No organization understands the value and vitality that enthusiastic volunteers bring to the operations of an event like the management of Rodeo Houston. CFO Jennifer Hazelton is keenly aware how volunteer manhours affect the bottom line. Her job, which includes overseeing education and membership departments — and other full-time Rodeo Houston staff members — is a year-round endeavor, which culminates in a colossal entertainment event that is seamless to the public eye when it materializes for 21 straight days in March.
HOUSTON WOMAN: What is the key role that volunteer forces play in the operation of Rodeo Houston?
JENNIFER HAZELTON: There isn’t a key role; the volunteers are the key. We would not be able to do what we do without them. Our revenue would be much lower, and expenses would be much higher. I’m not sure we would exist in any similar form today if it were not for them.
HW: How many volunteers are enlisted every year, and how have those numbers grown throughout the history of this celebrated annual event?
HAZELTON: During the 1950s, the show had approximately 500 volunteers. During the 1980s, around 5,000 volunteers supported the show. And when I first started at the show in 2004, we had approximately 16,000 volunteers. For the 2010 show, more than 24,000 volunteers donated their time and talents with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. We’ve added several new committees that take over new areas, and I think that accounts for a lot of the growth. We have to credit talented volunteers who are our “boots on the ground.” They made observations and created solutions to improve our operations the first few years after we settled into the new Reliant Park layout. For example, last year our volunteers took over the sales of daily grounds passes at our gates. In prior years, a staffing agency handled the sales. It saved us a lot of money, and along the way, we have improved our customer service.
HW: How are the volunteer forces at Rodeo Houston structured? Is there a complex management system? Is it run by staff or other volunteers?
HAZELTON: As you can imagine, it would be very tough to manage a force of 24,000 volunteers without good management. One of the reasons we are so successful is the clear structure we have in our volunteer management. We have 18 volunteer vice presidents, and each manages several of the more than 100 different committees. Each committee has a chairman who is ultimately responsible for the day-to-day operations of his or her committee. The committees then have a management hierarchy consisting of vice chairmen, captains and assistant captains. The numbers of these vary, depending on the size and function of the committees. Most of the committees have subcommittees managed by the vice chairman who manages certain aspects of the committee’s responsibility. The volunteer management roles are one-year appointments, which ensures that there are opportunities for everyone, helping to keep our volunteers motivated.
HW: Would you describe the diverse functions and opportunities available to those who would like to be a volunteer for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo?
HAZELTON: If you name it, we probably have a committee that does it. We have sales committees that sell memberships, rodeo tickets, carnival tickets and solicit corporate donations for scholarships. We have several committees that get donors to pre- commit to buying at our junior auctions. Probably the only thing we don’t pre-sell is the fried food. But, give us a few years, and we probably will.Our working committees are our secret weapon. When I talk to financial people at other fairs and events they are blown away by the amount of work we get done by volunteers. We have committees that make sure the grounds are clean, get equipment donations and then manage that equipment during the show, assist our commercial exhibitors and give tours to schoolchildren. Volunteers are here to greet and help the kids with their livestock when they are moving their animals in (when most of Houston is asleep). During the show, I’m often here early to prepare information for our daily operations meeting, thinking how tired I am as I’m driving there. Then I pull on the grounds and realize there are several hundred volunteers who have beat me here. Sometimes they are standing in the rain, smiling and waving at me as I drive in. They are all so excited to be here and you can see it on their faces. It is amazing how much value a smile has when it comes to customer service.
HW: Can you estimate how many total volunteer hours are spent on these activities or estimate the dollar value of their actions?
HAZELTON: Each year, volunteers at Rodeo Houston collectively work more than 1.62 million hours, based on an average of 67.8 hours per volunteer. If we paid our volunteers $20.85 per hour, the estimated value of the volunteer hour (per independentsector.org), that would represent nearly $34 million worth of donated hours each year!
HW: In your opinion, what motivates people to take time away from their careers and busy daily lives to volunteer?
HAZELTON: If you ask the volunteers why they do it, most likely the first thing out of their mouths will be, “it’s for the kids.” I think everyone today understands the importance and value of education, in general, but also the value of getting a college degree. Our initial mission in 1932 was to promote livestock and agriculture in a public fair environment. We added the education and scholarship aspect in the late 1950s. I think the education component helps us reach more of the “city folk” volunteers who may not know much about agriculture or livestock.The second biggest reason for volunteering is probably the social aspect. Serving on one of the committees is a great way to meet and get to know people. A lot of our older volunteers will tell you their closest friends and/or their spouses were on committees with them 30 years ago. Not only do you make friends, but networking is also a great way to network professionally. I have some friends who have gotten new jobs and even changed careers because of contacts they have made at the show. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is probably Houston’s largest unofficial networking service.