Why it’s better to be a volunteer than an attendee


Within a space of two weeks, I have volunteered at two events: World Domination Summit and Northwest String Summit. (Interesting coincidence how both events happen to use the word “Summit” in their title.)

The two events couldn’t be more different: WDS is an urban gathering centered around downtown concert halls, while NWSS takes place in the woods up in the mountains. WDS is a TED-like conference on personal development and “how to live a remarkable life in a conventional world“; NWSS is a bluegrass festival.

But they have at least one thing in common: I signed up to be a volunteer for both.

It’s not about the money

First, let me get this out of the way: by volunteering, I got to attend both events without paying full price.

As a WDS “Ambassador” (as volunteers were named), I was able to get out of paying the roughly $500 admission fee, which might seem steep, but is positively a steal when compared to other similar conferences. (The Platform Conference is around $1,000, and let’s not even talk about what it takes to attend TED). NWSS, while longer, costs much less, under $200, and yet I still had to pay a $40 “impact fee” to cover the costs of having a huge music festival on private land.

So I saved over $600 which, hey, was nice. But I certainly put in the hours.

At WDS I worked at least 20 hours over the weekend, while at NWSS I was on the hook for two seven-hour shifts. That turns into about $18 per hour, so I’m clearly not coming out too far ahead. I imagine most events would turn out like this. You will work hard.

Missing out

When I volunteered for WDS in 2012, I had to be somewhere else during Brené Brown’s excellent keynote, widely regarded as the highlight of the entire conference. This year, I missed about 25% of the sessions I wanted to be a part of, and about the same at NWSS.

So not only did I have to work 34 hours, I also missed a quarter of both events. Why was I doing this again?

I am (a tiny part of) the event

In short, I volunteer to feel more connected. Both to the event, and the people at the event.

As an attendee, of course, I am a part of the event as well. But by working during the event, I help, in my own little way, to make it happen. I handed out stickers and posters and Brave Bots (long story). I high-fived about 1,000 people at the WDS opening party (actually kind of painful). And in both events, I helped answer questions, and directed people where they needed to go.

I’m not saying that the event hinged on me by any means, but neither does an event hinge on any one person. I wasn’t crucial, perhaps, but I was important.

Restrictions are nice

It was also nice to have my options limited for me.

I missed plenty of speakers and plenty of sessions (both speaker sessions and jam sessions). But this restriction was actually freeing. I could see less, sure, but I also wouldn’t wipe myself out trying to do it all. By seeing less in quantity, I could see more in quality. If you’re like me and are not savvy enough to enforce this on your own, you’ll find this restriction helpful, especially if you get that low-grade unease that sets in when you have unstructured time.

Somewhere new

In addition to being restricted in what I could do, I was equally forced to do things that I wouldn’t have otherwise done. I wouldn’t have attended certain sessions, and I wouldn’t have stood by the concert entrance for hours saying hello to people.

Being forced to have alternate experiences is almost always a welcome experience. And it could be that the place you’re taken to becomes the highlight of the event for you.

Meet people

You can meet people anywhere. But just by having the event T-shirt on, I felt like I could more easily go up to anyone and talk to them. Moreover, I was already given membership into a club of sorts: the volunteers club. With such an obvious shared experience, it’s only natural to make connections. I fully expect to keep in touch with a variety of people throughout the year.

On this alone it can be worth even paying full price for the privilege of working the event.

Worth it

Some say that volunteering isn’t for them. They don’t want to run the risk of missing something important. They want the freedom to be able to go anywhere at any time. And that’s understandable; volunteering isn’t for everyone.

But I still say that you would do well to investigate volunteering for events that you would ordinarily attend. You may find that the experience of helping out trumps any other experience you would have at the event itself.

But enough about me. Do you volunteer for events?


  1. saulofhearts

    Great post! I’ll be volunteering at the Willamette Writers Conference next weekend. Since I’m less plugged into that world and don’t really know any writers/workshops that I “can’t miss”, it made more sense to attend as a volunteer.

    • Mike @ Unlikely Radical

      Thanks Saul! Yes, that’s a great way to give yourself some structure when you might otherwise not know what to do with yourself. Hope the conference is a good one!

Comments are closed.