Companies that make volunteering easier for their employees are doing great work. Why not take it a step further and host an event to bring together their employees, nonprofits, and the community at large?
In 2006, Standard Insurance celebrated its 100th birthday with a year of events and opportunities for employees, including a volunteer expo. Soon the event grew to include the general public, and in 2009, it was held at Pioneer Square, a convenient and well-known location for public gatherings. The idea of a bigger event continues to be a community fixture that brings together over 100 nonprofits and thousands of Portlanders.
At the expo, nonprofits meet with prospective volunteers to talk about their work and the kinds of opportunities that are available. Free for both nonprofits and attendees, the entire event is underwritten by The Standard.
How you can do it
Here are some things to consider as you plan your own event:
Decide exactly what you want to do, as well as when and how. For The Standard, its expo takes place when most people are taking lunch, between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. They underwrite the entire event so that it’s free for nonprofits and everyone else. They limit the number of nonprofits involved, so as not to overcrowd the space.
Decide who to invite. The Standard’s invite list consists of organizations where †heir employees volunteer, as well as partner organizations. They do not allow religious organizations that don’t benefit the community at large (for an example of an organization that passes muster, Catholic Charities is one that they work with for their spread of programs that benefit so many), nor do they invite political organizations like political action committees, or organizations that are discriminatory.
Know the audience you’re looking to attract. For The Standard, it’s business people and college students; both sets of people have been identified as having time and/or willingness to give back. Organizations report that they like these folks too, as well as stay-at-home parents who may be looking to pitch in while their children are at school. Demographically, they are targeting people between the ages of 25 and 55, though there seems to be an emphasis on finding younger volunteers who will grow along with an organization.
Book the right location as far in advance as possible. The Standard utilizes a very large and popular space in Portland, so they book a year in advance.
Think about the right partners. For ambience, The Standard partners with a local arts organization who connects them with musicians willing to donate their time. They also partner with New Avenues for Youth, a local organization that provides alternatives for homeless youth. One program provides job training in Ben & Jerry’s shops during the expo, where five or more visits to different organizations can earn you a free scoop of ice cream (attendees get a stamp card, organizations have a stamp at their booth).
Promote your efforts. Six months before their event, Megan is working on an advertisement plan, targeting local radio stations, television stations, weeklies, and other outlets. A month out, they begin advertising. She also promotes the expo internally in their newsletter to managers, as well as in their online newsletter for all employees.
Engage staff as volunteers. Five months before, Megan collaborates with the design team on collateral materials like a welcome letter for nonprofits, name tags, a card that gets stamped at each booth, booth numbers, and a map. Four months out, she’s working with the e-business team on an updated online registration form. And during the expo itself, employee volunteers help her to keep the day running smoothly. These shifts are kept to one-and-a-half hours, so as not to entirely interrupt anyone’s day.
Invite organizations to take part. Four months before, Megan sends an invitation to about 400 organizations which have about a month to reply that they want to be involved. Often, there can be a challenge with turnover in the nonprofit community, and Megan does her best to continue to get updated contact information as she goes.
Managing attendance. Another challenge is organizations that cancel at the last minute or simply don’t show up. Megan maintains a wait list so that other organizations can help fill the open spots.
Get ready for the big day! One week out from the event, Megan sends a welcome email to nonprofits, letting them know what to expect and what’s expected of them. At this date, they go to print on collateral materials. The day of the event, Megan and her team are at a local station to share a taste of what people can expect to find at the event. At the event, sandwich boards and banners grab the attention of passersby. Nonprofit booths are set up, 10’ by 5’ in size, with an eight foot table and two chairs. Another element of set up consists of pipe and drape around the booth, with a vinyl tablecloth and apron skirt, as well as signage with the organization’s name on it. Megan has support from twelve volunteers throughout the course of the event, helping to staff check-in, then walking around the square, then helping to clean up.
Continually improve your event. The Standard has a successful model, but Megan is committed to continuing to improve however they can. The first iteration of this event went well, but it was held in their office, in a space not conducive for conversations or with enough space for nonprofits. Because it went well, they knew they wanted to do it again, but they wanted to “go big,” as Megan says. They continue in this thinking year after year as they make changes, like making the event more accessible or working with nonprofits like Children’s Cancer Association to promote a fundraising raffle.
Ask for feedback. Soon after The Standard’s event, nonprofits are sent a survey to hear what was useful and what didn’t work as well. Megan shares the results with the nonprofits that participated in the expo, as well as with employees.
In the first year, about 1,500 people attended. Now, The Standard expects between 2,500 and 3,000 people at every expo.
About 135 nonprofits get out the word about their organization and recruit volunteers each year.
From their follow-up with organizations, Megan says that 80 percent of nonprofits report that this is by far the number one event they attend during the year, bringing them sincerely interested volunteers who want to make a serious commitment to get involved.
Make sure that your budget matches your goals and aims. To that end, outline your goals first and what you want from the event. Have a great space. Be flexible and willing to try new things. Go big and take risks!