Why I Volunteer And Why You Should Too

A retrospective piece on what I’ve gained from 3 years of volunteering for web/digital conferences.

A little bit of history

I started volunteering in the summer of 2013 while in-between jobs and waiting to hear the outcomes of two second-round interviews. I had time on my hands and wanted to find a way to fill it constructively.

I stumbled upon a tweet in my timeline asking for volunteers for an upcoming conference called UX London. The company running the conference was Brighton-based UX design agency Clearleft. Being based in Brighton at the time, well Hove actually, it was a rather serendipitous moment I couldn’t afford to miss.

Since then, I’ve volunteered for the majority of Clearleft’s conferences, UX Brighton’s annual conference and helped out where I can for smaller meetups and BarCamps. Looking back, it’s been one of the most beneficial things I’ve done and could be for you too.

Why volunteer?

There’re many reasons why you might want to offer up your time to volunteer. Perhaps you are in-between jobs like I was, or you want to gain a better understanding in a particular field in your industry, or maybe you’re new to an area and want to meet new people.

Whatever the reason there’s plenty to gain.

What’s involved?

An average conference day goes something like this.

  • 07.00 - Morning briefing
  • 07.30 - Registration desk setup
  • 08.00 - Registration
  • 09.00 - Registration rotation and auditorium ushering
  • 10.00 - Auditorium ushering and lanyard checking
  • 12.30 - Grabbing lunch for speakers
  • 13.00 - Registration, workshop room setup and lunch
  • 14.00 - Workshop assistance and packing away registration
  • 15.30 - Workshop ushering and lanyard checking
  • 16.30 - Clearing workshop room
  • 17.00 - Party setup
  • 18.00 - Lanyard checking at party venue
  • 19.00 - Doing your bit to empty the bar

There’s also additional opportunities to help prior to the event e.g. labelling lanyards, setting up the venue, packing the goodie bags. These are usually optional but earn you extra brownie points if you can help.

Is volunteering for me?

Volunteering isn’t for everyone though. Here’s a brief guide to help you decide if it’s right for you.

Volunteer if:

  1. You like getting stuck in and working hard - it can be physically and mentally draining but a bucket load of fun and rewarding (read on for my highlights)
  2. You’re organised, pro-active and enthusiastic - there are months and months of planning to put into action on the day, be there or be square!
  3. Work hard and party hard (partying is optional) - pre-parties, welcome parties, finale parties… did I mention there were parties?

Don’t volunteer if*:

  1. You’ve got to work on XYZ for work during the conference - there are quiet moments but they rarely last very long and your wireframes won’t take priority
  2. You need just 5 more minutes in bed - don’t expect a lay in or an invitation back if you’re constantly late
  3. You just want a free ticket - you’ll end up making more enemies than friends if you can’t pull your weight

This might sound like part of a job description but that’s exactly what it is, a job. Event organisers rely on volunteers to put all of their months of organisation and planning into action on the day. Approach the challenge like you would any other job, with professionalism, enthusiasm and a drive for success.

* If any of these are deal-breakers, it’s probably safe to assume it’s not for you.

So what are these highlights?

Forming new friendships and extending your peer and professional network

One of the biggest gains from volunteering is an ever-growing network of friends.

When I volunteered for UX London in 2013 I was fairly new to UX was only starting to gain a real understanding of what it was. Meeting the 20 or so other volunteers, each with a different background and career progression, was hugely insightful and encouraging.

A large proportion of the volunteers returned for subsequent conferences, and over the next three years these bonds have strengthened and have developed into friendships. A large part of the conference excitement, year-on-year, is having the opportunity to see your friends again.

Volunteering also gives you the opportunity to speak with industry leaders and other professionals attending the course, work alongside them in workshops and share a pint or two at the after party bar.

Attendance to talks and workshops of your choice

One of the reasons for volunteering will no-doubt be for the content of the conference. My experience has always been that a great deal of effort goes into scheduling a rota that fits the volunteer’s top picks for talks and workshops. Of course, there are times where you don’t get what you chose or that you’re asked to help with an unforeseen event when you should be doing something else, such is life, no?

Other highlights

  • The amazing welcome party at the Royal Observatory for UX London 2013
  • Meeting and helping Adam Buxton prep for his closing talk at dConstruct 2013
  • Rising to the challenge of stage manager for the last ever dConstruct in 2015
  • Glen Keane’s drawing of Tarzan for my son

How do I get started?

Send an email, send a Tweet. Event organisers are always looking for reliable and enthusiastic volunteers so it’s worth starting the conversation now if it’s something you’re interested in doing.