Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The One-Day Wonder: Convoy Of Hope 2013 and Team Communications

This blog is all about communicating effectively.  The following article is a report on the communications strategies used to stage a big event with dozens of volunteer staff.  I hope my regular blog readers find it helpful.  For those of you who are here for the first time, welcome!  Thanks for visiting.  Feel free to click on the links at right to explore past posts.  - - Beth 

Take 80 volunteers, most of whom have never met before. Assemble them inside a big tent on a Saturday morning.  Two hours later, open that tent to the public and offer a complex array of health care services and screenings.  Have everything run like clockwork. 

An impossible task?  Nope.  A bunch of us just did it last weekend at Convoy Long Island, a huge charity outreach event staged at Mitchel Athletic Complex in Uniondale.  And it rocked!  

The secret ingredient was communication.  Here's a rundown of communication strategies to explain how we did it:

1. Define your process.  You can't start finding your "who" until you know your "how."  For Convoy Long Island, we already had a good idea of how we were going to stage a Health Services Tent, because we did it last year (click here to learn more about the 2012 event).  We took that basic model, then we worked in a few process improvements to address bottlenecks we documented last year.  The result?  A project process outline that was easy to articulate and understand.  We were good to go, theoretically, before we took our first step.  That's because we had a firm idea of how we could fulfill our commitment before we asked people for theirs.
2.  Gather your core committee.  This is the most key aspect of your recruiting effort.  For Convoy, we first segmented the process into various elements.  Then we approached people whose personalities and expertise made them good leadership candidates for these facets of the project.  After describing the mission and why it mattered, we got them on board with a brief description of the scope of their commitment:  a few weekly conference call meetings, some phone calls, some planning tasks.  Yep, that's all it took.  If you have a good process, the people will come.  

3. Recruit early via email.   Starting in March, we sent out a Save The Date email to everyone who worked the event last year.  A church let us set up a page for volunteer sign-up on its website community management system, so we sent out the link in that email and in follow-up emails.  Each week we checked the site to see how our sign-ups were doing.  We got a slow and steady stream of people this way.  Some of our last-year recruits not only returned this year, they also forwarded the link to their friends and invited them to sign up, too.

4. Delineate roles right away.  People want to know what they're saying "yes" to, so we framed out job descriptions for the various roles we needed on the day of the event, using the SPAN job template (click here to read a previous blog post about this great tool).  These job descriptions became our primary communications tools, both for recruitment and for training.

5. Put together your project timeline.  Early-on planning prevents late-breaking panic. We used a table timeline (click here to learn more) to show a week-by-week overview of what needed to happen when.  It kept everyone accountable and, quite literally, on the same page.  When you're working with a widespread bunch of part-time people, a timeline plus a weekly conference call is your strongest defense against chaos.   

6. List the resources you need, and dole out the shopping lists.  Among our core committee, we reviewed the project's process and brainstormed a list of supplies needed to accomplish it. We divided that list into need-to-haves and nice-to-haves.  Then we distributed the responsibilities of acquiring these materials among the team and put target deliverable dates on our timeline. 

7. Manage recruitment with first-contact communications.  We monitored our sign-up link and sent out a Welcome email to every new recruit, clearly stating the project's vision.  In that email, we also set expectations.  How were volunteers going to be kept informed?  When could they expect their next communication?  What could they do if they had questions?  By anticipating their needs, we crafted a concise first-contact email that framed the scope of their commitment and gave them enough information to hold them over until closer to the event, when we would send out more specifics.

8. Set up conference calls to keep score.  We used Free Conference Calls at  to meet weekly while staying at home on our couches.  Before each call, an email sent out a checklist to be reviewed, a tent map to be discussed, etc.  Conference calls need focal points, so we always had a visual reference of some kind. The timeline was our scorecard: how were we doing on each of this week's tasks? We tackled everything as a team, and put everything up for group approval.  (This collaborative atmosphere was critical.  No one person was the boss -- the mission was the boss, and everything was prioritized by the group.)  We made sure to end each call with two components:  a summary of the delegated action steps that we each were going to undertake that week, and a motivational reminder of how great this was going to be. 

9. Appoint Team Captains and provide them with manageable tasks.  We made sure to clearly define the responsibilities of every person whom we put in charge of other people.  In our case, we segmented our volunteer force into teams according to the job they were going to perform on the day of Convoy:  greeters, screeners, escorts, etc.  We appointed a Team Captain for each of those areas, and explained what they were expected to do.  We also gave our Team Captains lots of love.  They were the pivotal people in our project, and they knew that they were valued.

10. Give recruits the next level of information about three weeks before the event.  We created email templates for email communications that Team Captains  then sent to their teams.  We coached the Team Captains on how to cut and paste the message into their own email and make customized changes as needed.  In this way, we ensured that all volunteers received the same standard information.  When they sent out these emails, Team Captains also attached the job descriptions that we had already created for each role.  These next-level emails were timed strategically to hit just when volunteers were starting to think ahead and wonder more about Convoy.  

11. Start collecting and assembling supplies.  We finalized our print materials and got them printed (in quantities that were slightly higher than our estimated usage numbers).  Since Convoy was an outdoor event, we put supplies in big plastic bins and plastic bags for easy, moisture-proof transport.  We portioned out signage, pens, baskets, and incidentals according to the area they would be used, and put together one supply bin for each area. We put labels on everything we could to describe contents, where to use them, etc.. 

12. Send a final email to volunteers.  We waited until a week before the event to send finalized details (street directions, parking instructions, etc.). We also used that final email to emphasize the importance of their involvement and build enthusiasm for Convoy's mission.  (You may have noticed that volunteers received only three emails from us.  We didn't flood them with one-offs.  We sent info out in deliberate, condensed pulses.  A few focused contacts get more attention than multiple reminders.)  

13. Set up (as much as possible) the day before.  On Friday, June 7th, when the tents were up at Mitchel Athletic Complex and Convoy organizers were on the premises,  a  few of us came to the Health Services Tent to arrange tables and drop off supplies.  We used this time to do a step-by-step talk-through of the event, rehearsing operations and resolving open questions.  Though the rains were pouring outside the tent with monsoon intensity, inside the tent we looked at each other and smiled.  We were ready.  This was going to be great.   

14. Stage a pre-event "prep talk."  We had instructed all Health Services Tent volunteers to arrive two hours ahead of the event start time.  When that time arrived, we described to the assembled crowd what would happen that day.  

  • First we talked about the process: we walked everyone through each part, highlighted each role and introduced each Team Captain.  
  • Then we talked about the promise -- the commitment to put our guests first.  We connected everything that would happen that day to the greater goals of the event.  We talked about how vital it was to help guests conquer their fears and feel welcome.  
  • Finally, we explained the behavioral parameters -- what we should and shouldn't do as volunteers -- tying all the rules to the success of the mission.   
  • Then it was time to pray, and get to work!  (No joke.  We really did pray.  No matter how much communication has been targeted  to the troops, in my opinion any project is well-served by adding an extra layer of strategic communication: right up to the top.  Actually, a lot of prayer goes into every Convoy Of Hope activity.  To find out more about this excellent international relief organization, and particularly its 50-State Outreach Tour, click here.)

15.  Send out an after-event thank you email.  There's one more final, still-unfinished item on my Convoy task list. Yes, we thanked everyone over and over under the tent on Saturday.   But I consider a formal thank you to be absolutely necessary to any team project (click here to see why).  In my email thank you to all our Convoy Of Hope volunteers and Team Captains, I will also include a link to this post.  That's because I want our fantastic volunteers to get the benefit of knowing our process, so they can use it in their own projects as they choose.  And next year, when Convoy time rolls around, I hope and expect these wonderful people to be primed and ready to do it again.

So there you have it.  Eighty-plus volunteers, working together, serving others, having a blast.  The secret to pulling it off?  A series of guided, targeted, strategically-staged communications that kept everyone marching in the same direction and feeling valued.  Go back and reread this post, and you will see some bolded words in each paragraph which describe the communications tool that we used for each step.  

I feel so proud to have been a part of Convoy Long Island 2013.  So blessed to know and work with all these people.  That's why I wanted to document how it all came about, with yet another communication -- this blog post.  

The next person I hope this post can help is you, my blog reader.  The next time you need to take a diverse bunch of folks and organize them into a swat team of success, try applying some of these communications tactics.  Trust me, it's hard work to create a big and successful event.  But with a meaningful mission, a strong process, and outstanding people to work with, it's also pure joy.  

I wish you success as you communicate to collaborate.  Use remarkable messaging to unlock unimaginable potential, every step of the way!