Volunteer opportunities pay big lessons

Volunteers are often the backbone of a successful event.  I frequently find myself telling students and aspiring event professionals to get out there and volunteer as much as possible.  Sign up for all sorts of events.  It’s likely an interesting event has a need for a helping hand.  The idea isn’t to encourage people to just do good things or for event managers to get free labor.  The idea is to see first-hand how events are produced.  While reading Biz Bash and following Pinterest certainly exhibit all of the cool and beautiful event elements, you’re missing the opportunity to touch, feel and learn the “behind the scenes” planning and operations.

Several years ago when I decided that Special Events was my “industry of interest” I realized I needed some experience so I started volunteering for events.  Any event…galas, street fairs, bingo games, school events, races, fundraisers, social events, you name it I volunteered for it.  I wanted to see how it was done.  Crazy that my college didn’t offer a course on “coat check organization” and yet somehow everyone in the event world knew what to do.  How was I going to learn unless I signed up and threw myself to the wolves?


One particular volunteer experience really stands out.  My Aunt convinced me and my roommate to volunteer with her at a casino themed fundraiser for a very large non-profit organization.  The black tie affair was located in a beautiful downtown hotel.  We received instructions the week of the event telling us where to go, what to wear and what to expect.

We arrived dressed in black as we were told.  We were instructed to meet in some dark dingy back of house room where we would be briefed on our responsibilities.  We sat in a cramped room with many other bleeding heart volunteers waiting for instructions.  All of the paid organizers were very busy and very important.  We waited.  And waited some more.  Finally this young, tall, very busy and very important woman briskly enters the room, whips out a list of assignments and begins to quickly explain each of the roles.  She did not thank us for being there, she did not acknowledge our time or effort and she certainly didn’t want to hear how excited I was for the opportunity.  Instead she asked if my roommate and I knew how to deal roulette. I considered being honest but then where would I have been placed?  I decided to quickly run through the game of roulette in my head:

#1 - Say hello to people

#2 - Give them their own color chips

#3 - Take their money

#4 - Wait for everyone to put chips on the table

#5 - Spin a small ball in circle with numbers

#6 - Waive my hand

#7 - Declare a winner

#8 - Throw him or her some more of the same color chips

#9 – Repeat

How hard could this be?

“Yes, we know how to deal roulette that will be a great spot for us...and I thank you for giving us this opportune…” too late she already nodded, marked us down and moved on to the next sucker to figure out what basement parking garage they would have to stand in for 3 hours saying “right this way, mam, right this way sir.”  I made a good choice; the roulette wheel was where the action will be!

The young, tall and very important event coordinator finished with the assignments, told us not to talk to guests about anything other than the job we were doing, we would have a 15 minute dinner break and where we should go to get our food.  I happened to see the event menu when I walked in and it sounded TASTY.  I couldn’t wait for dinner!

The event was going to begin soon and people were yelling something about “DOORS in minutes” over the walkie-talkie.  The young, tall and very important event coordinator was getting anxious.  My roommate and I went to our roulette table. We were a team and it would be fine.  This was sexy, this was cool, this was our chance to rub elbows with wealthy people and see an event that we would never have been able to afford on our own.  Everyone took their places, we were all set, the doors opened and guests began to stream in.  We were ready.

Clearly the crowd wanted to play roulette and within minutes our table was full.  There were limits on how much we could allow people to bet, we were told to pay careful attention to this.  The table was overwhelmed; we were giving out chips left and right.  I started to forget whose colors were whose.  We began mixing up chips, the guests could see us sweating, they were drunk, and this was fun for them.

I ran through the process in my head but it didn’t go the way I planned.  Instead:

#1 – Mix up the chips all over the table

#2 – Attempt to spin the ball in the roulette wheel

#3 - Run 15 feet across the casino floor and pick up the ball that flew out of my hand before it got to the wheel

#4 - Listen to everyone cheer

#5 - Go back to the table and realize people were still moving chips around

#6 – Glance around to see if anyone was over betting, forget it, no time, spin the wheel, throw the ball

#7 - Waive my hand, ask why they didn’t care that I was waiving my hand, beg them to stop betting, ignore the laughter

#8 - Lunge the glass marker on the winning number

#9 - Realize there were about 15 people with chips on and around that number

#10 - Clear the chips that were not winners, dig through the pile of chips and pull out the ones that were winners that I didn’t realize until being yelled at

#11 - Start multiplying to determine the payout, try to put more chips in piles, realize the gamblers calculated the payouts much faster than me, listen to what they told me, grab stacks of chips, ask “is this enough?”

#12 – Pay the winners, lift the glass marker and watch the mayhem start all over again.

There was nobody around to help us and after 2 hours another volunteer came around and said one of us should go for dinner.  “Ok who was going to help while the other was gone?” The volunteer already walked away by the time I formed the question in between the cheering and booing at the table.

Finally my roommate couldn’t take it anymore and left for dinner.  As it turned out the dinner was not what the guests were eating, the volunteer dinner was a cold, flavorless / unidentified part of a chicken, undercooked green beans and some hard rolls.  After my roommate ate half of the dinner, smoked a quick cig and came back to the table it was my turn.  It never happened.  The table started to attract a lot more people now.  We were over whelmed.  The ball flew off the wheel at least a dozen more times and each time was met with the same obnoxious cheering from the over served population of wealthy non-profit donors.

The event ended.  We gave out far more chips than we were supposed to, we couldn’t add, subtract, multiply or divide any more.  We knew this was a charity event and all of the proceeds from the table just turned back into a donation to the non-profit but somehow the young, tall and very important, now slightly intoxicated, event coordinator was miffed that we didn’t monitor the betting more closely as she instructed.  I also found it weird that we didn’t see or hear from her until the very end.

We were sweaty, exhausted, hungry, tired and flat out drained.  It was a Saturday night and we planned to go out on the town when we got off.  Needless to say we barely dragged our sorry asses to the red line and rode home in silence.  My roommate has never volunteered for another event since.

Days later I focused my energy on the silver lining.  I pledged to myself that if I ever became a young, tall and very busy event coordinator I would always make time to provide volunteers with a thorough explanation of their jobs.   I would give my sincere appreciation and I would ensure they get a break. I would also never be too busy to help an overwhelmed volunteer.

Still haven’t found the college course on coat check, but at least I learned a tough lesson about an important element of the event planning world…PROPER Volunteer Management.

If you are still interested in volunteering for an event please read on.  Two of my event colleagues are looking for volunteers at each of their respective March events.  These events are very different but EXCELLENT learning opportunities. And I'm sure they will be very nice to the volunteers.

13th Annual Chicago Polar Plunge on March 3

Too chicken to jump in the water?  Volunteer!

North Avenue Beach Sunday, March 3.  7:30am-11:30am.  Free parking at Lincoln Park Zoo.  Assist with registration, crowd control, etc.  www.chicagopolarplunge.org

Interested peeps can email Bridget Conway -  bconway@sochicago.org




EVENT DATES: Friday March 1, 10–6:30 pm, and Saturday March 2, 10–6:00 pm
SET-UP DATE:  Thursday February 28, 3 - 6 pm

LOCATION:  Chicago Cultural Center

Volunteer Training will take place Tuesday, February 26 at Noon in 1 Garland

Interested? Contact Barbara Koenen at 312.744-7649, Barbara.koenen@cityofchicago.org

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