You've done hundreds of events. Big ones, small ones, easy ones, ‘I can’t wait for this to be over’ ones. You spend a good 10 to 15 years doing this and think – ‘Well, I have quite arrived! I've been there, done that!’. And it’s almost true – you may have not been through every page in the book, but you certainly have been through enough to know, expect and deal with any kind situation.
And then you get yourself into a role where you find yourself having to deal with an extremely unfamiliar beast – Dealing with volunteers!
Sounds harmless. In fact it almost sounds too good to be true! The virtue of the word ‘volunteer’ is that a person has put forward him or herself selflessly to aid in an activity without any gain for themselves. Or at least I believed so at first. Now it's true we cannot paint everyone with the same brush, and so, these experiences are more a reflection of the clear majority rather than everybody.
When you're part of an association which is focused on members it clearly changes the game. As an employee of such an association you are often looked upon by members as merely ‘book keepers’ or ‘gate keepers’ of their association. Your salary is paid by their money to manage their resources. Much like how a government servant is paid by our tax money to manage our affairs – but only without the benefits and immunity of a government official. And more than just often you must work with these members who wholeheartedly volunteer for various initiatives of the organisation.
Hosting an annual congress or conference – the big one! The much sought-after event which the organisation’s members so eagerly await is quite an exciting event to be part of. It has its fair share of things do it and I won't discount the fact that a year length of planning may at times not be enough. I won’t get into the nuts and bolts of it now, but on the face of it, it does look like a whole load of event management, content management and marketing campaigns that you mix up and pour out as one tasty looking cocktail. But there is one twist here – you are dealing with volunteers – people who may ‘mean’ well, but don’t necessarily ‘know’ well. People that may be in it genuinely to help the community and that’s about it! Or people that maybe in it for, well, an infinity of other reasons! Whatever the case, you as the axis of that event must balance it out all well. That’s when your focus shifts from being ‘event manager’ to ‘ego manager’. Some have disputed that its more of being a ‘people manager’ – I don’t think so.
You have to manage egos- that’s what volunteer management comprises of largely. Getting things done or undone without rubbing someone the wrong way. Pushing back when the line is being over stepped, gently asserting your way, discreetly convincing your stakeholder that he or she needs to stop over thinking and get going – we have a deadline, remember? Sometimes you must know when to let go too. You soon start compartmentalising ‘consequences’ – and based on the severity of the consequence you either let go or push back, all in the spirit of moving ahead together – with no egos bruised! Event management becomes a life skill, more like breathing and all your efforts start getting concentrated on ‘ego management’.
You will often find this sort of a role thankless, because when the audience is applauding an array of committee members and do-gooders for a job well done in organising such a grand scale event – you would be standing back stage in a sweaty mess dealing with something as petty as a flickering LED screen.
Volunteer management, in my opinion should be an optional skill taught in colleges or business schools. The role of an event manager has been often categorised as one of the most stressful jobs out there, but this is a whole different ball game. All I keep telling myself is ‘At the end of the day your event gets done in grand style and you got your pay cheque. That is what you signed up for sir!’