How to Make Volunteers the Lifeblood of Your Festival

Staffing is a priority concern for festivals large and small. Although blockbuster mega-fests are staffed by major organizations like Staff Pro, smaller festival staff rosters are often powered by volunteers. Most festivals, though, use some mix of professional staff and volunteer workers to run their event. Finding the right balance between professional and volunteer staff depends on the size and culture of your event and can be a process of trial and error. Unfortunately, when event safety and order is at stake, there is little room for error.

To get a deeper insight into this challenge, we spoke with Marjana Jaidi, Director of Oasis Festival in Morocco. For the small, exclusive desert getaway in Marrakech, she uses a professional-volunteer hybrid to get the right balance of authentic and efficient. We also reached out to Matt Marabella, who is not only a core DJ of the hot ticket Desert Hearts festival in Southern California, but also handles and manages its all-volunteer staff.

How do you vet your volunteers?

Matt Marabella: We have an “earn your stripes” approach to the teams we’ve formed at the [Desert Hearts] festival and City Hearts events [around North America]. We bring volunteers in from application processes and provide free entry for a certain amount of work. Some of those volunteers stand out and go above-and-beyond what they’re required to do. Some of them have a sparkle in their eye when they get to work and help create the space with us. Those people then get brought back the next year and usually get an opportunity to grow with Desert Hearts.

What’s the most important characteristic in a festival volunteer?

Marjana Jaidi: To put it bluntly, [at Oasis Festival] we’re looking for people who get sh*t done, are willing to do any job, and are good at problem-solving. I see a lot of what someone is capable of in the lead-up to the festival more than at the festival itself because it requires them to jump into any position and solve problems on the fly. Once you’re in your assigned position, for the most part, the job is pretty straightforward.

Is it a similar perspective with Desert Hearts?

Matt Marabella: We believe in people doing what they want to do. Sometimes those people may have other skills that are very important to the festival, but when you’re building a community, it doesn’t matter how good you are at a task—if it’s not something you love, then it probably won’t last. We would rather them do what they love so that they’ll be able to thrive.

How do you incentivize them beyond the festival pass?

Marjana Jaidi: On paper, we give the festival pass and a t-shirt, but we’ve had people that started as volunteers in year one that now hold important paid positions. There is also a huge opportunity for growth. We’ve assembled an amazing team that we all feel lucky to be a part of. Oasis Festival is like a family. A lot of our volunteers end up coming back to Morocco, and that goes a long way to creating the family culture we’re striving for at the event.

Is there similar room for growth at Desert Hearts?

Matt Marabella: Some volunteers in the past have now become some of our strongest team leads and get paid for each festival they work. On the other hand, this is a constant learning experience. It requires patience because sometimes we put our trust in people that don’t always live up to their responsibilities. Those individuals are usually let go or put back into the volunteer pool.

With Oasis Festival, you’re dealing with a number of international communities interacting. How does this affect your staffing?

Marjana Jaidi: It’s a mix of hiring people directly and contracting companies. We contract out for security, cleaning, and most of the tech staff. We bring in a bar management company from abroad. When we hire internationally, it’s usually because we’re looking for certain levels of expertise and experience, like sound engineering, lighting, et cetera. We hire pretty much all other positions ourselves, and it’s a mix of local and international. Like I said, we also have a lot of volunteers that come back and grow with the organization.

Staffing and delegating responsibility to volunteers can be tricky. On one hand, they are usually more enthusiastic about the event, which can make them work more diligently for the collective cause. On the other hand, they are more likely to be lured into the festivities and abandon their post than a paid employee. Figuring out staffing logistics, evaluating potential volunteers, and managing operations throughout the weekend is a major job, even for a bootstrapped mini-festival—sometimes that job even falls on a volunteer themselves. To ensure a flawless festival, trust your gut, keep a detailed list of who’s killing it and who can’t be trusted, and create a community that is welcoming year after year.

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