March 16, 2018

Help Wanted | Programs That Pop

The concept of a volunteer fair is simple: prospective volunteers and nonprofits in need of volunteers come together. Any library can host, needing only space, tables, and chairs. Libraries benefit by fostering closer relations with local organizations and facilitating community engagement with current and new library patrons, and nonprofits benefit from the opportunity to recruit students, stay-at-home parents, seniors, and people of all backgrounds looking to get back into the workforce. Worcester Public Library (WPL), MA, did it, and you can, too!

In 2014, I read about other libraries that held volunteer fairs and decided this program would be worth implementing at our library. Although WPL accepts volunteers itself—they can take on a variety of tasks, including working at our reception area, shelf reading, or helping out at Summer Reading events—we don’t always have timely placement opportunities, and while some local colleges hold volunteer and internship fairs for students, a fair for teens and adults did not yet exist in our community. Four years later, we have successfully held our Fourth Annual Volunteer Fair, with plans to do more. Over the years, we have adapted to the changing needs of our community and local agencies. Foremost in considering whether to proceed were costs, venue, scheduling, staff requirements, and publicity.

Timing is Everything

We chose to hold our two-hour-long fairs on Saturdays in late September to capitalize on returning college students, people back from vacation, and high school requirements for community service. We also check local calendars to avoid scheduling conflicts. Through trial and error, we discovered that mornings work better.

We Want You!

I developed a list of major nonprofits in Worcester, including regional chapters of national organizations and established local groups, making sure to find a few that accept teen volunteers. Three months out, I sent an email invitation that included a Google form application for interested organizations to complete. This not only vetted the participants, it also proved useful when smaller nonprofits saw our publicity and asked if they could participate. A month later, I sent reminders, then an email with the option for organizations that weren’t able to attend to send materials for display with a sign-up sheet for interested parties. Several organizations took me up on it.

As the date grew closer, I provided interested parties with electronic copies of our flyers as well as logistical information for the big day. We disseminated our e-flyer on social media, local event calendars, and email lists and sent emails to all local high schools and colleges. We also promoted the event via print flyer, press releases, and word of mouth.

The day before the fair, custodians and colleagues assisted me with setting up the tables according to a map. Based on feedback from our inaugural Volunteer Fair, we realized that holding subsequent fairs in the large meeting room and adjacent lobby as opposed to two separate meeting rooms would create a better flow. We provided each organization with one six-foot table, two chairs, and a marker for a raffle. We placed signs on each table indicating the name of the organization and the minimum age for volunteering. On the day of the fair, we allowed organizations one hour before the fair to check in and set up and one hour after for breakdown. They were free to bring tablecloths, displays, and materials.

Patrons Love Swag

After the inaugural fair, we discovered that some attendees did not stop by some tables. To encourage them to do so, we initiated the raffle. Once attendees visited each table and got their ticket initialed, they could be entered in a drawing for a library tote bag stuffed with library-related goodies. Since we already had the bags and materials, the raffle didn’t cost us anything, and it generated much goodwill with both attendees and participating organizations. Our only cost, aside from staff time and publicity materials created in-house, was for refreshments.

This year, representatives from 15 organizations attended and four sent materials to display. WPL staff represented the library at the check-in table with flyers promoting programs and services and distributed reusable bags for attendees to collect materials as they visited the tables. We requested that attendees fill out evaluation forms and counted a total of 93 attendees, including our mayor!

Looking to the Future

After the fair, I sent emails to the organizations requesting feedback to be used in future planning. The majority indicated that they felt their time was well spent. Representatives signed up several prospective volunteers, and attendees gained greater awareness of local organizations. Perhaps the greatest indicator of success is the willingness of certain organizations, especially smaller ones, to participate annually. I now receive emails throughout the year from new organizations requesting to be added to upcoming volunteer events.

Amy Klein is a Reference Librarian, Worcester Public Library, MA

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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