Photo: Daniel Boud

Arts festivals are always challenged to deliver a high quality product and customer service, with limited resources.  Consequently volunteers play a crucial role in the success of any event.  The Sydney Writer’s Festival knows that as well as any arts organisation and arts interview spoke to volunteer coordinator Jennie Bradbury about the joys of her role and the challenges she faces. Jennie is responsible for sourcing, recruiting, planning and scheduling over 250 volunteers that help make the festival not only one of the key highlights in the Sydney arts calendar but one of the largest literary festivals in the world.

Interview by Kim Goodwin

What role do volunteers play within the Festival?

 Volunteers are our patrons first point of on site contact and the friendly faces of the festival. They are vital in creating and sustaining a positive and exciting atmosphere. Sydney Writers’ Festival has established a body of volunteer supervisors who are integral to the organizing and running of events. These supervisors have earned their place through previous experience as volunteers and have a solid understand of how the festival operates. They have been key in sharing their past experiences which has allowed me to understand how best to approach my role as volunteer coordinator. These skilled individuals will be overseeing larger groups of volunteers throughout the festival.

What are the key challenges in coordinating volunteers?

This is my first time working at the Sydney Writers’ Festival as the volunteer coordinator, having said that – I envisage the challenges to be:

  • Fulfilling the needs of the volunteers while meeting the needs of the Festival.
  • Ensuring that I’m suitably organised and aware of individual volunteer’s skills in order to utilize them to their full capacity.
  • Coordinating the available shifts whilst offering a variety of roles / tasks.

Why do volunteers come to you?

The Sydney Writers’ Festival has had an excellent and well‐respected volunteer program for many years. Previous volunteer coordinators have put systems in place that work. Year on year we ask for feedback from the volunteers so we can improve and learn from previous Festivals.

We provide volunteers with an opportunity to play an important role in our festival and the benefits include it being a great social opportunity, having an opportunity to meet some of the most exciting writers, opportunity for professional development, feeling good about giving back to the community and the chance to participate within and support a highly prestigious Festival.

What do volunteers expect from you?

Volunteers expect to work for a well‐organised Festival in which they receive training, schedules, clear instructions, roles with responsibilities and due acknowledgement and appreciation. I am interested in ensuring that each volunteer feels individually looked after, their time is used effectively and that they receive a great deal of personal satisfaction through participating.

Most importantly they can expect to be part of a vibrant team who work hard towards the goal of producing a fun, entertaining, prestigious Festival.

How do you keep your volunteers motivated through the course of the Festival?

An important aspect will be to install a sense of teamwork, so they feel empowered within their roles, and that they are representing something important.Many of our volunteers are passionate about literature and taking part in the Writers’ Festival is hugely motivating for them. I want to ensure that they are aware of the positive impact of their contribution.

The volunteers will also have an opportunity to provide feedback to their supervisors and directly to me. In their training they will be encouraged to speak up about both positive and negative experiences, as well as providing us with opinions and advice for future festivals.

Broadly, how important is volunteering to the arts in Australia?

Volunteers in some capacity are absolutely vital to the running of most arts events, both large and small. Arts events in Australia generally run on shoestring budgets. We work in the arts for the love of it. We are passionate, driven and resilient. The amount of work that is needed to be a success is not often reflected in the budgets available.

The Sydney Writers Festival will run from the 14th-20th May, 2012