A Primer For Conference Volunteers

Amanda Brooks, Head Editor, INALJ British Columbia

A Primer For Conference Volunteers

Amanda BrooksThe INALJ community’s recent discussions about the ALA conference and Lisa Huntsha’s How Volunteering May Actually Be Hurting Your Job Hunt were added incentives to write my planned recommendation for volunteering for conferences. As Lisa pointed out, you should not volunteer in a role which replaces a paid professional position which is true of conferences which are of limited duration but still need lots of hands-on help to make sure everything goes smoothly. As a concrete perk, the organizers typically waive or discount the pricey conference fees for volunteers.

For those daunted by networking, volunteering provides a ready way to meet and engage people. While others’ experiences may vary, I have always found that the majority of conference attendees are very appreciative of volunteers and are eager to talk with them during social activities or outside of the volunteer shifts.

Once you have a few conferences under your belt, there are opportunities to volunteer throughout the conference planning stages. These tasks can range from organizing special events, coordinating and directing volunteers, to editing the conference program and programs. These responsibilities can become examples of your ability to supervise others or manage projects in the context of a cover letter or interview.

With these advantages in mind, here are some tips to get the most out of your conference volunteer experience.

Preparing to Volunteer

Library conferences such as the ALA annual conference are a no-brainer option for information professionals but keep an open mind and eyes for other opportunities. The Krafty Librarian’s blog Librarians Need to Stop Going to Library Conferences points out that information professionals should participate more in conferences hosted for the users of our services to increase our visibility and identify our users’ unmet needs. For example, conferences run by the local bar or business associations would be great options if you are interested in corporate or legal information work. Be creative! Some of my favorite volunteering weekends were at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival hosted at the Toronto Reference Library.

Above all, don’t be afraid to ask or offer your help when the conference does not publically promote volunteer opportunities. The worst the organizers can do is say no and you will stand out all the more if they do need help.

While Volunteering

Knowing where to be flexible and where to draw firm lines ais essential to not being overwhelmed by the demands of conference planning and running. When you are working on committees, expect lots of debate; manage this by creating a timeline for when specific decisions must occur. Budgeting is an area where you need to break down into prioritized categories as soon as possible. Whether they are presenters, suppliers or attendees, people outside the conference planning teams will always add uncertainty into the proceedings so keeping as much structure into the process elsewhere reduces the number of late nights or last minute headaches.

Your own flexibility mostly comes into play during the conference itself but also when you are deciding what you will be doing before or during the conference. While a willingness to take on new things is a cliché, it is applicable within this context. From my experience, many volunteers ask not to have any tech responsibilities but the demands in these positions is usually very limited and it allows you to stay in rooms while talks are happening. Thoroughly learning the conference schedule prepares you to answer questions and to move to other areas or roles within the conference if your particular task becomes unnecessary.

Volunteering should not overwhelm your own priorities or well-being. Long before the conference, provide the volunteer coordinator/scheduler with your availability, and let them known if you have any limitations on what you can do. Of course, changes to plans are guaranteed and flexibility is expected.

Ask what facilities are available to the volunteers. Even if there is a secured room to leave items, I still recommend bring as few personal items as possible. The following items, however, are extremely useful:

• A phone – volunteer coordinators love being able to text or call their volunteers to check in or to pass along new information rather than running around everywhere.

• Comfortable shoes and clothes which have lots of pockets and layers which you can adjust to suit different temperatures.

• Small bottle of water and some easy-to-eat snacks – food and drink may be provided in certain rooms but it is good to have something on hand.

Post –Conference Wind-down

Relax and celebrate! You are probably going to achy, hungry and tired so make sure you have a good meal and set time aside to sleep. Over the next few days, sit down to think over all the things you accomplished before and during the conference. Add an entry about your accomplishments to your resume or another record. This will make it easy to recall specific examples when you need applicable examples about specific skills or experiences. Hopefully there were enough positive things that will make you look for and forward to many later conference volunteering opportunities in the future.