Actionable ideas: How to recruit and retain volunteers
Athletic director and coaches provide insight for increasing involvement in athletic programs
We asked readers to share their best ideas and practices for recruiting and retaining volunteers to help staff various sporting events.
More than 80 coaches and athletic directors responded, and here is what they had to say.
Some of our workers get paid, so that’s a great incentive. We encourage our non-paid volunteers in the following ways:
- Sweat equity into our programs (you get out what you put in).
- Parent volunteers can work in lieu of paying player dues, especially for those who may not be able to afford them.
- We attempt to facilitate a family environment and a sense of belonging. The “We Are Milton!” attitude.
— Gary Sylvestri, Milton High School, Milton, Ga.
We often must entice our volunteers with the promises of a good meal after the event. Either that or we exchange monies owed to the program for time volunteered performing necessary tasks.
— Jarrett Laws, Charles Drew High School, Riverdale, Ga.
We try to make sure that we do not overuse the same volunteers for every event. I think it is important that you show appreciation for the time and effort they have sacrificed for the school. I try to drop an email or comment in person to make sure they understand how much we value them being there.
It is also important that you contact people directly. It is harder to turn someone down in person than in a letter.
— Chris McMinn
At one public school where I worked, we gave league passes. This allowed the volunteers and one guest to get into all home and away league events for free. We gave them to those who signed up for a season of activities (line judging, scorebook, scoreboard, etc.). Even then, it was hard to get volunteers to be professional and punctual.
At another public schoolwhich happened to have a higher level of socioeconomic demographicthere was no pass or anything tangible. Volunteers received their names in the program, and there was a volunteer banquet at the end of the year. As a coach, I wrote thank you letters at the end of the season and sent emails or handed out candy bars throughout the season. I was fortunate that I had one parent who was a line judge for four years. I also had a photographer who continued for a year after his daughter had graduated.
At the private school where I worked, parents were required to volunteer for one duty (concession stand, tickets, etc.). However, most parents volunteer for quite a bit more.
The only issue I have is that some sports (excluding football or boys basketball) often expect volunteers instead of paying people. The problem is that a line judge in volleyball or a scorebook keeper is an official of sorts. That’s a tough thing to expect from an untrained person.
The biggest thing I have done to keep good volunteers is to constantly let them know they are appreciated. I have volunteered for my son’s basketball teams over his five years of playing. I like the daily/weekly “thank you” more than the $25 restaurant gift card from the team at the awards banquet.
— Gregg Sadler, Cardinal Middle School, Middlefield, Ohio
Most of our volunteers receive productshirts, hatsand we allow them to get things from the concession stand while we pick up the cost. We invite them to the coaches outing in July where we have a meeting to kickoff the year, and after the meeting we sit down to a picnic-style meal with adult beverages. Again, the athletic department picks up the cost.
This has an interesting effect on the coaches, who begin to take ownership and volunteer their time for various activities that need to be done. A lot of volunteer coaches and stat keepers are over the age of 40.
Other coaches take the time to talk to volunteers and make them feel like they are a vital part of the whole operation.
— Eric Gohlke, Saint Joseph High School, South Bend, Ind.
We used to have a consistent set of workers that did everything together as a group, but most of them have retired.
Now we have it so they get paid a little bit, but the consistency is not there and the dependability of the workers has declined. We are currently looking at younger teachers that may need to get more involved or just need a little extra money, but along with that comes the reality that they may or may not be back during the next school year. It’s hard to maintain good, knowledgeable workers.
— Matt Maher, Park High School, Cottage Grove, Minn.
We look for people who have an interest in sports along with some connection to the programa child on one of the teams or a former coach. We train them on the clock, book, etc., and then try to give them a monetary “thank you” of $5 to $10 per game”Starbucks money.”
Some choose to have the time count toward volunteer hours at the school rather than take the cash, which helps reduce the tuition they pay for their student to attend since we are a private school. If you try to value the contribution they make, they tend to perform well and desire to return. It helps both the volunteer and the program in the long run.
— Dave Sills, Desert Chapel Middle School/High School, Palm Springs, Calif.
It’s always difficult to find good volunteers for events. I find that you must appeal to their interests and that makes it easier. Target the areas that affect their own children so they can either watch them play while working or feel like they have ownership in what is going on.
I also target parents who are historically the busiest anyway. They know better how to manage time and appreciate what it takes to get something done right.
— Rita Harrell, Spartanburg Day School, Spartanburg, S.C.
We entice people to come back and work at our events by having “team parents” for each grade help us to organize. In addition, we have a bi-annual dinner for just the parents and friends of the program that is an adult-only event with a silent auction, allowing the parents to get to know each other and mingle.
This year we are planning to do a bus trip to the casino for a night out for the parents. They pay $40 to $50 and they get back $15 in bet coupons and $20 off on the buffet. It’s a great time for everyone and helps the parents get to know each other outside of the program. It’s a win-win for everyone.
— Frank Marcucio III, Westhill High School, Stamford, Conn.
We have many teachers and staff volunteer to work at all contests. They do all kinds of jobs from running the press box hospitality to collecting tickets at the gate and opening locker rooms for the visitors. Our staff understands that putting on a first-class contest helps our community as much as the visiting community.
We first make sure all workers enjoy a modest meal prior to going to their assigned area. We also pay them for their service. The amount is set by our county and the funds come from our gate. They have access to the hospitality room throughout the game. We rotate the staff so they don’t get stuck at the same spot, unless they want that same job.
As the head football coach, I provide each worker with a football shirt that they can proudly wear even when not working at the games. We have a great athletic program and a real family feeling among our staff who volunteer at our games.
— Frank Hepler, West Forsyth High School, Cumming, Ga.
Recruiting and retaining quality volunteers is the key to success at our events. We seek to draw them into volunteering at our events by communicating how it will benefit them. We advertise the opportunity for volunteers to learn how to run events, work in college athletics, have an opportunity to support their campus community and get job experience if they hope to pursue a career in sports.
Two things we do to entice people to come back are giving their roles a sense of importance and making a personal investment in our volunteers. It’s important to make sure our volunteers understand that their job is important and makes a difference for us at events. We do this by having very structured roles for volunteers that come along with clear job descriptions that we hand out. As we hand these out, we explain to the volunteers how their specific role impacts the event as a whole and why it makes a difference. Additionally, we try to make a personal investment in our volunteers by getting to know them. By doing this, we try to show that we care not only about the job being filled but that we also appreciate the person doing that job enough to spend a few minutes getting to know them.
— Tim Sceggel, Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, Ga.
We have not had any problems retaining workers because we pay them for athletic ticket taking and game supervision. The areas where we do use volunteers, we have a recognition luncheon for all of them at the end of the year.
— Greg Lampe, Oak Creek High School, Oak Creek, Wis.
It starts with making sure each person feels valued. I make sure I buy all of my ticket workers a new shirt or piece of “Jay wear” for the start of each year. I also try to give them T-shirts when possible and email them on a regular basis thanking them for their hard work.
In talking to a few of them, they also appreciate how organized the events are. So, making the job easy for each worker and making sure they know their role is appreciated by everyone.
— Mike McGurk, Jefferson City Public Schools, Jefferson City, Mo.
Our biggest event that we host is a Passing Tournament. We need volunteers to referee the games, work the concession stand, run the administration tables, keep statistics and keep time. A lot of volunteers are needed.
One thing we do is to really treat the volunteers special. We can’t do it without them. We set up a hospitality area with cold drinks, snacks, shade, tables and chairs. This area is for the volunteers. We also provide a free lunch for all volunteers. It also is very important to personally thank every volunteer for his or her time and commitment to helping our program.
We also get student support by asking for help as statistic and time keepers. We provide a free shirt and team hat for the refs who volunteer their time. It’s all in the way you treat your volunteers. Our help keeps coming back year after year and our event continues to grow each year and get better.
— Robert Hurtado, Tulare, Calif.
We have a couple of booster organizations in our town that are not directly associated with our school district. Those groups cover most of our volunteer poststaking tickets at sporting events or holding the chains at football games. Most of the time they are happy to return if shown support and appreciation by the athletic directors. Because they are a member of a bigger organization, I don’t think they feel as though they have to work every event, which also keeps them coming back.
For some of our bigger events like track meets, we enlist the help of coaches who help us recruit volunteers. Parents and students help us fill the appropriate areas where volunteers are needed.
— David Schmid, Howards Grove High School, Howards Grove, Wis.
My previous athletic director worked very hard with this aspect, and since he has left those people have continued to help. I am not certain how he enticed them, but he was very good at convincing people to help out and in the future he would help them outyou scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours type of deal. Volunteers get a free meal, things of that nature. The former athletic director built very strong relationships, strong enough that they continue to help even after he moved to his next job.
— Matt Kuempel, Oelwein High School, Oelwein, Iowa
This is extremely difficult, especially in times of financial difficulty. However, I think the bottom line is that we always try to make our volunteers and workers feel valued. This included offering them food and beverage when they volunteer along with some sort of a giveaway. They always like to receive a T-shirt, hat or something that they could use or wear from our school athletics program.
We also provide them with recognition on emails and on our website wherever possible.
— Rob Simmons, International School of Panama, Doral, Fla.
Our volunteers usually have a vested interest, such as a son or grandson on the team. We’ll give out a shirt of gift card to a restaurant to show appreciation for their efforts.
— Randy Rogers, Valley Lutheran High School, Saginaw, Mich.
Most of the people who work at our events are paid based on their position or assignment. For certain events we do need volunteers and we secure them by being specific about needing quality help to run a quality event. People are willing to help, they just need to be asked and it is best to ask in person or over the phone. It is harder to say “no” that way.
To keep them coming back, we treat them well and thank them for their work. We also make them feel like they are one of our own staff. Looking someone in the eye and saying a “thank you” is genuine and goes a long way. Recognize their efforts publicly when you are able (good volunteers and those who volunteer for the right reasons typically do not want the recognition, but it is still important they know how valuable their efforts are in running an event).
— Brian Vraney, Beloit College, Beloit, Wis.
I pay most of mine, and we are in an underemployed area. Unfortunately the same people volunteer for everything.
— Ed Dike, Buckingham Country High School, Buckingham, Va.
Like any other job, the best way to keep good people is to treat them with respect and tons of appreciation. At the end of the school year I host a “Falcon Appreciation Night” where all event workers, coaches and advisors are invited to free appetizers and socializing. I then recognize workers of the year for each season with a gift card.
— Pam J. Huston, Amherst High School, Amherst, Wis.
To get volunteers for sporting events we offer extra pay after they do their nine hours of duty. Those teachers who take advantage of that, I also offer them first choice to work playoff games were they can be paid cash for their services.
— Paul Perkovich, C Milton Wright High School, Bel Air, Md.
We spoil our workers and volunteers to death, which we should. We give them our basketball gear, praise them in the newspapers and program publications, and treat them to meals and gifts every once in a while. We are a small community that depends upon one another and volunteerism is high in Cascade. Luckily, a lot of the volunteers are parents of players and our own players help out a lot at basketball camps, clinics and at youth leagues and tournaments.
— Mike Sconsa, Cascade High School, Cascade, Iowa
Event positions, like most things in life, need appreciation and reinforcement to create dependability. We just revamped how we schedule our event workers to provide greater opportunities for those interested in working. But at the end of the day, it’s the person in the leadership position that is going to sustain active involvement from quality workers. Ask people how they are doing, and ask questions about their families.
— Dan Uszaki, Northern Burlington Junior/Senior High School, Columbus, N.J.
I’m at a new school that has not had a great deal of volunteerism from the community. I am trying hard to build relationships and find people who have interests and talents for different types of work that we need done. I don’t think our community has ever been approached about helping and now they are. Slowly but surely we are getting there.
In my previous job it was a smaller school/community and had great volunteers. I enticed them by buying them meals like the booster club or other groups might do at events. The biggest thing was thanking them and treating them well, even just with free drinks and snacks while they worked.
It’s pretty simple I guess. But how you treat people goes a long way.
— Todd Gordon, Carlisle High School, Carlisle, Iowa
I wouldn’t say that I “entice” staff to work at our events, but I do try and make them feel valued and show appreciation by offering a small stipend ($20 per event). I also provide either a meal ticket from our concession stand or order food from a local business (sub sandwiches or pizza). I also try to have fun with my workers.
— Tom Kent, Galena High School, Reno, Nev.