How to Manage Volunteers for Commencements

Commencement ceremonies are essential events, celebrating student achievements while also recognizing the invaluable contributions of faculty, educators, and the university as a whole.

They represent the culmination of years of dedication, embody institutional pride, and invite the broader community to celebrate this shared achievement. Commencement ceremonies vary widely in format and size—from grand outdoor stadiums to more intimate indoor halls, accommodating thousands of graduates or just a few hundred.

Regardless of their scale, commencements demand immense planning and coordination, requiring a substantial workforce to ensure a smooth and enriching experience for everyone involved. Utilizing volunteers is a strategic approach to meet this need for personnel efficiently while managing budgetary constraints effectively. However, the challenge lies in effectively managing these volunteers, from the stages of recruitment and training to structuring teams and facilitating day-of-event communication.

Happily provides seasoned advice on navigating the complexities of volunteer management for commencement ceremonies. Through strategic planning and thoughtful coordination, it is possible to optimize volunteer involvement, ensuring that each ceremony is not only a celebration of academic achievements but also a testament to the power of community and collaboration within the university setting.

For more valuable insights and advice on all things commencement planning, watch our Happily Huddle here.

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1. Structure Teams for Clarity & Efficiency

For university commencements, strategically organizing teams into specific roles — like registration, guest services, and processional management — significantly boosts efficiency.

Using distinct markers such as badges or t-shirt colors aids in quickly identifying team members, streamlines the management process, and fosters unity among the large volunteer force. This method not only eases the coordination challenges presented by managing hundreds of volunteers but also ensures that every participant is informed about their responsibilities and training, leading to a smoother event flow and a better experience for attendees.

2. Tailored Training Programs

For the success of large-scale events like university commencements, implementing bespoke training programs is key.

  • Close to the Event, Focused Training: Schedule training sessions near the event date to boost attendance and memory retention. This timing helps keep the information fresh in volunteers' minds, ensuring they are ready and confident in their roles.

  • Role-Specific Sessions with Visual Aids: Tailor training to the unique duties of each role, using visual aids to enhance understanding. Limit slides to essential information, using no more than 10 words per slide, to focus on key points necessary for each role. This approach aids in quick comprehension and long-term retention.

  • Interactive Learning through Role-Playing: Incorporate role-playing exercises that simulate real event scenarios. This method is not about testing but about clarifying responsibilities and allowing volunteers to explore their roles in a controlled, supportive environment. It's a chance for volunteers to identify their strengths and, if necessary, switch to roles where they feel more confident, ultimately improving team performance.

  • Balanced Information Delivery: Adjust the depth of training based on the complexity of the role. For simpler tasks, a shorter training period may suffice, ensuring volunteers are not overwhelmed with information irrelevant to their duties. For those who wish to delve deeper, provide comprehensive handouts they can review at their leisure, allowing for a personalized learning experience that caters to individual preferences and learning styles.

3. Balancing Volunteers & Event Professionals

Achieving event success relies on effectively distributing tasks between volunteers and professionals.

  • Assigning Non-Critical Tasks to Volunteers: Assign less critical roles to volunteers to leverage their enthusiasm without compromising event quality. These roles are perfect for harnessing the collective energy and number of volunteers, ensuring the event's integrity remains intact even if tasks are not executed flawlessly. For example, volunteers unfamiliar with specific technologies, such as walkie-talkies, should not be placed in roles requiring critical real-time communication. Instead, roles necessitating direct and complex communication should be reserved for professionals ensuring smooth operational flow.

  • Entrusting Key Responsibilities to Professionals: Allocate roles demanding precision and specialized knowledge, such as traffic management and pivotal operational duties, to seasoned professionals. Their expertise is crucial for a smooth event flow and promptly addressing any issues that arise. For example, While volunteers can guide attendees as ushers, professionals are stationed at critical junctions to manage essential transitions and operations.

  • Optimizing Team Dynamics: Implement a balanced approach in roles distribution, such as mixing volunteers and professionals in registration tasks to combine efficiency with thorough oversight. A practical guideline is to have two volunteers per hundred graduates, with a professional overseeing every 500, to strike a balance between enthusiasm and expertise.

  • Matching Tasks with Skills: Assigning volunteers to tasks matching their abilities and comfort levels ensures they are effectively utilized. Meanwhile, professionals handle crucial roles, safeguarding the event's timing and success.

  • Critical Roles for Event Professionals: Certain roles are pivotal to the ceremony's success, requiring the expertise of in-house events professionals or Happily Specialists. For example:

    • Talent Wrangler: to manage and coordinate the movements of speakers, dignitaries, and special guests, ensuring they are in the right place at the right time and prepared for their roles.

    • Registration Lead: to oversee the registration process, ensuring a smooth and efficient check-in for graduates and guests, managing the registration team, and handling any issues that arise.

    • Production Assistants: to be deployed as necessary to support the overall production, acting as runners, facilitating communication between different event areas, and assisting with last-minute logistics and setups.

  • Backstage Manager: Overseas all backstage activities, coordinating with speakers, dignitaries, and technical teams to ensure timely appearances and smooth transitions throughout the ceremony.

  • Security: Ensures the safety of graduates, faculty, guests, and dignitaries by overseeing security measures, crowd control, and emergency response protocols during the commencement event.


4. Recruiting Strategies & Tips

For a successful commencement ceremony, a clear volunteer strategy is crucial. It involves identifying necessary roles and teams, ensuring effective communication about expectations, engaging faculty and staff, gaining support from university leaders, and building a culture of volunteerism.

  • Refined Recruitment and Event Strategy: Develop a straightforward volunteer and staffing plan that clearly identifies the roles and teams needed for a successful event, emphasizing the number of volunteers required. This approach not only ensures a well-organized event but also highlights the cost-effectiveness of using volunteers instead of hiring external staff. Including key volunteer positions and numbers is vital for a smooth event flow, ensuring graduates and guests have a memorable experience and maintaining the university's brand.

  • Be Clear in Your Communications: Ensure clarity in your communication about volunteer roles, both to your internal team and potential volunteers. Clearly outline what each role entails and the commitment level required. This transparency helps volunteers understand exactly what they're signing up for, ensuring they feel comfortable with their responsibilities and the time commitment involved.

  • Faculty Engagement: Encourage faculty and the wider university staff to actively participate in commencement ceremonies, acknowledging their vital role in guiding students to success. Emphasize that volunteering for such events is a collective act of celebrating academic accomplishments, aimed at building a sense of pride and belonging within the academic community. Their involvement is presented not as an additional duty but as an integral celebration of their contributions to education. Highlighting commencement as a key event helps underline its importance for faculty, staff, graduates, and the university's ethos.

  • Leadership Endorsement: Enhance volunteer engagement by obtaining endorsements from senior university figures, such as the Vice Chancellor, to highlight the significance of commencement ceremonies and the critical role of volunteering. These high-level endorsements serve to acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of volunteers, thereby boosting morale and fostering a stronger willingness among the university community to participate. This approach not only validates the contributions of volunteers but also motivates a collective enthusiasm for contributing to the success of these landmark events.

  • Cultivating Volunteerism: Foster a strong culture of volunteerism by encouraging the commencement committee and the broader university community to actively participate in various events. This effort aims to cultivate a sense of mutual support and promote a spirit of volunteerism, significantly strengthening the bonds of unity and collaboration across the campus. By engaging more individuals in volunteering, the initiative enhances the overall sense of community and shared purpose within the institution.

5. Day-of Event Coordination

On the day of the commencement, smooth coordination is key. Starting with team meetings ensures everyone understands their roles and the plan for the day. Keeping communication open between volunteers and professionals helps solve problems quickly, and having designated team leaders provides a go-to person for questions, ensuring the event runs smoothly.

  • Initiate with Team Huddles: Begin the day with focused huddles for each team, such as the registration group. These meetings are crucial for reinforcing the day's agenda, clarifying everyone's tasks, and ensuring that all volunteers are on the same page. The objective is to refresh their memory of the training and set the tone for the day's activities.

  • Continuous Communication: Establish a robust communication channel between volunteers and event professionals. This ensures that volunteers can easily seek guidance, report issues, or get clarifications as needed throughout the event. It's vital for maintaining smooth operations and quickly addressing any concerns.

  • Identify and Utilize Team Leaders: Clearly designate team leaders within each volunteer group. This strategy ensures that volunteers know whom to approach for support, further streamlining the troubleshooting process and facilitating efficient problem resolution. Team leaders act as the primary contact point, enhancing the coordination and management of the event.

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6. Building Community Among Volunteers

Acknowledging the hard work and dedication of volunteers is key for recruiting, retention and getting the best out of your volunteers. These approaches are designed to strengthen the sense of belonging and pride among volunteers, reinforcing their invaluable contribution to the success of commencements.

  • Building a Supportive Community: Recognizing volunteers' contributions is essential for cultivating a supportive atmosphere. Appreciation can be shown through simple gestures, public acknowledgments, and inclusive communication, all contributing to a positive and welcoming environment.

  • Valuing Every Contribution: Treat everyone as part of one cohesive team, avoiding distinctions between volunteers and paid staff. This approach, using inclusive language, reinforces the importance of each role and fosters a sense of unity.

  • Spotlighting Volunteers: Utilize social media and event ceremonies to highlight volunteer achievements. Featuring volunteers in these public forums elevates their sense of worth and acknowledges their importance.

  • Senior Leadership Engagement: Inviting a high-ranking official to speak to volunteers can significantly boost their morale. A brief, personalized address from a senior figure demonstrates the institution's appreciation and recognition of their invaluable service.

7. Enhancing Volunteer Engagement with Fun

Creating a memorable and engaging experience for volunteers at commencement ceremonies is crucial for boosting their participation and fostering a stronger, more cohesive team.

  • Interactive Icebreakers: Begin meetings with creative activities that encourage volunteers to share about themselves, building a foundation of community and friendship. These can range from simple introduction games to more elaborate team-building challenges, promoting laughter and connection from the start.

  • Custom Commemorative Swag: Offer unique, event-specific merchandise like Stanley cups, socks, hats, tees, and pins, all designed to mark the commencement year. This not only shows appreciation but fosters a sense of belonging and pride, encouraging future participation. These items serve as a tangible thank you and a lasting memento of their invaluable contribution to the event's success.

  • Secret Cheers and Codes: Leverage the thrill of being part of the event’s inner workings by creating unique cheers, handshakes, or radio codes. Collaborating with the cheer squad to invent a volunteer cheer or devising a playful communication code enriches the volunteer experience with a sense of adventure and belonging.

  • Cultivating Team Spirit: Shift the perception from volunteers to valuable team members. When individuals feel they are part of a meaningful effort, their satisfaction and enjoyment skyrocket. Emphasize the critical role they play in the event’s success to instill pride and a deeper sense of purpose, making the entire experience more rewarding and fun.