Volunteers are often the backbone of large events and festivals. Fans who are willing to donate a few hours to check IDs and clean up the grounds can be rewarded with things like swag and free tickets. But keeping track of volunteers and making sure they’re assigned to the right tasks can be tricky. The Des Moines startup VolunteerLocal has simplified and centralized the process, handling volunteers for events worldwide.
How VolunteerLocal works
Back in 2003, Brian Hemesath (now managing director of the Global Insurance Accelerator), came up with a simple scheduling platform to help the Des Moines Arts Festival manage its more than 350 volunteers. For five years, Hemesath simply gave the platform away to any nonprofit looking for a way to schedule its volunteers.
In 2007, Hemesath was president of Young Variety, the young professional’s arm of Variety The Children’s Charity and met with the organizers for the now-defunct Hy-Vee Triathlon. The next year the triathlon used Hemesath’s platform to organize 1,600 volunteers. In 2009, Hemesath formed VolunteerLocal as an official LLC.
VolunteerLocal provides organizations looking to schedule volunteers with a platform where they can post shifts and jobs that need to be filled. Volunteers enter their names, a phone number, any physical restriction and any other information an organization might need. In the case of ticketed festivals, organizers sometimes require credit card information so volunteers don’t sign up for a shift, get a ticket and then bail on their duties.
“Some of the verticals we serve best are endurance events, like marathons and triathlons, and music and arts festivals,” said Kaylee Williams, president of VolunteerLocal. “We also work with chamber organizations that put on events and need a way to schedule community members, as well as non-profit organizations.”
In 2016, VolunteerLocal scheduled more than one million unique volunteers, and has users across the US and handles volunteer scheduling for several international events, including Australia’s Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, one of the largest LGBT events in the world. Since 2014, VolunteerLocal has also handled volunteer scheduling for the massive Bonnaroo Music + Arts Festival in Tennessee.
Learning from failure
Not everything has gone the way Williams thought it would since she joined VolunteerLocal in 2012. In 2015 the company launched a mobile app for volunteer check-ins that had a low adoption rate. A spa kit sent to potential users in 2014 saw zero conversions.
“I learned the difference between being fearless and being brave,” Williams said. “Fear is good in the startup world. It keeps us smart. You can be brave and still be afraid to do things, you just do them anyway.”
In the case of the app, Williams said it made her realize that VolunteerLocal is a B2B company first and that the app would be better suited for the organizers, not individual volunteers. From the spa kits, Williams realized a more hands-on approach is best for potential clients.
“I’ve grown to understand the dynamics of how to build those relationships,” Williams said. “We’re continuing to seek new ways to get more leverage in the market.”
The next step for VolunteerLocal
Williams is working on scaling the platform to gain mass-market penetration. There’s an 86% renewal rate for users, which she hopes will carry over as more users sign up every month. VolunteerLocal is working to do more marketing on social media to draw traffic to the site, as well as content marketing on the website to build up inbound organic leads.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is this is a cashflow-positive, bootstrapped company,” Williams said. “Our customers have always known what we should be doing and what they wanted us to build. They should always drive a company’s development roadmap.”
Joe Lawler is a freelance reporter based in Des Moines.