Should the NFL involve volunteers for the Super Bowl?

Taking a break from promoting The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook to talk volunteers and the Super Bowl (for those outside the USA, that’s the National Football League’s championship game).

In a story by the New York Times, Alfred Kelly, the chief executive of the New York-New Jersey Super Bowl Host Committee, estimated that 9,000 people would serve as volunteers in the days leading to the Super Bowl . That is far fewer than the 20,000 who were initially contemplated. Those numbers are down because the NFL opted to hire temporary paid workers for positions in which volunteers had typically been used. The decision was an apparent response to a class-action suit against Major League Baseball in the USA, which did not pay volunteers at the All-Star FanFest in July 2013.

It took me a LONG time to find out what volunteers actually *do* for this billion-dollar nonprofit with millionaire staff. From what I can tell, volunteers are at sites like airports, hotels and various transportation hubs days before the game to direct city visitors to whatever they need – transportation, bathrooms, etc.  And if that’s the case then – hold on to your hats – I’m fine with those roles being filled by volunteers. Why? Because, in those situations, I think these roles are best filled by volunteers – people who aren’t there for any financial gain, who want to be seen as volunteers, specifically, in doing these tasks: I’m here because I want to be here, because I love football and love my city, and I want to make you feel welcomed. But if volunteers are asked to do anything else – selling anything, cleaning anything, moving or hauling things, etc. – I have a HUGE problem with having these roles filled by unpaid staff, because I don’t see why volunteers would be best of those roles other than the NFL getting out of not paying people.

Even if the NFL wasn’t, officially, a nonprofit organization (which, by the way, I find that outrageous, IRS!), I would feel this way about its volunteer-involvement. Why? Because if I truly believe that some activities are best staffed by volunteers, NEVER as a money-saving activity but, rather, because unpaid people are best in that roles, I have to believe it for every sector.

Back in the summer of 2010, I attended an event by Triumph motorcycles in the city where I was living at the time (Canby, Oregon). The company had brought about 20 motorcycles you could sign up to ride, on group rides, every 30 minutes. The Triumph truck traveled all over the USA to bring these events to cities all over, and these Triumph events were staffed primarily by VOLUNTEERS. Because volunteers are “free”? Nope (volunteers are never free!). It was because an event attendee talking to a volunteer — someone who owns at least one of the motorcycles in the line up, and owned at least one other probably at some point, who can speak passionately about the product, who wants you to get to have the experience they have been having, and who won’t get any commission from a sale and doesn’t rely on this activity for their financial livelihood — is in such contrast to talking to a salesperson or paid staff person. The few paid staff there stayed in the background, there to fill in blanks and maybe to make a sale, but volunteers were the official spokespeople. It gave the event a total no-sales-pressure feel from a customer point of view – it was just a day to enjoy Triumph motorcycles.

I’ve never forgotten that experience. And it’s one of the reasons why I’m not ready to condemn the NFL’s involvement of volunteers. At least not until I can see what exactly it is that they do.

UPDATE: an article from The Star Ledger about what NFL Super Bowl volunteers did in 2014. Note – 1500 ambassadors were paid. Did those paid folks do the SAME work as the volunteers, or something more/different?

And now, back to promoting The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.

Also see:

Have you ever changed your mind?.

Learning, learning everywhere, a blog about where I find new marketing and volunteer engagement ideas (spoiler alert: it’s not at conferences or workshops)

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