Reflections on festival volunteering

I recently used NCVO volunteering leave for the Curious Arts Festival, an eccentric, quirky literary festival on the edge of the New Forest. I made four observations from this light-hearted experience and I hope they resonate with you.

In return for chopping fruit and vegetables and preparing food for hundreds of guests, I was offered:

  • a free festival ticket
  • one meal for each day I volunteered
  • entry to Pylewell Hall, where my volunteering took place.

You’ll always find me in the kitchen at parties…

Everyone knows that at parties, all the fun happens in the kitchen. People congregate around food and drink, and conversation flows freely. This festival felt like a party!

I volunteered because I knew the place. I knew the kitchen set-up. A serene setting, with views of the Isle of Wight. I knew I would be surrounded by writers, artists, performers. In between my shifts, I could watch comedy, talks, performances. I also knew the person coordinating the kitchen volunteers. Back then I saw it as a group outing with friends, swimming in the Solent and a short commitment for the weekend.

How did my volunteer experience stack up?

What emerged are four truths that I’d like to share with those of you who are finding your way.

  1. People are more likely to volunteer when asked or invited by someone they know. I knew the volunteer coordinator – not personally – but through a mutual friend who asked me to volunteer with her in 2016. I agreed because my friend invited me. If I had not been asked, I would not have volunteered.
  2. Tasters allow volunteers to see how they feel. I didn’t know that in July 2016 I’d be coming back to give more time to Curious Arts two years later. It was because of this I felt confident about what I would be going into this year. Looking back, I realised that 2016 was essentially a taster. Offer your volunteers tasters!
  3. Volunteer motivations go beyond the superficial. People volunteer for broad brush ‘surface’ reasons, but dig deeper to reveal their unique motives. My specific reason for volunteering was not about getting a free festival ticket. This year, nobody asked me to volunteer, but I had seen the programme and I noticed that Gareth Malone was performing. Suddenly there was a connection! This was a pull factor for me. Was there anyone else volunteering at the festival who shared the same reason as me? Unlikely.
  4. Expecting people to spend money they do not have in order to volunteer means separating out the have and have-nots. At NCVO we encourage organisations to follow good practice and offer volunteer-related expenses. I spent about £90 on travel and another £50 on food over the four days. I didn’t mind paying this because I could afford to and I was thinking of all the wonderful things I would enjoy. I saw it as a necessary cost, but there are those who cannot afford any outlay. When expenses are not covered – even in part – volunteers who may have something great to give are excluded.

We have plenty of resources for you on the Knowhow Nonprofit website to help you manage volunteers.

We offer Good Practice in Volunteer Management training as well as Studyzone, our video training, free for NCVO members.

If you would like to know more about NCVO’s national research on Volunteer Experience, read Amy McGarvey’s latest blog.

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Jarina Choudhury Jarina is our volunteering development consultancy officer. Jarina develops consultancy and training services with the aim of improving volunteering practice across the public, private and voluntary sectors.

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