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How to Deal with Last Minute Volunteer Cancellations

on Thu, 09/20/2012 - 15:46

This article is a guest post by Shawn Kendrick, a researcher and blogger for VolunteerHub, a cloud-based volunteer management software application that offers online event registration, email and SMS (text) messaging, report generation, and much more.

When it comes down to crunch time for your event, having to deal with last minute cancellations can be extremely frustrating and stressful. Some “call offs” can be a minor nuisance while others force coordinators to move volunteers around for the sake of coverage. Needless to say, an event can quickly go from well-rehearsed to “winging it” with just one phone call. Luckily, last minute volunteer cancellations are like any other adverse situation. If you plan ahead for them, they can easily be overcome.

Develop Plan B

When coming up with a plan B, use professions that require strict staffing as a guide. For instance, consider developing a casual on-call volunteer program similar to the nursing profession. This would be a group of volunteers that would be called only when there is a cancellation. Create profiles for each on-call volunteer with all of his or her contact information, how much notice he or she needs, and what positions he or she can cover. Have an understanding with the volunteer that they would rarely be called, but when they are, it means you really need them.

Perhaps a better way to prevent a difficult situation is to develop several “float” positions. These volunteers would not be scheduled to a particular job or function during an event. They are there to fill any holes that may arise. With this group you want to make sure they are well rounded and trained on several positions. You’ll also want to be sure that they understand that if all goes well, they actually won’t have much to do. Be clear that this doesn’t make them less important. In fact, when there is a call off for an integral position, they may be the most important person there.

Get to the Root Cause

Of course having solutions in place to assist with cancellations will be helpful; however, getting to the root of the cause is more important. First take a look at your volunteer scheduling system and how that is communicated to volunteers. Are volunteers getting scheduled with enough notice? Once they commit, are they getting reminders leading up to the event? Does the software integrate with other popular calendars so your volunteers can check opportunities against their daily calendars? These are all measures that can make the volunteer’s life easier.

If you decide your system is user friendly, then it may be time to confront the unreliable volunteers. Be straightforward and explain that last minute cancellations hurt the whole program. Ask if there’s anything you can do to make it easier for them to honor their commitments. Then use your volunteer manual as a guide and give clear consequences of what will happen if the cancellations continue. If your manual doesn’t speak directly to “call offs”, consider adding language to the document.

Last minute cancellations can rattle even the most experienced volunteer coordinators. But with proper planning and a little help from some flexible volunteers, event attendees won’t even know that you are on plan b, c, or d.


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