Great Events with a Small Staff

Hosting fantastic events doesn’t require a large staff. Just some ingenuity.

For more than 12 years, I organized hundreds of author and non-traditional events at Watermark Books & Cafe in Wichita, Kansas. Most of the events were held in the bookstore, but some were for 1500+ readers held in off-site venues. To adequately staff these events without pulling all of the booksellers from the store and without depleting the profit margin, I used volunteers recruited from an event volunteer database.

Friends of the store were asked to complete an online volunteer application–yes, they had to apply to volunteer. Through the application they were given the opportunity to list their qualifications as well as their limitations. Were they good with photography? Were they able to count change? Could they stand on their feet for long periods of time?

Over the years, I’ve had very good luck staffing volunteers at the book sales table, as photographers, as security, as ticket takers and as ushers. Some just want to put the chairs away. Some are perfectly content to slide flapped books under the author’s pen and say nothing for several hours. No matter what volunteer position they filled, all felt a sense of ownership and connection with the bookstore.

To compile your own list of volunteers, post a call-for-volunteers message through e-mail or social media. If you can create a webform, great. If not, just ask them to reply to the e-mail with answers to your questions.

In addition to the questions listed above, you might also include questions like:

  • Do you like visiting with people you do not know? (potential greeter, signing line ambassador, ticket taker)
  • Do you have good penmanship? (post-it notes!)
  • Can you lift heavy boxes? (Good to know for off-site events and setting up the book sales table.)
  • How are you with technology?
  • Can you smile for hours, even after your cheeks burn?
  • Why would you like to volunteer with us?
  • Are you a student? If so, is there a specific time by which you have to leave our events?
  • What time of day are you generally available?
  • Do you have some skill we should utilize that we failed to list?

Be sure to get their e-mail address, phone number, and know if they can receive texts.

Send your call-for-volunteers at least two weeks before your event. When you explain the event for which you need volunteers, ask if they were planning to attend the event whether they volunteer or not. List what positions you need to fill, time frame and job descriptions of each, and how many volunteers you’re seeking for each position.

As the volunteers reply, complete your job positions according to their areas of interest or skill. Plan on a couple of “back-up” volunteers, selected from those planning to attend anyway.

About 72 hours before the event, send the volunteer plan to all volunteers and have copies on hand at the event to distribute as they check in.

Remember that your volunteers love you and want to be there, but they still need to hear “please” and “thank you” early and often. It’s up to you whether or not you reward them with a small token or gift card from your store. And a handwritten thank you note is always appreciated.

Hosting fantastic events doesn’t require a large staff. Just large hearts.

Beth Golay

Beth is a reader, writer, marketer and Books & Whatnot founder. Even though she knows better, she’s a sucker for a good book cover and will positively swoon if a book is set in appropriate type.

@BethGolay