The True/False Film Fest’s supporting cast? Hundreds of volunteers

As the True/False Film Fest approaches, Cathy Gunther works to plug volunteers in where they’re needed like pieces in a puzzle.

“It’s like Tetris,” Gunther said Tuesday as she made final preparations for this year’s festival. “But now is the tricky part because we don’t have that many spaces left, and people’s times may not match up with when we want them to work. It’s a little bit of a game.”

Gunther and Heather Gillich are co-coordinators of volunteers for True/False, the annual documentary film festival taking place Thursday through Sunday in Columbia. Gunther started as a volunteer for the festival and has worked as coordinator for three years.

She said the growth of the festival has led to an uptick in demand for helping hands.

“There’s been an increase in volunteers,” Gunther said, “but an increase in need.”

Gunther estimates there were about 40 volunteers working the festival when it started in 2004. There are 800 volunteers signed up for this year’s festival.

Those volunteers are organized into more than 30 teams that handle all things True/False-related. Organizers use email and DoGooder, a volunteer management software that handles volunteers’ applications and information, to make managing the small army of volunteers a bit easier.

“People fill out an application. It all turns into a giant database,” Gunther said. “So it is like one giant machine, where the parts are going at different times.”

Creating a positive experience

What’s the secret to True/False getting such a large number of people to donate their time and talents? Passes to the films and a closing party for volunteers don’t hurt, but people involved with the event say it goes beyond that.

One key Gunther cites is creating a positive work environment and maintaining good relationships with volunteers.

“If we want to maintain this the way it is, we’ve got to keep really good relations with the volunteers and make it worth their while,” she said.

Jenny Herman, a 2016 graduate from the University of Missouri, volunteered for the festival in 2014. One of her fondest memories of working the festival is the friendly atmosphere between the volunteers and coordinators.

“One night after an event ended at Jesse Hall, the shift leader brought everyone who was over 21 beer and we all chilled on the steps of Jesse,” Herman said. “I’ve never really had that experience volunteering before, where the work environment makes everyone so comfortable to just sit around and talk with managers.”

Throughout the festival, volunteers have access to “The Nest,” a lounge space just for them with free food, bathrooms and plenty of furniture so they can rest and refresh.

“(It) gives people a place to come if they just want to chillax ,” Gunther said.

Different strokes for different volunteers

People can chose from a wide selection of volunteer teams, ranging from the box office to merchandise to set-up and break-down to “Q Queens,” who wrangle lines outside theaters.

“It’s really individualistic; that’s the nice thing,” Gunther said. “There are people that like to be in front, and there are people that like to be in the back.”

Herman worked for the “green team,” a group of volunteers focused on promoting recycling and keeping the streets clean to ensure an environment-friendly festival.

“It was kind of fun being in that recycling initiative because it was a side that was really new,” Herman said. “It was fun working with a group of really fun, diverse people who are all trying to be environmentally friendly.”

Scheduling challenges

Festival coordinators also strive to match volunteers with the shift times that work best for them. When the application process begins, volunteers apply for shifts on a first-come, first-served basis.

That flexibility allows even people with busy schedules to sign up. Herman was able to work the festival despite a crowded calendar of classes, organizational commitments and a job.

“My availability was sporadic and limited, but I still wanted to help,” Herman said. “They were able to accommodate my schedule.”

One big challenge in managing hundreds of volunteers is dealing with the repercussions of someone not showing up. Gunther says lack of communication can compound problems caused by no-shows.

“We can’t deal with people who don’t communicate,” she said. “You can sort of make things work anyway, but if you’re expecting 10 (volunteers) and five show up, it’s not fun for anyone.”

To address that issue, the festival has a team of volunteers to fill in when there are no-shows. That team helps with everything, from theater operations to set-up and breakdown.

“It’s a fun team to be on because it’s different all the time,” Gunther said. “You’re always moving around.”

Gunther said True/False has developed a reputation for the contributions of its volunteers, which is a source of pride for her.

“We take our community and turn it into this amazing thing that is world-renowned, and that people constantly comment about — how wonderful it is and how nice everyone is and how Columbia is this little utopia,” she said. “People from outside can see the love.”

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