How to manage volunteers? Look at the Games Makers

I have just returned to my duties at Lib Dem Voice after spending an extraordinary two weeks as a volunteer Games Maker at the Paralympics. My final event was the Athletes Parade today when we were thanked over and over again by Coe, Cameron, and Johnson, and by athletes and members of the public.  I have never felt so appreciated in my life!

So how did LOCOG persuade me and 70,000 other people to travel to London from all over the country on six separate occasions for training and collecting uniforms, then to stay for anything between eight and thirty days with friends, in hotels or at campsites in London, all the time working exhaustingly long days (in my case starting work at 5.45am), and all at our own expense?

The answers to those questions could be very useful to the Liberal Democrats. Because this was volunteer management at its very best, and we as a party need to get much better at enthusing and working with our own volunteers, whether they are candidates, activists, deliverers or donors.

So here are some of the techniques that were used by the managers of the volunteer Games Makers:

  • We were told frequently how essential we were to the success of the Games, but at the same time made to feel that we were privileged to have been selected.
  • We were given good background information on the Games, so that we felt we were an integral part of the organisation.
  • The vision for the Games was communicated effectively;  the key messages of inspiring a generation, being inclusive and ensuring sustainability were promoted and demonstrated at every opportunity.
  • We were kept regularly informed and updated by friendly emails.
  • We were thanked at every opportunity – even given chocolate.
  • We were given high quality training, some generic and some specific to our roles.
  • We were challenged with difficult tasks in a dynamic environment and encouraged to use our initiative.
  • We were supplied with good quality tools for the job: excellent trainers with a uniform that worked well and even included a watch and a water bottle.
  • When on duty we were rewarded with token goodies, such as exclusive badges.
  • We were invited to exciting events such as the dress rehearsal of the Opening Ceremony.
  • We had fun and we met lots of like-minded people.
  • No-one ever asked us for money.

Can the Liberal Democrats learn anything from that?



* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Geoffrey Payne 11th Sep '12 - 12:52pm

    Sounds wonderful.
    However I am not sure the returning officer would approve of the handing out free watches and chocolate!

  • LondonLiberal 11th Sep '12 - 12:53pm

    i doubt it.

  • There’s one other element: a friend of mine was also a Games Maker, and in reply to my initial scepticism about how well the transport system would cope, he said that it was “The Greatest Show on Earth”. This was not mere rhetoric, he believed it. All the items described are important, but the question is, how do the Liberal Democrats inspire a vision of the Party that is something greater, something grander than another political organisation?

    I have no suggestions at this point on how this can be achieved.

  • Bread and circuses. Keep the masses docile at that person running really fast. Forget about the fact that we are oppressed.

  • Keith Browning 11th Sep '12 - 2:41pm

    @ David …… but absolutely no cake…!!

    That was reserved entirely for the sponsors or those who had a pass for the Olympic Fast Lane.

  • Paul Holmes 11th Sep '12 - 4:36pm

    Some of the stuff here about constantly encouraging and thanking volunteers certainly is relevant to a political party but much is not. For example, Mary notes the excellent training and frequent thanks (from well paid full time LOCOG staff) the gifts of chocolate and token goodies, the free uniforms and the free entrance to certain events. All this was paid for from ample public money. The Liberal Democrats do not have recourse to such money.

    Mary also notes approvingly that the volunteers were not asked for money (although they did pay out lots of their own on travel, accomodation and subsistence). But if the Liberal Democrats did not ask members and volunteers for money they would not be able to fight elections in the first place.

    It is very similar to the approving comments we will very shortly once again be hearing about the valued role of large armies of volunteers who emerge for Presidential elections in the US as compared to the UK. But this is not strictly transferable to the UK scene as the election expense limits on US elections are so large as to be meaningless and both Democrats and Republicans spend unimaginable sums on their elections, including on large bodies of paid staff to organise their volunteers-as I have seen first hand in the 2008 campaign. Contrast that to the paucity of money the Lib Dems have to fight campaigns where if they are lucky there might be just one paid member of staff to organise and run a campaign. Occasionally in the UK a millionaire candidate such as Zac in Richmond will lavish money on a campaign but that is not the norm.

  • A very interesting and useful post from Mary and some very insightful comments from Paul and George.

    I have been on plenty of Lib Dem campaigns where there is no shortage of free food on offer and we do offer quite a lot of oppertunities for training on all sorts of things.

    Making sure the tea urn was on and the biscuits selection for the day’s helpers has been my first job of the day during rather a lot of election campaigns.

  • This is really helpful. Thank you.

    I’m not sure I agree with Paul on the chocolate front. I occasionally buy a (cheap) box of Celebrations or Quality Street and, as I go round to deliverers with the latest Focus, I offer a chocolate “to cover the calories spent delivering the leaflet”. Always seems to be appreciated! 🙂

  • Martin – our Cllrs in Chesterfield are very conscientious about thanking their deliverers with chocolates etc -at Christmas, after an election and so on. But that still involves someone dipping their hand in their pocket and paying -as does ‘free food’ at constituency campaign days.

    LOCOG on the other hand had £9.5 Billion of public money to play with so suggestions that we should copy them are a bit optimistic!

  • I have skimmed this thread, and I may have missed something. Some of our volunteers in the Lib Dems do “straight jobs”, like delivering. But many many people hold elected posts, either internally or on an external body. Of course, they all need praise, from time to time, and management in a people friendly and positive way. But the volunteers are often in the position of having a management or supervisory role in relation to paid staff. This is a difficult arrangement, and I have seen cases where a volunteer in a responsible position can get a little resentful when a paid member of staff receives, say, chocolates for Christmas, and the responsible volunteer is given nothing. So a direct comparison with Games Makers, who presumably all had a paid member of staff fairly close hierarchically, is misleading.

  • “we’ve had members locally who complain that they need training then won’t travel 20 or 30 miles to get the training the Region provides (and yes we do offer them lifts).”

    I have members who won’t travel beyond Todmorden 🙂

    I worked for various candidates on by-elections and general elections between 1992 and 1997. Three bought me something by way of thank-you – and all three lost in 1997! I was never quite sure that this didn’t say something very profound and depressing 🙂

    One thing this shows (like the Obama campaign) is that running a team of volunteers also requires a significant paid staff team – that’s not to say we can’t learn a lot from their best practice but that is a key element of their operation.

    Plus there is the “Sexy Factor” of working for Obama or on the Olympics

  • William Jonesa 12th Sep '12 - 8:01am

    Hywel, you made some interesting points:

    1) “there is the “Sexy Factor” of working for Obama or on the Olympics”

    Perhaps that is something we can think about as a party, but it may be difficult that all political parties in the UK seem to have the “toxic factor” because the of the environment that is created by rival parties and that media rather than the “sexy factor”. But there may be hope – use targeted campaigns and have volunteers meet some of our more heroic members of the party,

    2) We need paid staff to organise the volunteers.

    Yes and maybe no. We can have experienced and committed activists (who are members but also volunteer large amount of their time for the cause) to organise them. It is all about having someone who is experienced to organise the groups of volunteers not necessarily about money for us.

    I would also like to comment on the statement “No-one ever asked us for money”. This has caused some shock amongst some of our members who say: “…if the Liberal Democrats did not ask members and volunteers for money they would not be able to fight elections in the first place.”. This is classic old thinking of the party, pretty much like we used to have our leafleting cult and still have in some place. We have our raffles cult and put your hand in the pocket every time volunteers and members are together. Perhaps, we to do two things here. 1) have a distinction between a volunteer and a member. Where it is fine to ask members for money but not volunteers who give by giving their time. 2) Perhaps adapt our money collecting techniques from the raffles cult.

  • Simon Titley 12th Sep '12 - 11:19am

    Mary Reid makes some very good points in her posting. As the subsequent comments have argued, some of the Olympic lessons are relevant and other aren’t.

    In my experience, the party is its own worst enemy. So while there are positive things the party could start doing, it should begin by stopping doing negative things.

    For example, how about the party resolves to stop doing the following things:

    1) Allowing ex-public schoolboys to subject other members to snobbish abuse or to argue that power belongs to a privileged elite.

    2) Running local cliques that make outsiders feel unwelcome.

    3) Adopting a Stakhanovite work ethic, which tells people who can’t or won’t devote 100% of their lives to Focus delivery that they’re not welcome.

    4) Sending patronising e-mails from party HQ written in Pravda-style propaganda language, which is an insult to members’ intelligence.

    5) Hangers-on around the party leader telling members that they’re an irresponsible rabble who, in the interests of some unspecified ‘modernisation’, must be stripped of their powers.

    6) Failing to observe normal everyday human courtesies.

    Not doing these things would not cost anything. But the benefits would be immeasurable.

    We tend to forget that party members are volunteers. None of us has to do this. Treat people like sh*t, and they will conclude that they don’t have to do this. As long as we tolerate bullying, snobbery and other types of insensitive behaviour, we should not be surprised if existing members walk away or potential members are put off.

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