Festival Volunteers: The Importance Of Your People

WORDS: Betty


Working in the festival world for many years now, and for many different production companies, there are about a million facets that bring an event together. And a million might be an understatement.  Regardless of how big or small a festival is, one thing rings true: your volunteer program will lead to the absolute success of your event or the potential demise.

I spoke with several seasoned Volunteer Coordinators for large-scale events and gained valuable insight into the world of volunteering; especially how to take care of your people and inspire them to come back year after year.

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SUSTAINACE

Here’s a tip: stop feeding your crew meals that might be light on the wallet but sure as hell aren’t light in sodium and fat. Stop with the convenience of pizza, fries, burgers and spend extra time on menu planning. Long days, food allergies, little sleep and constant running around and high levels of stress require meals that are healthy, nutrient dense and filling.

  • Meal service should be available as long as people are working. The expectation that staff can get to food at set times is laughable and if people go hungry you sure as shit won’t hear anyone laughing.
  • Make sure to have all staff fill out a form stating their food allergies – this will help staff catering immensely when preparing meals
  • Coffee 24/7. Coffee makes the world go ‘round.
  • If there is no staff catering, and the festival provides food vouchers to vendors, make sure those vendors are able to service breakfast, lunch, and dinner or super late night grub
  • Have grab and go snack offerings so that people can recharge while on the run.
  • Ample water re-fill stations and encourage all staff to carry a reusable water bottle with a carabineer they can attach to their belt loop, vehicle or golf cart.

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SLEEP + SCHEDULING

Sleeping at a festival is like finding a slice of burnt toast with Jesus’s face on it. If you work in the industry, you know what I mean.  Once gates open, you can expect long-ass days, good and bad weather, a slew of on-the-spot problem-solving situations, customer service, erroneous requests by artists and god knows what else. You can also expect to work with an incredible team and pull off a major victory – a freak’n festival. High-five! For crew members or volunteer that have scheduled shifts, here are some ideas to keep your humans stoked:

  • Volunteers shouldn’t work longer than 8 hours, unless they have a higher demand position like a volunteer medic, whose hours may ebb and flow depending on the demand for their services. Ideally, volunteers can work 6-8 hours per shift, so that they can have ample time to enjoy the event.
  • While volunteers are on shift, please provide them food, snacks, coffee, and water.
  • If a staff or volunteer has one of their favourite bands playing of all time…maybe cut them some slack and don’t schedule them during their set! This isn’t always possible, but if it is, they will thank you!
  • Encourage people to rest, nap and sleep whenever they are able to. We all know partying then showing up for a shift on zero sleep sucks.

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Brittany Davies, Volunteer Coordinator for Tall Tree Music Festival, Victoria Beer Week, Stein & Dine….and the list goes on, sheds some light on the tips and tricks of this industry:

BK: In your experience, what is the importance of volunteers at large scale events/festivals?

BD: Volunteers at large scale festivals and events benefit two main groups: the festival itself and the community it is a part of. The festival receives support, often in some of the most crucial areas – ticket sales, beverage service, merchandise sales, green crew – and the community members get a chance to feel a sense of ownership and pride in helping a local event succeed. 

Really though, I think one of the greatest benefits of volunteering is for the volunteers themselves. You get a chance to be involved, often behind the scenes, in something really cool and unique. You get to learn a new skill, try something you’ve never done before, make new friends, listening to new music or try new food, challenge yourself, get out of your comfort zone, and at the end of the day, you were an integral part of that event’s success. 

BK: What are some tips you could relay to other volunteer programs? What systems have worked well/not worked well?

BD: It is really easy in the world of Volunteer Operations to get caught up in the stress and the demands. It can be a difficult job. It is ever evolving and super non-linear. It isn’t the kind of job that you make a checklist and complete tasks, everything is happening all the time. One of my greatest pieces of advice for other volunteer programs is to take a step back and think about your core values and define what a volunteer role means for your festival. From there, it’s so much easier to make decisions and to handle the demands as they arise. 

For example, I have created a list of six things that every volunteer role must be, and I use this to guide my work at any festival or event I am a part of. A volunteer role must be:

1.) Safe

2.) Meaningful

3.) Achievable 

4.) Teachable

5.) Flexible

6.) Appreciated

I clearly communicate this information to my full staff before the event starts, and if issues arise I can refer back to it. As a Volunteer Coordinator, you are essentially the advocate and representative for the volunteer team. It’s your job to come to the table with their best interests in mind and to fight for what they deserve.

Other than that, it’s the usual advice: communicate clearly and often, keep a detailed and organized scheduling system (I like Google Docs, but there are some great scheduling programs and apps available), be prepared for changes and cancellations, keep your goals in mind, and have fun! Truly, you will get to meet and work with so many incredible humans don’t forget to take a step back and remember how awesome that is. 

I feel like I have a lot of advice, but I swear this is the last one: be prepared to do the work! The best coaches are the ones you’ll find running laps and doing drills with the team. As a Volunteer Coordinator, you have to be a good role model, and part of that is being prepared to dive in! Sell some beer tickets, sling some merchandise, pick up some garbage. If you’re asking someone else to do it, you should be prepared to do it too. 

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BK: What have been some of your biggest successes organizing volunteers at festivals?

BD: One of my stand-out successes has been my work with the Volunteer Operations for the Tall Tree Music Festival. I had attended the festival for quite a few years prior, but in 2014 I was approached to take over the volunteer team. It was my first time having true solo ownership over a volunteer program. I was able to build everything from the ground up, start totally fresh, and really create a volunteer program that I was proud of. It helped so much that the Tall Tree team was so inclusive and really supported me every step of the way. 

Every year I learn great lessons, and I continue to build and change things, but for the most part, I love the way it works. We have a strong set of core values for the program that the full Tall Tree staff understand and live by, we have a killer team of volunteer leads and returning volunteers, and the festival goers are so kind and outwardly friendly to the volunteers that it creates I vibe I haven’t seen at any other festival. 

BK: Have you ever volunteered at a festival? What was your experience like?

BD: Volunteering at music festivals is how I first started out in the industry. I helped out as a beer ticket seller at Victoria’s Ska Festival 6 years ago. I loved it. I loved being a part of the team and being a part of making the festival a success. I worked really hard, met a lot of amazing people, forged some lasting friendships, and picked up some incredible skills that helped get me to where I am now. 

I’ve always been the kind of person that likes to be involved and likes to be helping out. Like, classically/cartoonishly so: I was a Girl Guide growing up, and a Residence Advisor at university, I have my Bachelor of Education for teaching high school. Being a Volunteer Coordinator, whether I knew it at the time or not, was the natural next step. 

To anyone thinking of volunteering, I could not possibly support you more. It’s a great way to give back to your community, to support people doing great things, to meet new people, to enjoy great live music, to eat incredible local food, and to find fulfillment. If you would like to chat more about volunteering or learn about opportunities available to you in the Victoria area, please feel free to reach out to me: Brittany@talltreemusicfestival.com

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Lyja Brown, Volunteer Coordinator for Northern Nights Festival shares her ‘need to knows’ about rock’n your next event:

BK: In your experience, what is the importance of volunteers at large-scale events/festivals?

LB: Volunteers are absolutely essential to the success of every festival I’ve ever worked at. While each festival is slightly different in the way they utilize volunteers, every festival I’ve worked (big or small) have volunteers for certain roles. For smaller community-oriented festivals these volunteers are even more essential and you’ll find volunteers in almost every department: from cleaning trash off the dance floor to building stages and even assisting backstage with artist hospitality.

BK: What are some tips you could relay to other volunteer programs? What systems have worked well/not worked well?

LB: The more you can task your volunteers with meaningful and exciting jobs the more engaged you’ll find your volunteers to be. When people find the work they are doing is valuable they are more incentivized to do a good job. Offering perks such as free swag and/or extra staff meals for top volunteers can really help to encourage your volunteers to go above and beyond. To ensure a good level of reliability from your volunteers, I recommend charging new volunteers a refundable deposit on their ticket to ensure they complete all their required work. Once you’ve worked with a volunteer, and they’ve proved their dependability to complete their shifts, you can waive their deposits for future events. 

BK: What have been some of your biggest successes organizing volunteers at festivals?

After many years of promoting music events and festivals, I developed the street team volunteer program for Northern Nights Music Festival. This street team consists of 50-100 festival lovers and promoters spread out across the west coast. For several years I spent the first half of the year organizing and managing this team that hits the streets to spread the word to others about the upcoming festival.

BK: Have you ever volunteered at a festival? What was your experience like?

I started all my work with festivals as a volunteer. From a young age I volunteered by assisting at stages and in the Box Office at the Oregon Country Fair. As a teenager, I signed people up to vote with Headcount at Outside Lands. At Lucidity, I volunteered by helping with stage management and artist hospitality, and my favorite volunteer position to date has been helping the Woogie stage at Lighting in a Bottle with artist hospitality. Each of these experiences were wonderful and helped me to learn new skills, identify which festival jobs I’m best at, grow my understanding of festival operations and eventually led into my career in event production.


Let me take a moment here to pay homage to each and every volunteer coordinator at every event in the history of events. These people deserve a gold chalice with little gold medals flowing from the brim with a crown and a boss gold cane. These people, whom I can only hope get the respect they deserve, are a major reason why an event even functions. They are the backbone – scheduling hundreds of people willing to donate their time in exchange for a ticket. They are the point of contact, calendar, counselor, master schedule and fill every shift and potential gaps at any festival.

1 Comment on Festival Volunteers: The Importance Of Your People

  1. Hear here! Volunteers rock the world – and team coordinators are often the unsung heroes. Thanks B&K – great article.

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. — Festival Fire

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