What is a volunteer?

More importantly, what is a volunteer in the context of helping you run your race on race day?

To answer that, consider this scenario.

Your racer is about to race your race.

The racer requests some course information.

So they find the first person they see and ask them for that information.

That person is in your race to help with no pay.

Usually, they get free food or a free t-shirt if you have any extras.

You meet with this person about 10 minutes ago and gave them your rah-rah speech on how your race will go down.

You think they listened to every riveting word you had to say.

You also think they have your best interests in mind.

But it’s not that simple.

Replace the word volunteer with stranger.

A stranger just walked off the street and into your front yard.

No big deal, right?

Now image that stranger is talking to your kids.

What is the stranger telling them?

You have no idea.

Could be anything.

They could be telling them about the ice cream truck that is coming around the corner soon.

They also could be telling them about the puppy they have in their kidnapper van just down the street.

That stranger could be telling them anything, and you would never know.

Now put that same stranger into the position of that volunteer you just talked about 10 minutes ago.

Now they are talking to a racer.

What are they telling them?

Just what?

You still don’t know!

The obvious problem here has everything to do with trust.

In a way, all volunteers are strangers to you and your events, until they’re not.

The time period of evaluation between a stranger and trusted volunteer must be more than the 10-minutes you spent with them during the pre-dawn hours of race day preparation.

That is assuming you did actually spend some time with them.

You did, right?

Chances are you were too busy to talk to your volunteers.

You left that up to someone else.

Does that someone else have you and your race’s best interest at heart?

They better.

Same goes for the reason you gave those strangers to become volunteers in the first place.

Did they do it for a reward?

The rewards you give your volunteers can produce some motivated individuals.

But you cannot know what a volunteer will (and will not) do the very first time you use them in your race.

Volunteers that show up more than once tend to help build that trust.

However, you often have a large group of new strangers to evaluate each and every race.

Therein lies the rub.

Putting a new volunteer — a stranger — in a position to talk to racers can meet with mixed results.

One bad scenario would be having your racers receive misinformation (e.g. wrong start times or start line locations).

That would certainly start to make things difficult for you.

Especially if it led to having racer not show up to the starting line in time.

Misinformation, however, is the least of your worries.

What if a volunteer woke up on the wrong side of the bed and now has a nasty disposition.

They keep frowning, complaining about the position you gave them, or are generally a pain in your backside?

You and your race could quickly go from bad to worse in the reputation department.

So how long should you keep someone like that around?

Do you think they are a benefit your event?

Or do you think they suck the fun out of the day?

The answer seems easy when it is put this way.

But how often have you let volunteers stay around even when nobody wants to work with them?

Do you really need them that bad?

If that same stranger walked into your yard and kicked your dog, would you let them stay?

Of course, you wouldn’t.

But is a volunteer that is sucking the fun out of everyone’s day the same thing?

Only that dog is named reputation!

If you ignore the issue and try to make it work, will actually make your race worse.

It will make racers not want to come back and race.

The saying goes, “you only get one chance to make a first impression.”

Does a bad volunteer ruin that one chance?

Yes. Yes, it will.

It will make any future chances of racers coming back to your race much harder too.

Many a race has been sabotaged by nasty attitudes, one bad behavior after another, culminating into a negative cloud of harmful perceptions.

Rarely, the event’s reputation escapes the stain of a poor volunteer’s bad attitude.

So what is a race director to do?

Why, LEAD, of course!

When you are in the role of race director, it is your job to lead every aspect of your event.

You know when a volunteer is not working out, and you know it is your job to decide when a volunteer needs to go.

You only need to courage to make the decision before it becomes too late to save your reputation.

When racers start telling you about the person in question, it may already be too late.

If you are managing your race correctly, you should already have a feel for when something is wrong.

Unfortunately, ignoring those few comments to protect the need for keeping enough manpower on hand is the wrong move.

Most racers will not say a thing.

They notice that volunteers behavior, roll their eyes, internalize it, and then never come back.

Most of those that do say something are really speaking for a larger group, and you should take note.

Waiting it out won’t work either.

Problems only get worse with time.

And time is that foot that gets to kick your reputation a few more times.

You have to lead.

And you have to do it quickly before that volunteer can do any more damage.

If you let your racers make the decision for you, you are losing the thing that makes you valuable — your reputation.

It is your job to provide your racer’s with the best experience you can deliver.

Unfortunately, this you will have to let some bad volunteers go even if you need their help.

Better to be short staffed then thought of as a bad race.

Lead first, protect your racers AND your reputation from those strangers that ruin everyone’s day.

Who knows?

During the time it takes for that stranger to go crawl back into the van they arrived in, you just might find another volunteer — a better volunteer — who does put your best interests at heart.

And know you now.

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!