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Volunteering (and my bachhas)

I agreed to be a volunteer at a conference today, as I had some time on my hands and I got the conference tickets for free. I awoke at 5 am on a cold winter morning, to travel from Cologne to Duesseldorf to be there at 7.30 at the welcome desk. I was surprised to see that there was no organiser to greet or brief me, nor did I see one for the next hour or so. Now I didn’t really mind, and I asked the others what to do and just fell in. However, after nearly 3 hours of standing and handing out registration batches, I decided that no one was coming to release us from our duties, so we gave up our “posts” and joined the conference. I was annoyed to find that I had to buy myself a coffee, received zero thanks from any organiser. Sadly, this isn’t very rare at all. I fail to understand why event organisers take the work of volunteers for granted.

My very first job was as a Volunteer Manager for the Games in Delhi. My boss was not overbearingly bossy, but he insisted on certain ways of managing the volunteers. He wouldn’t allow us to use the call centre appointed for the job to alert volunteers about upcoming training sessions. He insisted we call them ourselves, and INVITE them to participate in the trainings. If they didn’t answer, we called again. If they didn’t answer, we called their alternate numbers, and then we emailed them. If they still didn’t show, we called and asked why. To be honest, at a time to immense pressure and stress, I was annoyed at having to do this extra work which was theoretically supposed to be outsourced. Calling about 400 volunteers repeatedly took nearly a whole week. I went along with it anyway (no choice there!), and prepared and delivered trainings.

Finally it was Games Times. My volunteers had received general, role specific and venue specific training and were rearing to go. I remember well how after the first few days, things started sliding. Media reports of dilapidated buildings, unclean bathrooms and mosquito-breeding puddles at the Village were not only demoralising, but also humiliating. I had previously felt proud to be part of the “OC”, the Organising Committee, but now I mumbled it under my breath when someone asked where I worked. This is when all those extra hours spent nurturing a relationship with “my bacchas” started to make all the difference. One evening they came into my office and started telling me what they had done throughout the day. From helping the delegates find cleaning services, to actually getting their hands dirty and getting things done, these kids were determined to make things right. They were street smart, not hankered down by any unnecessary ethical dilemmas that come from working by the rules for way too long. I don’t remember if it required me giving any pep talks or patriotic sermons, but I do remember that in the end it wasn’t only me inspiring them – most often it was the other way around.

Of course they weren’t always positive and happy. The principle complaint was that the food served to them was terrible. I realised quickly that if I went, like most of my colleagues to the better dining facilities available to me, I’d lose them. So it was rajma-chawal, chole-chawal and gutte ki sabji with them for me, for a month. I didn’t even really mind it, I think it was quite an unfair set-up anyway. Another complaint was the non-availability of cold-drinks for volunteers. So I was sent every once in a while to the fridge to fetch all the bottles of cola I could carry into my office. The Catering guys knew what I was up to, but they let me go ahead with it all the same.

We went through a month of ups and downs together, those 300 odd kids and me. I pretended to be older and colder than I was to garner their respect. They didn’t fall for it but they mostly seemed to respect me anyway. Every morning started with handing out the day’s meal coupons, also serving as a way to account for attendance. Then the calls would start – issues pouring in all day, someone was being denied entry somewhere, someone needed to know how to find their lost baggage, etc. etc. It was stressful and a lot of fire-fighting and I’m not sure how much I managed to resolve the issues, but I was surprised to see some volunteers from completely different venues and teams show up in my office and ask to join my team. One day I was distractedly complaining about how my apartment at the Village hadn’t been cleaned since I moved in, and the cleaner was nowhere to be found. A kid (they will always be kids to me) perks up, “Maa’m kaunsa flat number”?. So I told him. That evening it was done, the entire apartment spic and span. The student had surpassed the teacher, and so proud the teacher was! This is only one example of it, they did so many little things during that time for me to support me and show me they cared. They would bring me presents from their delegates and share their sneaked pizza from the cafe. This was over 6 years ago, yet those kids hold a special place in my heart. 

That’s the beauty about working in mega-events, and that’s why I love it. It throws together people from so many wildly different walks of life, and forces them to work in a team. You can’t work at an event by yourself – in most roles. A system of ‘you scratch my back, I scratch yours’ works best. Time is crucial, relationships are the key and the end result is almost always brilliant memories that barely fade with time.

So many event organisers treat volunteers like free labour. It’s really shameful. The practise extends to internships, especially in sports management. I wish they would realise that it really doesn’t take all that much extra resources to make a volunteer feel like his/her work is valued. If your budget doesn’t allow for monetary compensation, they are there! Then why don’t you take some time to look into their eyes and thank them for their time? Its not okay to step on their backs to make your event successful. At my second job I had to fight to bring this learning in. I was rewarded not only with loyal teammates who tried their best to do what I asked of them, but also with a very grateful partner – the dean of the event management university who sent us his students as volunteers. He repeatedly thanked me for the way I treated his students, he went out of his way to accommodate any requests I had, and he always gave my events preference over other companies. All this, just because I took a few extra hours per event to make sure these volunteers were treated right. To any organiser that relies on volunteers reading this – even if you don’t want to be a good volunteer manager out of the goodness of your heart, do it at least because in the end you will benefit from it. Only a happy volunteer will go the extra mile that will make your event a success.


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