Every race depends on volunteers. Love them or hate them, the race promotion industry depends on them at every level.

They are a key element in any race’s success.


Because no race director is an island and staff’s are expensive.

The sheer volume of things that need to get done on race day — very technical and time consuming things — is vast.

Course setting alone can take hours for just one person to accomplish.

If you don’t have someone else setting the course, then you’re the one setting the course.

And if you’re out setting the course, who is registering races who show up early?

Who is watching your gear so that it doesn’t walk off?

Who is convincing the officials that you are in charge and have everything under control?

Not you.

You’re out setting the course, or getting ice, or parking cars, or putting up signs…

The point is, you cannot be everywhere at once.

There is only one you.

But a race is more than one person.

It is a team event that requires you to find help.

So who will help you?

Who will be the one’s to get all the things that need to get done on race day done?

The answer is volunteers!

If you’re just starting out, you don’t have the money to hire a staff.

Nor do you have the business chops to deal with all the complications that comes with having employees.

Volunteers, although not staff, will help you fill in the gaps to your race day plan.

However, before you can leverage volunteers to help you direct a successful race, you need to find them.

To help you do that, please check out my article How to recruit enough volunteers before race day for all sorts of tactics for finding volunteers.

When you finally do get a group of volunteers to show up, you’re not done.

Volunteers need to be managed. They need information, assignments, and direction.

Remember all those things you need to take care of on race day?

Now add managing your volunteers to that list.

Volunteers are only as good as you help them to be.

They cannot read your mind, and they will not act until you ask them to.

They are your raw talent the needs to be refined into useful productivity.

How do I do that?

Can’t I just tell them what to do, and have them just do it?

Oh, if it were only that simple.

The Volunteer Captain’s Role

There is a fine line between staff and volunteers.

If staff doesn’t show up, you can reprimand them, or even fire them.

If volunteers don’t show up, well, they just don’t show up.

So what do I do about missing volunteers?

The short answer is recruit more than you need.

The long answer is find that one key volunteer, one that you know is going to be there, and make that volunteer your Volunteer Captain.

Your Volunteer Captain has one role: direct your volunteers.

The Volunteer Captain is different from a Volunteer Director.

How is it different?

The Volunteer Director is a staff position, who roles and responsibilities are dedicated to finding, recruiting, directing, and supporting volunteers during all of races in the season.

The Volunteer Captain, on the other hand, is a leader of volunteers, and helps coordinate and support volunteers during one event.

When you’re just starting out as a race promoter, you will most likely be the only one filling the role of volunteer director.

This is a staff position that will take some time to fill.

The Volunteer Captain is not a role you need to wait for.

Often you select this position based on your most dependable volunteer.

The Volunteer Captain’s Responsibilities

What does a Volunteer Captain do?

The Volunteer Captain takes the pressure off the Volunteer Director and/or Race Director by being in charge of a group of volunteers.

They help get specific jobs done during the race, and allow the race director the opportunity to focus on other things.

What kinds of jobs?

A good example of a Volunteer Captain’s role might be coordinating course marshals.

One volunteer captain can have half-a-dozen course marshals reporting to them, making them the belly button for finding out if there is a problem on the course.

Another example might be a Volunteer Captain in charge of aid station manning and supplies.

One volunteer captain could have 3-4 aid stations that they constantly resupply with water and ice, cups, and even new volunteers so that others can take a break or leave.

Depending on your race’s size, you could end up using one or more captains per race area to handle clusters of course marshals or aid stations.

How you break up their area of responsibility is completely up to you.

But having a Volunteer Captain available to you is a huge time saver when it comes to making sure volunteers are engaged, having fun, and being used to make the race better.

The Volunteer Captain’s Authority

Your Volunteer Captain has as much authority as you give them.

Remember, these volunteers are not staff, so their authority should not be something that you should really be delegating to an employee.

You can make them stand out with either a hat and/or t-shirt, but it would only to help the other volunteers know who to go to when they need to ask a question or need a break.

Your Volunteer Captain’s are also individuals, and has individuals, can do very unpredictable things.

One thing that can happen when you give a volunteer some level of power of others, is that they take certain matters into their own hands.

This often leads Volunteer Captain’s to act in ways you did not authorize them to.

Some times this can be beneficial, like calling police and fire when someone gets hurt, instead of calling you or your Volunteer Director first.

Other times this can be harmful, like getting into fights with volunteers over who is in charge, or telling a volunteer they need to leave.

If your Volunteer Captain is power tripping and making your other volunteers less invested and excited about your event, you may need to demote them, or remove them before they do too much damage.

To prevent your Volunteer Captains from thinking they have more control than they do, you must always state their role up-front to bring them in-line with what you expect them to do.

If they don’t know what you want and expect from them, how can you expect them to do the job you want them to do correctly?

You can’t!

You have to always be the one to make sure your volunteers are doing the right things.

If volunteers cannot successfully get it done, then you need to think about having the critical parts of your event run by staff.

Additional, you need to help you Volunteer Captain’s stay organized by putting everything you need them to do on paper.

Your system and process should be easy to describe to anyone you put into the role of a Volunteer Captain.

You cannot expect people to remember everything you tell them, so also have a one-page place-mat of the processes you need them to understand.

One-pager’s become excellent training tool when explaining their job, and something they can refer to when they get stuck or forget what comes next.

Volunteers are not Your Staff

It is important that you remember that volunteers are their to socialize and be active in their community, not act as your labor force.

Volunteer Captain’s have a similar need. They’re not their to enforce your will on volunteers either.

Although they are role that other volunteers report to, they are only their to be the connection between groups of volunteers and you.

If you prepare them for this role, you will not only help improve the quality of your race, but allow yourself to relax a little bit, knowing that what you need done is actually getting done.

Posted by Kyle Bondo

Kyle started Reckoneer with the simple mission of helping those who want to become race directors and learn the mechanics of outdoor recreation engineering. Kyle demystifies outdoor racing with over 20 years of endurance and outdoor industry business knowledge. Combined with his top-rated podcast Merchants of Dirt, dozens of articles, lessons, and infographics, Kyle has made Reckoneer the premier educator in outdoor event management. Build better races today!