Thursday, July 3, 2014

Volunteers ≠ Traffic Pylons

I believe I am done.  Volunteering for small film festivals, that is.

Last year I volunteered at one that told everyone to come two hours earlier than necessary.  When someone from the festival finally showed (two hours later), his only comment was "Yeah, we originally needed everyone at five, but then we figured out that would be too early."  I see.  But you didn't figure out you should tell any of your volunteers this.  Later, after I had been told not to let anyone else in because we were at capacity, I apologized and turned away the next person who showed up.  He turned to one of the festival organizers - the one who had told me to turn away people - to complain.  The organizer said "Oh, she's just a volunteer.  I'm telling you you can go in." 

Alrighty.  So when that festival mass emailed all previous volunteers to ask if we're coming back, I promptly allowed it to go right in my recycle bin.

Last week I volunteered five days for a different festival, one that focusses solely on the work of female directors.  In retrospect, there were a number of red flags I ignored, not the least of which was that I had sent in my volunteer application two months ago and never heard a peep that I was accepted as a volunteer until two weeks before the event asking me for my availability.  Three days before the festival was to start, I still hadn't heard when I had been actually scheduled.  I should have known then that while this association believed they need volunteers, they didn't believe volunteers were of any priority.

Three of my shifts were meant to be supporting their workshops.  I thought that would mean setting things up, assisting at registration and striking the room.  Nope.  It was sit on a folding chair in a hallway outside the seminars "in case anyone comes by looking for the workshop, you can point them to the right door."  How do I know this?  Not because anyone from the festival met me at the start of my shift and explained my role.  (I had even texted the volunteer coordinator when I showed up and wasn't sure what to do... to this day, she never responded.)  No, I knew this because my volunteer partner who showed up later explained that that's what she did the day before.  When someone from the festival did show up an hour later, I was expecting to get more direction.  Nope.  Over the course of the next four and a half hours, my fellow volunteer and I took turns excusing ourselves from each other to stroll around the building, check out the cafĂ©, or just be anywhere but in a folding chair staring at one another in an empty hallway.

On my second day at the workshops, we did get a table of brochures in the hallway to try to foist on passersby so we could at least look like we were there for a reason.  The founder of the festival did stop by, and told us vast amounts of information about what needed to be done first thing the next day.  When we explained we weren't scheduled for first thing the next day, she asked who was?  I suggested she call the volunteer coordinator and ask her that.  The founder just walked away.

I was called into action once this day.  When the facilitator came out in the hallway with a bunch of dirty dishes, she called out into the void (even though we were sitting just two feet to her right) "Could I get a volunteer to grab these from me?!"  I jumped up and took the towering stack of dishes.  The facilitator said "I don't know where they go." and disappeared back into the room, closing the door on me.

The third workshop day, the door to the workshop room was actually open.  I went in, went up to the facilitator, and introduced myself as a volunteer.  "If you need anything, I'm your gal."  He said "Nope."  Oh. Kay.  The seminar started, I sat down in a chair at the back of the room - and he pointed to the hallway.  Sadly, I wasn't bright enough to bring my chair with me out the room I had just been excused from, as once I closed the door behind me, I saw there were no chairs.  Apparently, for this five hour shift, I was to stand in the hallway.  I thought alone, until another volunteer came up and greeted me.  Turns out, she had been standing in the hallway all morning with no direction or task.  I shared with her my own experience over the past few days with this festival.  We both looked at each other, not saying what either of us were thinking.  I'm not proud of what happened next:

"So," she finally broke the silence, "what are you saying you're going to do?"

"Um," I replied, "I think I'm going to do what I think you're going to do."  Silence  "I think I'm going to leave."

Beat.  "I think I am too."

We looked at each other for another moment.   Then she put out her hand "Well, it was nice to meet you.  Have a good day."

We shook hands and parted ways.

For the rest of the day, I was expecting a call, or an email, or a text asking where the heck was I.  Nope. 

Not even the next day, my last shift for the festival, where I saw both the volunteer coordinator and the festival founder.  I think neither had any clue the volunteers had walked out the day before.  Or didn't care enough about that fact to call out one of those volunteers even when she was standing right in front of them.  I did some actual volunteer work for about half an hour, then was told there's nothing else to do so I could go in and watch the movie if I wanted.  (Why the hell didn't I volunteer all five days at this location?! )  So, for the next three hours, I just sat in the theatre and watched the movies.  Came out a couple of times to ask if they needed anyone or anything.  Nope.  So back in I went.

Moral of the story?  You can't swing a dead cat without hitting an organization that wants a volunteer.  Some want to give people some experience in exchange for their efforts because there's not enough money to pay for the help.  Others just want traffic pylons they don't have to pick up from the department of transportation.  I need to do a better job ferreting out which is which, and apparently small film festival is a good place to draw the line.