In a few weeks, for the third year in a row, I will take up my duties as a member of one of the most extraordinary volunteer organizations that I’ve ever had the pleasure to work for; the Stratford Shakespeare Festival Friends of the Festival (FoF).
Founded in 1985, the Festival now boasts over 200 active, associate and honourary members. When I first moved to Stratford, I put myself on the waiting list to be considered as a volunteer and it took three years for me to be called on to join The Friends (and to be referred to as a “biddy” by a local transplant that learned of my new appointment). That’s a three year waiting list to volunteer!
The Friends provide the Festival with support that ends up being valued at literally hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. They provide tours of the gardens, back of the house, and archives, staff the information desks for each and every performance in the two main theatres, shadow The Festival’s administrative team in performing office duties and generally performing volunteering to fulfill any role that is needed.
The FoF and its Executive can teach every business owner, large and small, a great deal about how to serve their customers. Before each patron has even walked in the door, there are dozens of hours of preparation in place; a foundation of education and implicit training for each role to ensure that every member of the FoF is prepared to create an experience at The Festival which is a positive and memorable one. The Executive and the volunteers are extraordinary in their attention to detail and they are thorough in their execution.
It’s true that I’m a number of years younger than most of the members of the Friends, many of whom are retired and support the Festival year round with their hours, and it’s not only the Festival that is the lucky recipient of the volunteers’ knowledge and experience. I’ve rarely been in such amazing company and it’s an honour to be exposed to a certain sensibility that’s almost lost these days in the new paradigm of work. One of the very real reasons that the Festival is such a success year after year is due to the longevity of the volunteers, their commitment to the Festival and equally to the Friends organization; that sensibility is one based on Service and a devout loyalty.
Not only am I surrounded by an obviously devoted crew of people that adore both the Festival and the theatre and relish just being a part of the whole experience, but I find myself in the midst of consummate professionals who consistently exhibit the type of dedication it takes to make an organization run smoothly. They’re also fully adept at adapting to the changing needs of their customers (both the Festival itself and the “bums in the seats”) for each and every season.
Anyone that says that seniors aren’t adopters of technology haven’t met the team that supports The Friends as they are certainly on the cusp of how to best use digital media to support their business and enhance the patron’s experience. They have a website which houses all their current and historical administrative, communications and educational materials. All of the skills management and scheduling is conducted online and the Friends run training and education programs partnering with the Festival that is so thorough and insightful that they would put most corporate organizations to shame. There are also more Friends comfortably sourcing information for the patrons using their smartphones than you’d originally suspect.
I’ve been asked many times why I choose to volunteer at the Festival, considering all of my other commitments, both professionally and personally. Simply put, the City of Stratford is what it is in great part due to the Festival’s existence. The creative culture, the innovative mindset, the cosmopolitan sensibility, the restaurants, the shops; all of these things come together to create a unique and extraordinary place to live and raise my family. The least that I can do is give back 30 hours a year to the organization that fosters this reality as my way to say thank you and be a part of perpetuating that original entrepreneurial vision.
So, I’m happy to be considered a biddy if it means that I get the opportunity to watch and learn from a committed group of people that come together year after year to be a part of an experience that feeds the souls of themselves and all of those that patronize the City of Stratford and The Festival, and perhaps one day I’ll be celebrating with my own 25 year pin of Service, fully owning that biddy title.