DAVE MCGILLIVRAY, for Runner's World
Last week I volunteered at packet pickup for a major marathon. I and other volunteers tried our best to pass out material as efficiently as possible, but others were a little less efficient and, despite long lines, often chatted with participants. How do race directors perceive volunteers? When could they do more harm than good? Which activities are best for volunteers and which are better left to professionals? — Duran
Every race should have an appointed volunteer coordinator who oversees the volunteer program. It is their responsibility to work with all the event directors or team captains to determine how many volunteers are needed and what their specific job responsibilities are. Each volunteer should be given a list of instructions and guidelines about the event, about their role, and about how to conduct themselves when carrying out their responsibilities. Additionally, the team captains of each area should meet with all their volunteers as a group a few hours before the race to communicate all this information.
Race management should also determine which roles should be handled by staff, by consultants, or otherwise by experienced and knowledgeable individuals, and which roles can be easily handled by volunteers with no prior experience. Putting an inexperienced volunteer in a key role is not only unfair to the race but it is also unfair to the volunteer. I would think passing out race packets would indeed qualify as a volunteer job.
Volunteers are priceless and, generally speaking, they all mean well. Still, there are occasions when they need to be guided or watched over more closely. If someone has taken undertaken the responsibility of carrying out a job for the race, they need to be accountable to do just that whether they are a volunteer or professional. Unfortunately, with volunteers, you don't always have much leverage to ensure that they carry our their assigned task. Threatening that they will not be invited back next year doesn't help you too much this year, so you need to be sensitive as to who you recruit and put in place as volunteers and what role you place them in. Being polite and appreciative is important, but sometimes you need to be firm. In most cases, volunteers become the image of the race.
In your case, a subtle side comment to the team captain of race packet pickup might have helped prompt the captain to diplomatically instruct these loquacious volunteers to limit their conversations to simply, "Welcome, and good luck in the race!"