Seema Sonnad on a Mission to Make it Easier to Volunteer

Seema Sonnad in her element! Photo by Cynthia Gilbert/Gazworks Inc. Seema Sonnad in her element! Photo by Cynthia Gilbert/Gazworks Inc.

It takes a village to keep eventing thriving in the U.S., and there’s no question volunteers are vitally important to the success of the sport. It’s something we say all the time: Without volunteers, this sport couldn’t exist. But are we doing everything we can to recognize, organize and educate volunteers?

It’s a question Seema Sonnad, a USEF ‘r’ Eventing Technical Delegate and super volunteer in Area II, has been asking for a long time. She sat on the USEA Volunteer Recognition and Education Committee for the one year it existed, and she remains determined to make it easier for people to volunteer.

A lot of progress has been made when it comes to mobilizing volunteers, Seema said, like the expansion of Volunteer Coordinators, who work to find and assign volunteers for events. But now it’s time to take the next big step.

“The Volunteer Coordinators appear to lack the tools they need to make it easier on them to do their jobs,” Seema said. “We haven’t done a good job of utilizing technology to help volunteers do their job and understand their job, and there are a number of other things we could be doing as well.”

The "littlest volunteer" at Red Hills. Photo courtesy of Seema Sonnad.

The “littlest volunteer” at Red Hills. Photo courtesy of Seema Sonnad.

So what more could we be doing? Seema kindly shared some of her ideas for how to make it easier for Volunteer Coordinators to do their job and for volunteers to be a part of the sport, with the end goal being to encourage more people to get involved:

How-To Videos for Volunteers

Seema would love to see the USEA host a YouTube channel with videos explaining how to perform the various volunteer jobs every event needs, like scribing, bit checking, fence judging and warm-up stewarding.

“Sometimes people who want to volunteer feel like they don’t know enough to do the job properly,” Seema said. “Having an educational YouTube channel would help potential volunteers feel more comfortable with signing up.”

Volunteer Star System

A star system would award stars to volunteers based on their hours of service, types of jobs they’ve performed in the past and their knowledge of eventing.

“It would not only serve as a way to recognize volunteer accomplishments, but also to help competitors know who can help them at events,” Seema said. “If a volunteer had their stars on a hat or armband, a competitor with a question could look for someone with a multi-star designation to help.”

Volunteer Database

A volunteer database hosted on the USEA website would provide a national database for Volunteer Coordinators to find volunteers and for volunteers to declare their interest in jobs.

“Most Volunteer Coordinators already have their own databases now, so it would be a matter of merging them into a national database that everyone could access,” Seema said.

The database would record volunteer contact information, experience level, events they’ve volunteered at in the past, jobs they’re interested in, how far they’re willing to travel and more.

Volunteer Travel Grants

Seema would love to see small travel grants given to volunteers who have dedicated many hours to the sport, the idea being to help them get to a different event that they might not usually volunteer at due to distance.

It’s a way to both reward volunteers for their service but also help events who need experienced volunteers,” Seema said. It also would help get volunteers into roles that Seema currently sees being filled by more and more professionals, like secretaries, announcers and controllers.

“There’s this idea that it’s hard to get volunteers, so let’s pay for some of these services, and that means less money that can go to the event’s charity of choice or back to the event itself,” Seema said.

Hiring professionals is financially feasible for bigger events, but it might not be an option for smaller events that still need to fill these roles. Travel grants, even just a few hundred dollars, would help get experienced volunteers to events that need help.

Volunteer Resource Page

A volunteer resource page hosted on the USEA website could serve as a home base for all these ideas and more, hosting the national volunteer database, an online volunteer sign up form, the educational YouTube channel, volunteer success stories and a “Volunteer of the Month” spotlight.

Volunteers "pinking out for breast cancer" at Cobblestone. Photo courtesy of Seema Sonnad.

Volunteers “pinking out for breast cancer” at Cobblestone. Photo courtesy of Seema Sonnad.

In Seema’s mind, there’s always more that can be done to recognize and thank our volunteers. We couldn’t agree more, which is why we’re excited to announce that she has committed to sponsoring a $1,000 PRO Above and Beyond Award, which will be awarded annually at the Professional Riders Organization awards ceremony starting at next year’s USEA Convention in Washington, D.C.

“Eventers generally recognize that volunteers are really necessary to the sport and that riders by and large are thankful toward volunteers, but as you look at the awards currently given out, they recognize owners and grooms,” Seema said.

“The groom is instrumental to making sure the horse is ready to compete. The owner is instrumental in making sure the rider has the horse in the first place. And the volunteer is instrumental to being able to put on the event at all. This award will go to the event volunteer or staff member who has gone ‘above and beyond’ to make PRO riders’ event experiences positive ones.”

We’re excited to celebrate the winner of the very first PRO Above and Beyond Award next year, as well as to continue furthering the dialogue on how we can recognize, organize and educate volunteers in this sport.

How do you think the sport should be doing that, EN? What stops you from volunteering? Which of Seema’s ideas do you think would work well if implemented? And what ideas of your own would you put on the table? Let’s talk it out in the comments below.

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