I met Nada Rochevska when I volunteered at Rio 2016. We had the same role, NOC Assistants – I was assigned to Cambodia. She was assigned to her native North Macedonia (when it was still called the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia). Her hard work was rewarded when the Macedonians chose her as flagbearer at the closing ceremony, an honor usually given to athletes. But for her, sports volunteering isn’t just a personal interest; it has become her career. It was the subject of her master’s degree MSc. Sports Management and MA in Olympic Studies are now her working field. A lawyer and former basketball player for her national team, Rochevska is a speaker on sports volunteering and created NR Sports Volunteering Solutions; a Germany-based consultancy focused on managing sports volunteering programs; among her projects were different International Sports Federations, Local Organizing Committees of different size major events, Professional Sports Clubs and NGO’s in the field of sports volunteering financed by Erasmus + Programs.
After the recent release of the Paris-2024 volunteering schedule – applications start next March –I interviewed Rochevska on her double experience as a volunteer and volunteer manager. We talked about the expectations and reasons that make people want to be Olympic volunteers, the most common mistakes made by those wishing to volunteer and by those who manage volunteers, and how to provide an unforgettable Olympic experience to all those who will have the privilege of receiving a message saying “you’ve been chosen” – which, for me, happened in 2015 precisely on a Black Friday like this (the interview was initially published on Nov. 25th).
I started in the sport as a volunteer, and volunteering in sports opened many doors for me in the professional sports management industry. It gave me a chance to get so many different experiences in different functional areas of sports event management and helped me decide which size of the event industry is right for me. Every time after an event, I felt so pumped with total energy. Still, at the same time, I was missing the adrenalin that goes around, the buzz, the stress, the intensive communication with my colleagues, and the love and passion we share for the same things and the same mindset. Led by these feelings, I decided that sports volunteering would be my field of academic research focus and operational work. I got obsessed with sports volunteering management work. When I witnessed how much it changed the life of many people and how much it helped in the development of each human’s personal and professional life, I never wanted again to leave that field. So here I am 8 years after, running my Consultancy in sports volunteering management.
Even today, whenever I have time, I volunteer at events. I sometimes like to be on the other side. To talk and share experiences with volunteers, to listen to their stories and ideas on how we can improve our sports volunteering community and management at the events. From my experience, that is the best and most valuable way to get the “insights” on which base will improve the management process. That is how I operate, always between volunteers, whether managing them or volunteering as them.
“You become a volunteer not for what you get out of it but for what you become by doing it.” Volunteer activity has many personal and professional benefits for the volunteers but also benefits the Local Organizing Committee in developing and leaving a legacy of adequately chosen and well-trained volunteers to the sports industry for the following sports events in the country and society for any other volunteering needs. Volunteering at major sports events brings many benefits and opens many possibilities for volunteers.
At the begging of their volunteering journey in the preparation process, volunteers are getting much different training in the development of their skills and training, which are preparing them for the position they will do it. This training in various skills usually costs money if you do it on your own, and here volunteers are getting it for free. They experience different cultures and habits from their colleagues, usually from around the world. Chance to practice a foreign language, to be exposed to further understanding and see the same things from a different angle which is not very much possible in your own country; at the same time, through their volunteering activity in an international team, they are getting exposure and developing their intercultural understanding. Cross-cultural communication capabilities are essential because they are helping to volunteers in the process of understanding the differences in how people communicate when they come from totally different backgrounds, and cross-cultural understanding is the key. Volunteering teaches them how to interact with different cultures and ensure they have been respectful but still get to their point.
Another viral benefit among the volunteers is the possibility to be close to world-famous athletes, support them directly, and, in a way, become a part of their success. Of course, suppose a volunteer is interested in approaching a career in sports. In that case, this is a great chance to be in direct contact with leading people in the industry, an opportunity to put a “step at the door,” gain experience in how things are working in the sports industry and one particular sport, and a chance for tomorrow to make a start their dream job.
Before the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, many people in Brazil claimed that volunteering was foolish because people would be working for free for entities (Fifa and the IOC) that make billions of dollars and could afford to pay staff. There was even a neologism, “volotário” (“voluntário”/volunteer + “otário”/sucker). Does it make any sense to you?
The development of volunteering culture in general and sports volunteering more precisely in one country depends on many outside factors. When I say this, I mean for different reasons; the most present are socio-economical, cultural, historical, and financial aspects. From my experience, developed countries, for example, have one understanding of the volunteering activity, whereas, in a country in development with a significantly lower average income-totally, there is another knowledge of the activity itself, which is very typical. In some regions of the world where this activity is not developed and people, in general, are facing difficult economic and financial daily situations, the volunteering activity is even seen as a “low pay activity,” meaning monetary rewards for volunteers are prevalent.
At the same time, countries that are not staging any serious and more significant events, countries which are still not seeing the benefit of being a host even on smaller side events, their citizens are not directly exposed to the volunteering activity, neither of the benefits out of that activity, so they don’t have a chance to understand the volunteering activity in a different beneficial way for everyone.
Changing this is very much possible, not easy, but possible. With the chance of being exposed to staging sports events, nixing with fans and volunteers from other countries, and direct personal involvement in the event itself, together with education on the subject of sports volunteering from the stakeholders in the sports industry (federations, clubs, event organizers) and witnessing the benefits of volunteering, people will start to change their view. As you mention, our overall understanding of sports volunteering will begin to change when we add a chance to volunteer directly in sports mega-events.
Every volunteer has motivation for why they are doing the volunteering activity. In reality, many volunteers, especially at the Olympics as primary motive, can talk with famous athletes or watch the Olympic games. As managers, we must know our volunteers and their motivations, which will help us properly allocate positions and “use” their skills, which results in a happy and satisfied volunteer. As a Leader, a volunteer manager, in this case, must know how to lead the whole process where politely will explain the rules and bounders of the volunteers but at the same time keep their interest and motives for volunteering.
Of course, some volunteering positions will include direct communication with the athletes or being in their surround. Sometimes is possible if the volunteer is free at that moment and they are in the place where the game is happening(if their job is at the venue of happening). It all depends on many facts, like the job position of the volunteer and the requirements coming out of it. But all activities must be aligned with good behavior because volunteers are the face of the event. They represent themselves, the event, the sport, the international federation(s), the host country, and all local people through their uniforms, activities, and behavior. And they should never forget this.
Then, when a specific role gives access to athletes, leaders must explain already during training that there are rules, conduct codes, and lines than can’t be crossed – like regarding approaching athletes, even if it’s just for a selfie. If we do it the right way, we’ll be able to keep the volunteer interested and avoid improper situations. It’s not easy, but that is our job as managers and leaders. To find the best way which will work for both sides. These kinds of volunteers create an excellent, high-performance, winning team of volunteers, which significantly impacts the overall event’s success. Everyone wins – leaders, volunteers, and those they interact with.
There’s a mix of the gap between expectations and reality, lousy working conditions (food/shifts/etc.), bad treatment by “bosses,” bad assignment management… and, unfortunately, some volunteers have poor work ethics.
From my experience, the primary and biggest reason volunteers quit is that they don’t feel helpful-useful – when their skills and knowledge are not correctly used and allocated to the correct positions. So they end up sitting and doing nothing during the event, not feeling ok or bored, and we can be sure that these volunteers will not come back for any other occasion. In my opinion, this is the biggest failure a volunteer manager can make.
Lack of or no recognition for their volunteer job from the volunteer coordinator or manager is often a severe reason for quitting. Volunteers are giving us the most precious thing, their free time. We must take care of that fact and work professionally and respectfully. Proper strategic definition of the volunteering program aline with the values of the event itself, and on-time operational implementation(recruitment, screening, selection, orientation and training, coordination, retention, motivation, recognition) are the key to a successful event and volunteering management in place as a part of the overall success of the event.
Unfortunately, in our industry is a circulating opinion that everyone can manage volunteers; “that is such an easy job.” But once the event started, challenges and issues appeared, and the reality changed. Unfortunately, the volunteers are”paying” the highest price.
Starting with the operational implementation of the strategic volunteering program quite late, volunteers who need to be appropriately allocated regarding their skills and knowledge, as I mentioned, do not personally have any connection with the volunteers. Volunteers are people; volunteering management is about people’s skills, leadership, and respect. As a part of human resource management, v.management uses the same tactics and strategies. So we can’t just “get to know” the volunteers on the paper in the application and recruitment process sitting in our offices but never actually meet them in person or at least online, or get to know the nature of their motives, why they are volunteering, the nature of their work, etc. The better we get to know our volunteers, their reasons, expectations, what is important to them, what skills they bring, their interests, etc., in the coloration with the values and needs of the LOC, the more valuable program we will create.
Each volunteering program at the Olympic games has its primary focus, different values, and targets planned to be reached or changes to happen. Some programs focus more on developing a volunteering legacy in social connections, others educating volunteers on Olympic values and Olympic education, as was the case with the Tokyo 2020 Olympic volunteering Program. The IOC and the LOC of the OG are recognizing and acknowledging the e role of volunteers at their events. I can not say this is the case with many smaller sports entities. Of course, they always have potential and space for improvement and realization.
The main focus of the volunteering program of Paris 2024 will be to increase the Involvement of Volunteers in sports clubs and federation after the games and to indirectly increase the participation of the citizens in sports activities in general. I am convinced that the colleagues from Paris 2024 have enough experience and knowledge to organize unforgettable games for the volunteers, especially being the first after the covid19 pandemic that will be open and possible to welcome international Olympic volunteers, so-called “Olympic gypsies.”
Everyone involved in managing volunteers should listen more carefully and profoundly to what volunteers say. Ask questions and get to know your volunteers as much as you can. Knowing their motivation, personality, and perspective on the volunteering activity, we can make the necessary improvements in creating more pleasant events for all of us but mainly for the volunteers giving them a chance for an unforgettable experience.
Before the event: Research the country you are going to/about, the culture, the history, the habits of the locals, and the customs. Try to understand and get a picture of where you are going; forget everything you know before and all your experiences; be ready for a new challenge; open your mind; prepare yourself mentally and physically because volunteering at a mega sports event is a demanding activity. And enjoyment is equally essential as volunteering; list your favorite places you want to visit in the country and enjoy.
At the event, please get to know your colleagues from around the world and spend quality time with them; find common ground and share your story; no expectations; accept the differences; be aware of the chance you have; be flexible, patient, open-minded; ask questions; be sensitive to the new culture; be respectful, and enjoy!