Near or far, reunion volunteers will get it done

by Edith Wagner

It’s reunion season so I’m doing interviews daily with newspapers for summer articles. Consistently, I’m asked for my four or five most important tips, and at the top of the list is this: never organize a reunion alone. There are plenty of stories about successful reunions organized by one person, but that’s a lot of work and rather unfair. It can also be a good precursor to burnout.

You’re organizing a family reunion which means, of course, that others must be willing to help. Often you may have to ask but, frankly, that’s how most volunteers start anyway…by being asked. In some instances, others understand immediately what you’re getting at and volunteer. The smart ones will volunteer for things they love to do and happily relieve you of those responsibilities. It’s the ones who need to be cajoled, begged or urged to contribute who are more difficult.

Speaking of contributions, there are those who truly have no time to volunteer before the reunion. They have two lovely alternatives. The first is to contribute cash to help defray your pre-reunion expenses. If potential contributors ask what needs to be paid for, you can cite phone calls, postage, printing, and deposits. The other alternative for these people is to volunteer at the reunion itself. Can they help with games for the kids? Take photos? Serve food? And don’t forget that cleanup always goes much faster with committed volunteers.

Interest, enthusiasm and “ownership” of the reunion grows with each volunteer you recruit. Don’t be afraid to delegate whenever necessary.

What can volunteers do?
Spend no money on services volunteers can perform. Assess members’ skills and talents. Examine each need and purchase to determine if there is a volunteer solution. Is a family artist willing to design invitations? Can someone provide and arrange flowers? Would a talented cook help cater a picnic? Or is someone with a computer willing to input and maintain your mailing list? Who wants to get together to kvetsch, gossip and stuff envelopes for mailings?

As reunion organizer, you are the main volunteer — share the joy. Make sure many others get in on the action. How do you find volunteers? Ask, beg, demand, cajole, plead. Do whatever it takes to involve others in your success. Mention volunteer service lavishly in your correspondence and newsletter. For example, in the first mailing, ask for help to keep records, do subsequent mailings, produce a program, memory book, family history, cookbook or quilt. In the second mailing include a list of who volunteered to do what and what you still need volunteers to do. In your last mailing when you generate excitement and enthusiasm for the reunion itself, solicit on-site volunteers. And remember, volunteers don’t even need to be in the same city. They can stay in touch by phone, fax, mail, and e-mail.

As a reunion organizer, you are the main volunteer — share the joy. Interest, enthusiasm and “ownership” of the reunion grows with each volunteer you recruit.

Reunion committees need volunteers
Some volunteers will be members of committees. Committees add to the fun and “ownership” of reunion organizing. They share planning, generate and implement ideas and inspire attendance. These are some committees to consider creating for your reunion team:

  • Accommodations/housing: Selects site, makes reservations, site arrangements and welcomes members.
  • Fundraising: Develops long-range fundraising projects and plans and stages reunion day fundraisers. Selects and purchases personalized souvenirs. Collects and organizes items to sell, auction or raffle at the reunion.
  • Program: Plans and coordinates Reunion Day activities. Arranges event facilities or locations. If both a banquet and/or dance and a picnic/barbecue are planned, have a different coordinator for each. Also in charge of entertainment, sports events, games, ice breakers, books the band or DJ and arranges for a public address system, if necessary.
  • Food: Plans, chooses and provides food, works with a caterer or banquet manager, or supplies eating suggestions for local restaurants.
  • Transportation: Provides directions, maps, instructions. Lists accommodations and restaurants along the way, airport pickup, arrangements to move members to different locations during the reunion (hotel, picnic, tours, church, for example).
  • Registration: Recruits a welcoming committee, checks in new arrivals, makes and distributes name tags, gets change and collects money from last minute arrivals.
  • Photography: In charge of the photographer, videographer,and memory album. Hires professionals and arranges payment or locates willing family members with the right equipment and expertise.
  • Awards, scholarships, and prize coordinator: Sets criteria, announces, promotes and supervises judging, recruits judges, orders honorary plaques and presents awards.
  • Worship or fellowship: Plans and presents rituals, ceremonies, memorials.
  • Set-up/clean-up: Works hard on Reunion Day.

Beth Gay, of the Gay Family Reunion in Moultrie, Georgia, offers these additional committee ideas: A Decoration Committee makes the place festive and welcoming. A Signage Committee makes the reunion easy to find. Don’t worry about perfect lettering — use bright colors and make it large. Use small signs around the reunion. Arrange for a highway sign nearest your meeting place. Consider renting a sign with moveable letters and an arrow pointing the way. A Scrapbook Committee watches local papers for any mention of family members. Ask family in other cities to date and send clippings. Display the always popular family scrapbook at reunions. A “medic” is useful at outdoor events for organizing the first aid kit and there are always special projects locating the nearest phone and emergency numbers.

Project Volunteers

Recruit volunteers to collect and input recipes, stories, traditions and hints. Emphasize deadlines and follow-up regularly. Volunteers can sort recipes and stories into folders, one for each food category. They should eliminate duplicates and clarify confusing recipes, standardize measurements and abbreviations and proofread every word…over and over and over again.

It takes a dedicated volunteer editor to solicit contributions, provide overall direction and enforce deadlines. Additional volunteers are needed for book design, layout, production and distribution. Most of the work can be adapted to suit volunteer schedules and talents. You will still need volunteers even if you choose instead to contract with a printing company that specializes in cookbooks. See Resources for companies who specialize in cookbook production.

If your project is a quilt, You will need volunteers to distribute, produce and collect the pieces. Then, someone must assemble and sew the final product.

Between-reunion projects can also be staffed by volunteers.

Solicit volunteers to organize between-reunion activities to help pay for ongoing expenses. Volunteers can negotiate group rates, food prices, transportation and tickets, then mark-up the price and add the difference to your reunion account. These activities could include a theater party, style show, progressive meal or party, casino night or bus tours.

Reunion Day Volunteers
As you approach the Reunion Day(s), review your volunteer plans and requirements. If you can, meet with volunteers or a committee who will work with volunteers before the reunion to review every detail of the program and coordinate tasks. Identify the jobs that will be assigned to volunteers (runners, greeters, kids’ games, cooks and food service, and cleanup). If possible, create a job description for each volunteer activity. Form groups of volunteers based on job responsibility, and review with them their job duties. Allow ample time for questions and answers. During your reunion, consider brief, daily meetings to regroup, motivate, and review schedules. Thank volunteers for their help and motivate them to have a great reunion.

Engage the most gregarious, outgoing volunteers, perhaps family elders or committee members as a hospitality committee. Some cousins know only a few people (or perhaps no one) at the reunion. A friendly atmosphere and people to talk to will help them have fun. Identify these goodwill ambassadors with bright red vests or special nametags. They can watch for first-timers and introduce them around.

And what about next year?
There is always business to be done at reunions. Reunion business meetings are a great time to chose the next chairperson and solicit volunteers for the next reunion. The meeting is also a great time to recognize and publicly thank volunteers who helped with the current reunion.

About the author
Edith Wagner is the editor of Reunions magazine, author of Reunions Workbook and Catalog and The Family Reunion Sourcebook (Lowell House, Los Angeles) in bookstores now.