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Encouraging Family to Volunteer at the Reunion

by Edith Wagner
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Don't Do it All Yourself
Just because you're in charge or organizing the reunion, doesn't mean that you have to do all the work by yourself. Edith Wagner and fellow reunion planners share tips on how to match up jobs with volunteers and how to delegate tasks without losing control of the event.
The detail, process, and decisions that go into organizing a reunion can certainly be daunting. In fact, there is a whole field of professionals called meeting planners who, in essence, do the same job as reunion organizers only day-to-day rather than once a year or once in a while. With so much to do, organizing a reunion can be a great learning experience. Like many other learning experiences, it's nice to share the experience with others. In fact, a cardinal rule of reunion organizing is to not do it alone.

That you're even thinking of planning a family reunion implies that there are people available to share the workload that comes with planning a big event. Get the help. Beg, borrow, cajole, rant, if you must, but get help. In the end, you'll be happier.

How Can You Get Them to Help?

Start with the talents, skills and interests of your relatives. If you know someone is particularly competent at something, ask them to share that skill or talent. A bookkeeper or accountant can be perfect to be your treasurer; a graphic artist to design a newsletter, flyer or invitations; a Girl Scout leader to help with children's activities. Having each of these responsibilities taken care of can be a big help to a reunion leader.

Some responsibilities should be taken care of before the reunion, some during the reunion, and some after. Volunteers should be very clear about what is expected of them. For example, let's say that you would like each person who registers at the reunion to complete some genealogy questions or update a family directory. You might ask the volunteer registrars to collect supplies, set up and break down when they're finished. You would probably want to make sure that the person making the signs installs them and later collects them during clean up. Completely defining volunteer responsibility makes the volunteers' jobs easier. In addition, writing and distributing your expectations helps set goals and states responsibilities. Set and stick to deadlines.

Encourage Volunteers All Along the Way

Follow up phone calls, e-mails or letters are often essential for you to make sure a job is being done. They also allow opportunities to offer encouragement and do a little cheerleading. Keeping in contact with everyone helps to assure you that there will be fewer surprises. One of the biggest complaints I hear from reunion organizers is that they are counting on someone who does not come through, has forgotten the promise, or just dropped the ball and is no longer interested. How is that different from life? It would be lovely if delegating a job automatically meant that it was understood and that it would done in the way you envision it. Without follow-up or interim interest, it's not hard to understand how volunteers could drop the ball. Delegation means being there to answer questions and help make decisions, if requested, and being very thankful when the job is done right.

One very important facet of recruiting and retaining volunteers is providing simple, effusive, consistent praise. Praise and recognition make volunteering worthwhile, no matter what the circumstances or volunteer position. In any group effort, it is important to thank the people who work with you. When you're working on a reunion, thanking your volunteers presents you with an added opportunity to highlight the generosity and effort of family members. It is very easy to do and the benefits are often priceless. Use every vehicle at your disposal. For example, spotlight volunteers in your newsletter or list volunteers in your flyers and program. And take every opportunity at the reunion to tell them you could not have done it without volunteers.

Unique Approaches to Reunion Volunteering

Lorraine Rohloff was in charge of the Rohloff family's first reunion in St. Mathias, Minnesota, 3,000 miles from her home in Soldotna, Alaska. She started a family newsletter to regularly remind members about their upcoming reunion. She recruited volunteers to take photos, set up and arrange food, register members, make signs and clean up. As Rohloff found volunteers, she was relieved of worrying about individual parts of the reunion.

Rohloff, who says she enjoys organizing the reunion, finds the younger generation more enthusiastic about volunteering than the elders. That being the case, we trust Rohloff may have a long-lived reunion with the next generation already committed.

Mary Thiele Fobian of Pacific Coast, California, sent questionnaires to her Napp/Knapp family members "not asking people to head up committees, but only to help with a task." From those who volunteer she'll find one to cultivate as leader of that group. For example, she asked for volunteers to help with clean up after the reunion. She thinks it will be easy to get one of them to take charge if she hands the person a list of volunteers and says, "Here are all the people who are willing to help. Would you please make sure we have brooms and garbage bags and direct clean up at the end of the day?"

"There are lots of limited jobs that require an hour or less of the volunteer, but cumulatively would take a load off the organizer's mind," Fobian continued. One volunteer could be asked to bring a supply of posterboard, paper and labels, along with a Ziplock bag of tape, tacks, glue sticks, pencils, markers and scissors for making last-minute signs, labels, etc. Another might organize a reunion toolbox with hammer, tacks, duct tape, masking tape, screwdrivers, staple gun, etc. Another could organize a supply of Gladware, foil, plastic wrap, freezer paper, waxed paper, and Ziplock bags for handling leftovers. (Author's note: Don't forget a first aid kit, extra film, camera batteries, sunscreen and aspirin.)

Myron R. Halpin of Bloomfield, Connecticut, reported that he formed subcommittees to keep enthusiasm high and to get others involved in the Full-Fledged-Rahm-Family-Reunion (FFRFR). The committees directed children's games and favors, sports tournaments and other activities, family memorabilia displays and "The 100 Year Book," a keepsake of photos and information about everyone in the family.

Lastly, don't be afraid to ask whether there is any volunteer job a person would prefer not to be assigned. It's the other side of the question about which volunteer jobs someone wants to do. Happy, satisfied volunteers are a gigantic asset and an investment in your very next event.

About the Author
Edith Wagner is the editor of Reunions magazine, author of Reunions Workbook and Catalog and The Family Reunion Sourcebook (Lowell House, Los Angeles) in bookstores now. She collects material for this column and Reunions magazine from family reunions and invites you to share your reunion ideas, concerns or questions. You can e-mail Wagner at or visit the Reunions magazine Web site.

Learn More
• Discuss this topic with other researchers
• Have a question about researching your family history? Ask an expert
How-To Article: Reunion Volunteers Will Get it Done
How-To Article: Reunion Day — Managing the Event and Time
How-To Article: Family Reunion Fundraising

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