A programming staff of five people at the Make-A-Wish Greater Bay Area grant 350 wishes a year for children with life-threatening medical conditions. The children are interviewed about what they wish to do or be or whom they wish to meet, then planning and scheduling begin to grant their wishes. Sometimes a great story is featured on SportsCenter when an athlete spends an afternoon shooting hoops with a child, and one time, a child’s recording dreams came true when 300 volunteers attended her CD release party.
But in November, 5-year-old Miles Scott’s wish to be Batman captured the hearts of a city—and all of social media. Scott, aka Batkid, saved San Francisco, and the story exploded across the Internet. (See details of Scott’s heroic day here.) “It was bigger than anything we possibly could have dreamed,” says Daniel Marlay, volunteer manager for the chapter. We talked to Marlay about how that event—the feel-good news story of the year—and other Make-A-Wish events come together, and we found out what happens when you’re planning for 200 volunteers and 20,000 show up.
Q: How do you recruit volunteers?
Typically for events and especially if its an annual event, then you want to start with people who volunteer every year. Also, volunteermatch.org is one of the best sources for volunteers. Most people looking for volunteer opportunities are looking online. And if we need 100 to 150 people, we tell them to bring friends they know are reliable and good fits for us.
Q: How do you educate your volunteers?
We post job duties on the websites so they can read through descriptions and pick best fits for them. For opportunities that require longer commitments, we do a background check, approval process [and training]. We explain a few times what the expectations are so there are no surprises. In the case of Make-A-Wish, you’re working with kids with pretty serious medical conditions. It’s tough to see kids who are going through that and not everyone can handle it. It’s important for us to make sure volunteers know what they’re getting into. For Batkid, we needed people to show up and clap—no qualifications, no training or sign-in sheets.
Q: How did you prepare for Miles Scott’s Batkid wish?
What we had in mind was to set up an opportunity to let him be the hero, defeat the villain, rescue the damsel in distress and celebrate at city hall with about 200 to 300 people there. We did not anticipate it was going to be upwards of 20,000. We put the schedule on the website and it was going to be my job to try to find the people to come out and cheer for him.
Q: When did you know it was going to be bigger than expected?
Maybe about a month or so before the wish happened, somebody posted it on a blog, it was picked up by a local blog, and then it was picked up by the San Francisco Gate. Batman is a very popular character, as you see through the movies, TV show, comic books, so people saw it and it seemed like a really cool thing or thought, “That sounds awesome; I want to go watch.” When we started seeing all of that and getting bombarded with media requests from everywhere, we knew this was going to be huge.
Q: How did you adapt to the overwhelming response?
As it picked up steam, we realized we’re going to have way too many people. Police had to close down streets where this was going to happen, which they don’t normally do. We wanted to really put the focus on people coming to city hall and not the stops along way, so we had to take [the schedule] off the website. A local website that posts fun stuff to do for free had it, so we had to contact them and have them tell people that XYZ opportunities are full but we want to emphasize people going to city hall for the celebration with the mayor.
Q: What kind of problems did all those people create?
Once the word was out, the word was out. We weren’t really encouraging people to go to the cable car scene, but there was still a mob there. When it comes to volunteer management, which I’ve done for 10 years, this is the easiest I’ve had to do because the Internet did it for me. We had the whole staff out coordinating things at various spots. At the bank vault scene, they had to keep the public out of the store.
Q: What advice do you have for other organizations who work mostly on a volunteer basis like Make-A-Wish?
Its most important to let people know where to go and what to do, and in the case of Batkid, a lot of people wanted to be involved in everything, and we had to explain why. This isn’t a movie star; this is a shy 5-year-old. Remind people of the purpose of the day and ask people to be realistic about what is and isn’t possible.