Kelly Donaldson: Volunteers are the unsung heroes of so many events – so why not join in?

The Mugstock festival, which is run by a large team of volunteers, with bought-in technical expertise, was chosen by Voluntary Arts Scotland as runner-up in the annual Epic Awards last year
The Mugstock festival, which is run by a large team of volunteers, with bought-in technical expertise, was chosen by Voluntary Arts Scotland as runner-up in the annual Epic Awards last year
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Stick a pin on any calendar day during the summer, and chances are you’ll hit a festival. From whisky to weaving, music to magic, few tastes go uncat­ered for in Scotland. Those turning up to enjoy themselves need only think about the where and when – but behind the scenes a whole lot of other problems are being solved, often by volunteers.

It’s no secret that the voluntary/amateur arts sector is populated by thousands of participants – the singers, dancers, painters, crafters and more who get creative purely for the love and fun of it. But none of those activities happen without volunteer time and effort. Whether it’s serving on the committee, updating Facebook, looking after the kids backstage or pouring the tea – somebody, somewhere is making it happen.

Kelly Donaldson is Communications Manager at Voluntary Arts Scotland

Kelly Donaldson is Communications Manager at Voluntary Arts Scotland

At the end of July, Mugdock Park near Glasgow will transform into a lively hub bursting with live music, family activities and food at the annual MugStock festival. Run entirely by a vast team of volunteers (with bought-in technical expertise), the event is so impressive that Voluntary Arts Scotland chose MugStock as runners-up in our annual Epic Awards last year.

And this August in Edinburgh a team of ‘Host City Volunteers’ will ensure visitors and locals alike enjoy the world’s biggest arts festival to the fullest. Navigating Edinburgh’s various festivals can feel daunting to the most seasoned of travellers, and receiving a friendly welcome makes all the difference.

Taking care of volunteers, whether at an international festival or community gala, is paramount. Which is why Voluntary Arts Scotland helped shape early conversations at Festivals Edinburgh on how to offer everyone a good experience.

For example, we recommended that volunteers have clear roles and tasks, flexible time slots that can fit around work and family commitments, have expenses covered, relevant training provided and that structures are in place to nurture social ties between volunteers.

Chatting to volunteers at this year’s Edinburgh Film Festival opening night party, it was clear all this and more had been embedded into their volunteering experience. Indeed, the volunteers were guests at the party, having earlier helped proof footage for screenings.

We were also pleased to see that feedback from the 2017 Host City Volunteers echoed the requests we hear time and again from volunteers at events and organisations across Scotland. They were well-trained, had on-site support, were refreshed and fed, their travel was reimbursed and they knew what they were supposed to do.

That last point is crucial, because by far the largest complaint we hear from volunteers is that they feel disconnected from the core cultural activity. One woman we spoke to offered to help out backstage at her local theatre, but after a few good sessions of costume-making and painting she was told sharply by a volunteer leader to “think for herself and find something to do”, with no discernible tasks at hand. Suffice to say she never returned. Conversely, the same volunteer helped out at a local festival, was given clear instructions and tasks, a T-shirt to help her feel part of a team, and lots of encouragement. She’s already looking forward to going back next year.

When Voluntary Arts Scotland’s director, Jemma Neville, recently volunteered with Leith Festival mural tours (organised by LeithLate), she received a friendly welcome on arrival, was briefed on her role to safely guide visitors between the sites, given a high-vis jacket and map, and thanked in the tour guide’s remarks.

We all need a sense of purpose and words of praise and gratitude to feel good, perhaps even more so when we’re giving our time and effort for free. Voluntary Arts Scotland works closely with the Volunteer Centres and Volunteer Centre Scotland (who tell us that arts volunteering is one of the most popular searches on their website) to ensure we’re passing on good practise to our sector.

Located across Scotland, Volunteer Centres, or their equivalent, are great sources of help and advice for groups who use volunteers to carry out their activities. Which is why we’re working closely with them on an upcoming re-fresh of our ‘Volunteering in the Arts’ toolkit. We also make sure that the wonderful variety of ‘Creative Volunteering Opportunities’ we include on our website and in our monthly enewsletter offer a good, reciprocal experience for all. So, what are you waiting for?

Kelly Donaldson is communications manager at Voluntary Arts Scotland