From left, Jeremy Harrington, Brian Hemesath, Geoff Wood and Brad Dwyer(not pictured) are principals in VolunteerLocal LLC. Photos by Duane Tinkey*
From left, Jeremy Harrington, Brian Hemesath and Geoff Wood, Brad Dwyer(not pictured) are principals in VolunteerLocal LLC. Photos by Duane Tinkey*
From left, Jeremy Harrington, Brian Hemesath, Geoff Wood and Brad Dwyer
(not pictured) are principals in VolunteerLocal LLC. Photos by Duane Tinkey*

From left, Jeremy Harrington, Brian Hemesath and Geoff Wood, Brad Dwyer
(not pictured) are principals in VolunteerLocal LLC. Photos by Duane Tinkey*

It all started with a conversation with the late Mo Dana.

Dana, who at the time was executive director of the Des Moines Arts Festival, approached Brian Hemesath one day in 2003 and told him, “I have a problem, and I think you can fix it.” The challenge: develop a better way to manage the 350 volunteers for the annual event.

Hemesath, whose Web development company had designed and maintained the festival’s website for several years, came up with a volunteer management software program. It wasn’t until the Hy-Vee Triathlon began using the software in 2008, though, that he realized the business potential of the program he had been allowing organizations to use for free. In November 2009, he officially launched VolunteerLocal LLC.

“What’s fun about this business is we fix a problem,” Hemesath said of VolunteerLocal, which in the past year and a half has captured a growing circle of clients in the arts, athletics and music events world, among them the 80/35 Music Festival and the AAU Junior Olympics. “It isn’t trying to sell them something they don’t necessarily think they need; this is fixing a problem. Working with groups that need our help is where we’re starting.”

Exposure from the Junior Olympics and Hy-Vee Triathlon has enabled the company to land accounts with athletic events across the country, among them regional events hosted by Colorado-based USA Triathlon. One of its largest clients is the city of Sacramento, Calif., which is hosting the World Masters Athletics Championships this summer. The international event in July will bring in more than 5,000 athletes from throughout the world and require 2,600 volunteers.

Capture the excitement

VolunteerLocal’s ability to engage people when they’re most interested in volunteering is a key strength of the software, said Geoff Wood, a partner in the company.

“Say the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau goes to a tremendous amount of effort to bring some big festival to Des Moines,” he said. “People get excited about it. The way it’s been done in the past, the organization will just collect emails (from potential volunteers). Then a couple of months later they send out an email saying, ‘It’s time to volunteer.’ How many people fall off because of that? Our key has been, when you’re excited about it, that’s when you sign up and claim your spot. You capture people right at that moment when they’re most excited about it, and we see that being a higher return on investing in your event.”

Prospective volunteers reach VolunteerLocal’s online program by clicking a link on the host organization’s website. After filling in their contact information, they are presented with a listing of volunteer positions and time slots from which to choose. The software also enables them to pull up a brief “job description” for any of the positions.

The Des Moines Area Sports Commission, an arm of the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), used VolunteerLocal to recruit and manage volunteers for the AAU Junior Olympic Games when the event was held in Des Moines in 2009.

“We found this in the past to be an excellent service,” said Greg Edwards, the CVB’s president. “We placed over 1,100 volunteers for that massive event. It’s a great system because we can get into it and look at how we’re going to deploy the volunteers, and really manage everything online very easily.”

The first time the Junior Olympics came to Des Moines in 2004, the CVB did all of its own volunteer recruitment for the games and tracked those people on an electronic spreadsheet. “It took manpower and marketing time to manage it,” Edwards said. “(VolunteerLocal) kind of bundles everything into a one-stop shop for volunteers.”

Edwards said the CVB plans to use VolunteerLocal when the AAU Junior Olympic Games return to Des Moines in 2014, as well as for other major events, among them the NCAA Women’s Regional Basketball Tournament in 2012 and the NCAA Wrestling Championships in 2013.

Communities of volunteers

Hemesath said VolunteerLocal has promoted its service to the International Festival and Events Association, an industry association based in Boise, Idaho.

“The cities are absolutely taking an interest in this,” he said, “because at a city or convention and visitors bureau level, there is usually not a volunteer coordinator position; it falls on the marketing director. So this is a natural fit for them to be able to use our tool.”

Integrating social media tools into the program, one of the company’s goals this year, is also a natural fit. “We have some tools we’ll launch this year to promote volunteer opportunities,” Hemesath said, for instance, one to enable volunteers to check in at events. “There are a couple of reasons we’ve identified why people volunteer, and one of those is to network and to get to know people.”

VolunteerLocal’s monthly fees begin at $50 for basic events such as community fund-raisers, and rise to $350 for major events such as the Hy-Vee Triathlon. Organizations pay only while they’re actually using the software, which adds to its affordability, Wood said.

Assisting organizations in building “communities of volunteers” is a distinctive feature of VolunteerLocal that no other volunteer management system offers, Hemesath said.

“When you volunteer for one of our events, at the very bottom of the form there’s a big yellow box saying, ‘join the VolunteerLocal community,’ which gives us permission to reach out to them in the future.”

Approximately 30 percent of volunteers check that box, he said. “So we’ve got this other part of our business that can actually reach out to these people to promote events and push volunteering further.”