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10 steps to a successful volunteer fair

Logo: New Forest National Park

Jim Mitchell, Interpretation and Outreach Manager, New Forest National Park

The New Forest National Park Volunteer Fair is now in its seventh year. We attract over 40 groups and over 500 keen potential volunteers each year. Here are some steps you can take to help plan your own volunteer recruitment event.

1   Choose your time of year carefully

It’s critical to get the best time of the year to run your event. Even with all the best planning and promotion, if people are busy doing other things then this will limit your numbers. Think about when the most people who are keen on volunteering are around and likely to be free. For this reason we pick the early part of the year as there are fewer competing events, and we can make the most of the New Year resolutions people might have to try something new.

New Forest Volunteer Fair 2016 (New Forest National Park Authority)
New Forest Volunteer Fair 2016 (New Forest National Park Authority)

2          Choose your date and time

Once you know the rough time of year, think about which day to hold your event. Weekends are usually best, but for some e.g. workplace or student volunteering a date in the week might work. Check for any local or national events which might clash and reduce your audience. Large sporting events are good to avoid. Also consider if you could combine with other events if suitable, so that you know you will have additional footfall. However in our experience most people are coming specifically because they want to volunteer, so don’t rely on passing trade.

3          Pick a venue

This is an important choice. Make a list of all that you need and then draw up a list of sites to visit. You are likely to need public parking, exhibitor parking, public transport, covered space, outside space, café facilities, toilets, power, good Wi-Fi, lots of tables and chairs, activity space. A site which people already know such as a community hall or sporting hall can be a good location.

4          Get the word out to the volunteering community

Who are you looking for volunteers for? People who volunteer their time often do so for several different organisations, so don’t think of yourself competing with other volunteer offers. Get together with other volunteering groups to run the fair. Form a small steering group and share the burden of organisation.

5          Plan your resources

Perhaps you can share costs with other organisers, or invite all of the local groups and charge a small fee to come to the fair. Who will run the catering offer, if there is one, and how will that be paid for? We offer some free tea and coffee vouchers for the groups running the stalls; this always goes down very well. What help will you have to run the event? Get the date in staff and volunteer diaries - plan to have more help for the first part of the day: the set up and first hour of the event are always the busiest. Make sure you allocate enough budget to advertising and promotion. Make an event safety plan and carry out risk assessments for activities taking place. Ensure you have adequate insurance for the event and those groups attending also have their own insurance.

Forestry Commission stand at New Forest Volunteer Fair 2016  (New Forest National Park Authority)
Forestry Commission stand at New Forest Volunteer Fair 2016 (New Forest National Park Authority)

6          Book the groups

If you are running an event for several volunteering groups, a good booking system is important. It doesn’t need to be complicated, but groups need to know the space they have and you need to know their requirements. Explain any constraints on the booking form. Do they need power, Wi-Fi, extra space for displays? Ask the groups to think of fun and engaging ideas to get their volunteering offer across - using activities, talks, quizzes, demonstrations, films etc.

7          Maximum promotion

Over seven years of running the fair, we haven’t found one individual magic way to promote it. Instead you need to use as many different channels as you can to reach people. Facebook and other social media can be very effective; consider paid advertising on these sites as it can be targeted to specific areas and interests. But don’t forget the local papers, local radio and posters and flyers. Get posters printed and send them out to all the local libraries and local parish or community councils. Get a strong visual design which catches people’s eyes and quickly lets them know that this is an event for volunteering opportunities. Use good people stories from current volunteers to get into the media. Collect testimonials and photos from people about what volunteering means to them and post them on social media every day in the month leading up to the event. Use the other volunteer groups to help promote your event through their e-newsletters and media activities. And when you have done all that, promote it some more.

8          Widen your audience

Volunteers come from all sectors of society, so think about providing something for everyone. Will you have offers for those under 18 if they come to the fair? Promote these through local schools, colleges and youth groups. What about opportunities for those with other requirements, such as those with a disability? You can directly contact groups who represent these people and ensure that they are aware of the event.

Simon King supports the New Forest Volunteer Fair 2017  (New Forest National Park Authority)
Simon King supports the New Forest Volunteer Fair 2017 (New Forest National Park Authority)

9          The big day

On the day make sure you have time to walk the floor and speak to both those recruiting and those attending. Consider talking to those who have visited the event as they leave, maybe via a volunteer with a questionnaire. What are they interested in? How did they find out about the event? Use a clicker to get an accurate number of people through the doors. Get the groups to record the number of enquiries they have to help monitor the event. Take contact details wherever possible and then follow these up as soon as you can after the fair. Remember to have fun and enjoy yourself - volunteering is an incredibly positive thing!

10         Do it all again!

Sit back and have a good rest, and then start making plans for the next event! Perhaps it could be an annual event. Once people know it happens every year then this makes organisation and promotion easier. Perhaps you could do a follow up ‘have a go’ taster day where groups can introduce people to volunteering in the countryside. Email the groups attending for their feedback now the event is over, and file these to look at when planning the follow-up.

Jim Mitchell jim.mitchell@newforestnpa.gov.uk Tel 01590 646681

First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in association with the Keep Britain Tidy on 13 February 2017