The number of volunteers working at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has more than doubled since 2005, to 34,000. (Courtesy Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo)

One of the most impressive numbers the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo offers has nothing to do with concert attendance or total heads through the gate. It’s the eye-popping figure for volunteers, a small army of locals that makes sure every aspect of the event goes off without a hitch.

The first official volunteer committee was formed in 1938 to sell tickets and exhibits, but the majority these days toil on a variety of working committees that play host to livestock, horse show and commercial exhibitors and the general public, said Joel Cowley, the event’s president and CEO.

“It obviously offsets paid labor costs and saves the show a tremendous amount on labor that can be driven back into scholarships and educational giving,” he said of the 34,000 volunteers who offer their time and labor every year. When he arrived in 2005 there were 16,000 annual volunteers, a number that has more than doubled since then because volunteers were added to do the jobs paid contractors previously did.

The largest current committee, ticket services, has 2,100 volunteers who sell tickets throughout the grounds. “Every time we’ve replaced paid labor with volunteers, not only is it a tremendous savings, but they do it better,” Cowley said. “Any employer knows you can pay somebody to do a job, but they have to care and that’s inherent in our volunteers. You can’t pay them enough to care.” They provide a huge boost to the more than 2.5 million annual attendees to the show, with some selling discounted carnival packs that bring in $8 million before the doors open. 

There is also an auction committee that presells the animals in the show, as well as the year-round outreach committee, which sends speakers to civic events to talk up the show’s heritage and agriculture, as well as the Go Tejano and Black Heritage committees, which do public outreach to teach young people about the available scholarships.

“It really is a phenomenon to have 34,000 people in a fairly small geographical area supporting a cause out of the goodness of their heart,” he said. 

Another point of pride is how many other livestock show teams attend the Houston Livestock Show to learn about their best practices for boosting volunteerism, information Cowley is proud to share. “We’re not direct competitors for the same consumer … but from a consumer standpoint, San Antonio is three hours from here, Dallas is more than that, so we’re happy to share amongst these fairs and festivals. We’ll go to their events and borrow ideas. They’ll come to ours and borrow our ideas,” he said.

Cowley said the first question he often got was, “Will you show us everything? Because we want to do what you’re doing.” And he’s happy to do so, with the caveat that he’s not sure it’s even possible to copy their volunteer effort anywhere outside of Houston. “There’s something about this city, that people take such pride in the community and they care so much about their fellow citizen that I’m not sure you can replicate it,” he said. “Those who can’t give money give time, and that’s directly reflected by our volunteer program.” 

Two years ago, a delegation of half a dozen staffers from the State Fair of Texas visited to find out more about the rodeo’s volunteer program. They were specifically interested in finding out how Houston is able to tap into volunteers to help another crucial aspect of both events: fundraising for educational scholarship programs and efforts to promote agriculture.

“Fundraising is a key growth priority for us, and the two of them go hand-in-hand,” said State Fair President Mitchell Glieber. 

“Any organization would envy to have that kind of loyalty from folks in their city to get behind an event like this, which has such great benefits to so many kids in the field of education.”

The demographics of the volunteers at the Houston Rodeo varies widely based on figures provided by an Accenture survey three years ago, which found that the oldest group of volunteers (55+) was 75 percent male and the youngest group (21-30) was 75 percent female. The youngest group was also far more ethnically diverse than the oldest one, with the span of volunteers going from the very youngest junior members (17) to the most seasoned (80), contributing a total of more than 2.1 million volunteer hours to the event.