Getting the most out of volunteers

Community theatres often use volunteers, but do they really get the most out of them?

While working on a number of non-profit productions that utilize volunteers, I have seen both ends of the spectrum and probably everything in between. Sometimes the volunteers are perceived as “great, we couldn’t do it without them,” and other times as “they’re clueless.” Most often, they’re somewhere in between, but what makes them one way or another? Here are a few observations and suggestions.

1. The self-fulfilling prophecy

There’s something about self-fulfilling prophecies: we can make things happen or not happen by how we approach them. If we think volunteers are going to work out great, they will, and if we think they won’t, then they won’t.

2. “They don’t tell us anything.”

How often have I seen volunteer stage crews show up for first tech without any conception of the show itself? Sure they (hopefully) know the name of the show, and may have worked on a different production of it at some point, but are they told anything about this production?

What I’ve seen most of the time is that they get a tour of the stage, then are shown the pieces that need to move and told where to put them, and that’s it. But they don’t have a picture of what the set looks like in each scene, or why it looks that way. It is so simple and cheap to show them the set designer’s renderings, or the model, or the floor plan, and quickly walk them through the show. That way they can visualize the bed in Maria’s bedroom as more than just a scenic element on the spike marks, and the spike marks will make more sense.

The same goes for volunteer building and painting crews, who often show up and are just told to “take this and make that” without so much as a hint of what the piece is for or how it fits in the production. How are they to know or to feel anything about their work, if they see the resident staff being so non-committal?

3. “They spent all day on this one little piece.”

One of my favorites. A volunteer comes in, ready to work. You ask him to put these legs on this bench, and walk away. He has no way to know that you have six other projects for him unless you tell him. Better yet, he has no way to know that the day’s goal is to finish this other unit and that it all has to be completed by next weekend.

Volunteers (people) will do what you ask them to do and will respond to what they see you doing; if you act like there’s no hurry and no deadlines, why should they take it upon themselves to think otherwise? The relatively few times I’ve physically worked with volunteers, I’ve shown them the drawings for whatever they’re building, talked them through the project, and told them what the day’s work plan is and what we need to accomplish — and why. It’s only taken (literally) a minute or two, but it’s made a huge difference. I’ve treated them like valuable employees, and, after a bit, they’ve acted like responsible employees. And had fun doing it.

Here’s where supervision comes into the picture. Now and then, walk over to someone’s project and see how they’re doing, or if they have any questions. If they’re going off on a tangent (say using all that 2×4 you had earmarked for another project), let them know about the other project and bring them back to this one. What I’ve found works for me (when I have a new person working on a project and I don’t know their skills yet), is to check on them every few minutes at first and then let them go at it, with only an occasional “hi, how’s it going?” This way they don’t feel they’re being micro-managed, but still know that you’re there and available in case of questions.

4. “We” vs. “you.”

This is part of what defines a production company’s culture, and has to be actively developed and nurtured by the management team. If volunteers feel that they have no clue what’s going on, and that they are perceived as just bodies, they have no frame of reference in which to develop “ownership” of the project. So they don’t. It’s only when they start asking, “how are we doing?” instead of “what do you want me to do today?” that you know a positive culture is forming.

5. Keep them informed.

Putting together a production schedule, however simple, at the start of the construction phase can do wonders to get volunteers involved. It can be as simple as an email that says, “We will be building the set at the theatre starting on Saturday June 15 and continuing until Saturday July 24, from 10:00am to 4:00pm. A lunch break will be provided from 12:30 to 1:00, so bring your lunch. Please let our volunteer coordinator (Jane Doe) know if you are coming on each of these days so we will know who will be there and can schedule work accordingly. You can reach Jane at”

You will always have people saying I can’t make it this day or that day, but at least you will have a fair idea of how many people will be there and what you will be able to accomplish. It’s also a good idea to update them as needed, i.e., “This Saturday we will be completing the upper platform and also painting the lower platform, so please come ready to paint.” This gives your volunteers a sense that things are scheduled and organized, and that you take the work seriously.

6. Volunteers are part of the team

Above all, make the volunteers feel like they are an important part of the production team. In many cases, they are essential, as in it literally couldn’t happen without them. Updates, thank-yous, a free lunch now and then, and maybe an appreciation mini-party after opening will keep them happy and involved and coming back.