Why Do You Volunteer?

“Volunteering is the ultimate exercise in democracy. You vote in elections once a year, but when you volunteer, you vote every day about the kind of community you want to live in.”Marjorie Moore

Hi, my name is Mike Sprague. I’ve been volunteering for Arisia for several years, have been on senior staff for a few, and have even been Convention Chair recently. This year, I work as the Assistant Division Head of Staff Services – the part of Arisia that organizes and coordinates volunteers (among other things).

I am sometimes asked why I volunteer for Arisia. As is often the case in convention running, it all began with a friend asking for help. A friend I’d made the prior year at con said if I volunteered for a few hours doing load-in and load-out of various heavy things for logistics, I could get my membership comped and I could get in for free. Also, they would feed us pizza.

“The fools!” I thought to myself at the time. “I would have done it just for the pizza!”

I was much younger then, and had a much lower standard for recompense in exchange for lending my assistance. Now I insist on bread sticks too.

After working on the loading dock with Logistics for a few years, and helping out with random tasks in Operations, I moved into Programming when, once again, a friend asked for help. It seems they needed a few people to brainstorm ideas for panels and do some data entry putting our ideas into a scheduling program some Arisia people came up with called Zambia. One day, another friend of mine invited me to their place to hang out and have dinner.

My friend was the Division Head of Programming for Arisia at the time and asked me to be their Assistant Division Head of Programming. I never saw it coming honestly.

“Whoah,” I said. “I just like doing my little job and then having fun at the con. That’s like actual responsibility. Nah, I’m good.”

“Okay, how about this,” my friend countered. “I have another candidate for the position I’d like to ask. If for some reason they have to bail on the position due to various circumstances will you be my emergency backup for the position? Let me be clear, this is only in the unlikely event that an emergency Assistant Division Head is needed.”

“In that case,” I said. “Sure, I’ll be your backup in case of emergency.”

After a few months, one unlikely circumstance, and an emergency deployment later, I became the Assistant Division Head of Programming. From learning how to advocate for what you want both inside and outside of meetings, to managing the sometimes competing needs of those that work for you while maintaining a sense of fairness and equity, to learning that sometimes there is no perfect solution just a bunch of least-bad ones to choose from  — I learned a lot that year.

I met with my friend after that convention. We discussed my future plans and we agreed that I would have one more year as an Assistant Division Head and then take over as head of Programming the year after that. My friend would stick around as advisor that year to help out and offer guidance. I enjoyed the job a lot and enjoyed working at that senior level. The position gave me the ability to peek behind the curtain a bit more to see how the vast machine that is Arisia works from year to year.

Now, the Assistant Division Head for a given division has many duties. They handle some correspondence, they keep the tasks lists and help remind people of deadlines, and they speak on behalf of the Division when the Division Head is not available. One of the other expected duties of an Assistant Division Head is to take over the division in the unlikely event that the Division Head has to step down for whatever reason. Soon after the convention ended, my friend and mentor stepped down as Programming Division Head and I stepped into the lead role.

You know, it’s funny how often unlikely occurrences come up in my life.

And yet, not a single hit on Powerball for me. Ah well.

To say that year was challenging for me is a vast understatement. I owe thanks to many people for their support. In the end, it was one of the most well-regarded years for Arisia Programming. Soon after that, I submitted my name for consideration for the position of Convention Chair, the person who guides and oversees Arisia each year. To my pleasant surprise I was chosen.

Volunteering as Chair was an interesting experience, to say the least. If you’re a hands-on type of person like me it can be difficult to delegate but it’s necessary. One of the primary tasks of a Con Chair is to select the staff you think will do the best job and then, here’s the important bit, trust them to do their jobs to the best of their ability. Along the way, talk to them, support them, guide them, and encourage them as best you can. I’m pleased to say, from what I’ve been told, that year was enjoyed by many, staff included. One of my goals that year was for all those volunteering to have as good a time at the convention as those who were just attending. For the most part I think I succeeded.

Which brings me to Staff Services. After my year as Con Chair I was looking for areas of the convention that needed support, but I was also interested in making the experience of volunteering a better one for those who choose to help make this thing we call Arisia possible each year.

The Staff Services division had been created for just this purpose. Our mission  is to provide support, advice, mediation, and guidance for those that work on the convention. We create job descriptions for areas and get them posted online. We host Arisia socials throughout the year so volunteers can get to know each outside of con and to bring in new people. We manage our volunteers and do our best to find places in Arisia that fit their skill sets. We make ourselves available and offer advice and guidance to volunteers with various concerns. We do our best to advocate on behalf of our volunteers to see that they are treated fairly and equitably.

All well and good you might say, but why do you do all this work? There are lots of reasons people work on a convention like Arisia. Things like:

  • The chance to feel like you’re contributing to something larger than yourself.
  • The opportunity to work on a big geeky thing with other geeks.
  • To be a part of the Arisia community by giving back to it.
  • The skills you learn that can be used outside Arisia.
  • The chance to make a new friend, or several.

Those of us who work on Arisia do so because we enjoy it and want to see it continue. Without our attendees, without our volunteers, without you there is no Arisia. Whether you can help out all weekend, one day, or even one hour please join us in continuing to make Arisia one of the best conventions in the region. You can find us at the convention at Team Arisia HQ. Stop by and say hi.