Volunteering for the 3rd HSR Global Symposium: Lessons from Cape Town 2014



Conference participants from across the world praised the volunteer programme of the 3rd Global Symposium on Health Systems Research in Cape Town for the hospitality and service it provided. This was possible because of the tireless work of a dedicated, well-trained and well-organised team of local organisers and volunteers. As the co-ordinators of this volunteer programme, we seek in this blog to share our experiences with the organisers of similar conferences.

A volunteer programme must attract the right calibre of people; people with good communication skills, the ability to work under stressful conditions, and who are multi-lingual where possible. We worked hard for months to assemble a team of 65 volunteers, which represented the diversity of the African continent, but also included members from China, South Korea, the UK and US. We circulated a call for participation among our public health and HPSR networks, which was followed by a rigorous selection and recruitment process. Initially we planned on about 20 volunteers, but as the conference preparations progressed, the list of volunteer tasks grew and so did the number of volunteers.

The volunteers were mostly MPH and PhD students, but also included researchers, post-doctoral fellows, lecturers, professors, policy-makers and health practitioners. Their major incentive was the opportunity to participate free-of-charge in conference sessions when they were off-duty and to meet renowned academics and practitioners from around the world. They also received a certificate for their volunteer service.

The programme required significant advance preparation. Volunteers underwent a series of orientation and training sessions to enable them to fulfil their responsibilities, which were outlined by the various sub-committees of the local organising team responsible for different aspects of the conference. They also needed to be given the tools necessary for the job such as uniforms, conference bags, programmes, water bottles - and sometimes providing transport.


Download the full list of responsibilities and tasks

A critical part of managing the volunteer programme was the coordination of volunteer activities to simultaneously benefit the volunteers, conference organisers and conference participants. Our strategies included:

  • Having a shift system where volunteers worked morning and afternoon shifts on alternate days, allowing them to undertake their duties and participate in the conference; and
  • Rotating volunteers between activities, for instance moving between the market place, poster area, evaluation roles, managing venues, ushering and registration. This enabled volunteers to gain different experiences and to engage with a wide spectrum of participants.

As much as excellent planning was essential, so was having flexibility to cope with things changing all the time: volunteers dropping out at the last minute, becoming sick, not showing up and arriving late, as well as the unexpected needs of conference organisers and participants.

We managed the expected and the unexpected through various processes and strategies:

  • We started the day very early in the morning by attending a debriefing with the rest of the local organising team. Here, we got information to pass on to the volunteers and also reported questions from the volunteers, including conference participants’ questions that were difficult to answer.
  • We then prepared or collected all the necessary materials for the day, including visiting presenters’ badges, the names of speakers etc.
  • Volunteers arrived at the volunteers’ desk 30 minutes before their sessions began for a routine briefing to confirm their assignments for the day and be informed on critical issues. This gave us enough time to know who was not available and enabled us to trace the person or find a replacement. In emergencies such as volunteers getting sick, experiencing the death of a loved one, or unexpectedly withdrawing, we were able to manage because we recruited slightly more volunteers than required. We also found it useful to have a list of floating /reserve volunteers for each session.
  • We also used a WhatsApp group to facilitate communication between the co-ordinators and volunteers.

Overall, volunteers found the experience very useful, despite some complaints about the hectic programme and missing out on some interesting conference sessions. Volunteers developed networks amongst themselves and with the local organising team and some participants. The most exciting part was meeting their ‘heroes’ and matching well-known names with faces. Volunteers also said they learnt a lot from the posters, presentations, evaluations, and market place. Free participation in the conference was a big bonus for those who otherwise could not afford to participate.

As co-ordinators, the programme exceeded our expectations and we recommend such volunteer programmes for future conferences.

 gina martina  uta 
 Gina Teddy  Martina Lembani  Uta Lehmann

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