How to win GOLD for your volunteer program!

Andy Fryar September 1, 2004 1
How to win GOLD for your volunteer program!


By OzVPM Director, Andy Fryar


Now that the Olympic flame has been extinguished over Athens, we can say farewell to the summer games for another four years.

As happened in Sydney , the community of Athens will benefit from these games in many ways for years to come – new world class sporting arenas, increased tourism and of course a general sense of pride in having hosted such a successful spectacle.

Volunteers again played a huge part in the hosting of these Olympics. Many thousands of people from all over the world converged on Athens – paying their own way and receiving no monetary reward – in an effort to help make the games great. They were acknowledged by the President of the IOC at the opening ceremony and as happened in Sydney four years earlier (where volunteers contributed more than 6 million hours to the success of the games!) their efforts were feted by people the world over.

Let’s face it, being an Olympic volunteer is the hottest volunteering ‘gig’ on the planet!

Putting aside the glamour of it all for a few moments, let’s consider the logistics of running with such a large volunteer program. Where do you even begin planning something so massive? How do you establish a management infrastructure that will work? How do you deal with issues surrounding the recruitment of volunteers on an international scale?

Let’s take Athens as an example. Firstly the organisers had to whittle down 160,000 applications to a mere 45,000 individuals! Once that job was over, they had to give consideration to the training, rostering, orientating, recognition and coordination of the masses! Furthermore, as the Director of an Olympic Games volunteer program, you don’t have the luxury of messing the whole thing up and coming back to do it correctly a week or two later! Every element must be planned and implemented with precision, passion and of course a smile — and to their credit both Sydney and more recently Athens both achieved this very result.

Laurie Smith, gives a good insight into the logistics of running an Olympic volunteer program in the foreword of his book written about the Sydney volunteer experience where he wrote;

“the volunteer workforce was the size of a large country town, bringing with it all the characteristics of that number of people.”

So here comes the important question for us all – what can WE learn from the organisation of volunteers involved with the greatest show on earth?

There are a number of things – so let me share just a few.

There is no compromise for planning

I can distinctly remember the first time I heard David Brettell speak about the Sydney Olympic volunteer program. On that occasion David, the man charged with overseeing the Sydney volunteer program, was able to clearly lay out every last detail about how the Olympic volunteer program would operate – who would be recruited, for what tasks and at what time. The occasion was the National Volunteering Conference in Launceston , Tasmania in the winter of 1996 – more than four years before the first athletes would walk into the stadium!

Let’s never forget the importance of sound planning for new volunteer programs and positions, to ensure that they are as successful as they can be.

Involve volunteers in decision making

One of the key factors to the success of Olympic volunteer programs has been the early involvement of volunteers in some of the planning and decision making. The Sydney games called these early involvement volunteers ‘pioneers’ – and utilised about 500 of them!

While you’ll probably want a few less bodies than that, gaining volunteer input, validation and support at an early stage in any new initiative you may be planning can often mean the difference between something being good or great!

Volunteer ‘buy in’ is critical

When a sample of Athens Olympic volunteers were asked ‘How important do you consider the volunteers contribution to the success of the Games to be?’ , 92.4% replied ‘extremely important’ . It is clear that Olympic volunteers understand the unique position in which they are placed. It’s a position of trust, of responsibility and one filled with both pride and passion.

In fact, when asked the reason why the Sydney games were so successful, David Brettell stated that;

“The single most important reason lay in a decision made by the great majority of the volunteers themselves – and that decision was to do whatever they needed to and whatever they could do to make it work. There was no way they would have accepted failure.

Now that may sound like a rather meaningless thing to say but I want you to know that it WAS critical. It was a calculated decision on their part. The volunteers knew very well how big a commitment they had taken on and how tough it would be at times. Whatever we may have done to help them get over the line, it was their own inner strength and determination which really got them there. They accepted their roles and responsibilities as ambassadors. They knew how important their roles were to the success of the Games and to the lasting perceptions of the Sydney Games and of the Australian people. Sending people home with a smile on their face and with positive perceptions and memories was a message we strongly conveyed in our training and which the volunteers readily accepted.”

In the same way, we need to explore ways we can build a belief and a passion in our own volunteers about the programs that they work in. While these activities may not be as high profile as the Olympic Games, the work they do is often even more important than that undertaken as a part of the sporting juggernaut that appears every few years.

Consider how future generations will benefit from volunteer environmental projects or how volunteer badge sellers will one day help to raise the funds that will find a cure for cancer. Think about the role of palliative care volunteers supporting people through the penultimate stages of life or volunteers in the emergency services who regularly deal with individuals experiencing the worst day of their lives.

Ensuring your team understands the impact that they make is a critical factor in volunteer program success.

Create a strong identity

One of the hottest collector items at every Olympics is the uniform worn by the volunteers. An Olympic volunteer outfit is worn like a badge of honour and means a great deal to each and every volunteer involved in the Games. It not only shows the wearer is a volunteer, but it demonstrates that the person wearing the uniform is a part of the whole Olympic movement.

Consider the identity volunteers have in your agency. Are they made to feel an integral part of your organisation or are they somehow stuck out on a limb? Creating a strong identity within your volunteer team is important for many reasons, including motivation, support and greater retention.


I’ve already mentioned that a large percentage of Athens volunteers came from outside Greece . In fact around 5000 of the 45000 team were from abroad (including 400 from Australia) Clearly it was never going to be possible to ask these people to front up in Athens for a face-to-face interview and then ask them to return again at Olympic time to undertake their duties, so a carefully worded application form was developed and sent to all volunteer applicants not located in Greece.

The lesson here for many of us is that we need to be flexible in the way we recruit volunteers to our own agencies. For instance, if you only ever work Monday to Friday from 9 – 5 and you receive a call from a potential volunteer that can only come in for an interview in the evenings or on a weekend – does that count them out of your calculations?

Now it’s your turn

The above are just a few obvious examples of what we can learn from a volunteer spectacle as large as the Olympic Games – why not share your own thoughts about the Athens Olympics with us all?

: ‘Living is giving: The Volunteer Experience’, Laurie Smith, Playright Publishing Pty Ltd, Sydney, NSW, 2000

ATHOC volunteering survey 2004 conducted by MRB/Research International/VPRC (March / April 04)

‘ The Sydney Olympic and Paralympic Games Volunteer Program’, David Brettell, e-volunteerism article, Volume 2, Issue 1, October – December 2001 ( Available for purchase through the OzVPM bookstore at

One Comment »

  1. ozvpm_andy April 14, 2012 at 10:24 am - Reply

    Posted by Francis Williamson, Volunteer Support Officer, Denver, Colorado, USA

    My thanks to OzVPM for posting such a thought provoking hot topic. It has certainly got me thinking about the implications of sound volunteer management practices in my own program

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