed about the importance of what they do and keep those who have not been called upon to help informed about why not.
Respondent 2: When you use a system that allows people to assign themselves to tasks....you do have to keep an eye on it and make sure that you are getting the right people for the right jobs. Sometimes you get someone who really wants to help, and has some barrier to being helpful. We have had volunteers who just can not give change, or who do not practice good hygiene or who otherwise are not appropriate for dealing with the public. I have taken a direct approach with these people, luckily there are not many, and have found ways to gently talk to them about the issue and to redirect their volunteer hours to a task that is more appropriate.
Special thanks to Riverfront Playhouse and Ferndale Repertory Theatre.