Organizing a Successful Volunteer Event

"I'd get a lot of work done if it wasn't for all these volunteers!" --anonymous DCR Land Manager
 
Imagine, if you will, a worst case scenario.  Your group has organized a volunteer day and advertised in the local paper.  Thirty people show up from all walks of life.  Some seem well prepared, but many have come in shorts and sandals.  Some have brought their kids.  Two have dogs (only one on leash). … and one gungho volunteer is eager to show off his new chainsaw. None have ever helped out before but think it would be a nice way to spend a couple of hours.
 
The project is to rehabilitate a badly eroded section of trail, and you’ve asked people to bring their yard tools.  A couple of people have brought leaf rakes, one person has a shovel, and another has some hand clippers.  You’ve asked the person with the chainsaw to kindly leave it in his truck. Begrudgingly, he agrees.
 
You pass out the tools that you have, explaining that people will have to work is shifts and share the tools we have.  The folks with the leaf rakes are asked to leave them behind as well since they won’t really work for moving soil.  You wait for the second person from your group who is supposed to help you with the project, but after 20 minutes you decide you better proceed on your own.  Hopefully, he’ll show up later.
 
PLANNING AND OUTREATCH
 
Planning
  • Work with Land Manager to develop projects that meet DCR goals
  • If possible, try to develop a regular schedule, maybe first Sunday of every month
  • Make sure you have the right materials
  • Estimate how much time project will take and how many volunteers you’ll need. Be realistic.
  • Have a back up project that can take place concurrently if too many volunteers attend or a project that only a handful of people can accomplish if too few show up
  • Is the project “family-friendly”, “dog-friendly”?  What type of volunteers do you need?
  • Line up experienced volunteers or crew leaders who can manage and help execute the project
  • Sponsorship or grant opportunities.  Developing public/private partnerships (say, with EMS, REI or other local business) is a good way to get more visibility and more volunteers.
  • Get commitments from experience crew leaders to attend.  Having 30 newbies show up and one leader is a recipe for disaster.
 
Communications and Outreach
  • Create email list for volunteer opportunities
  • Outreach to other user groups to invite them to attend.
  • Kiosk posters, newspaper announcements
  • Invite VIP guests?  Local politician, agency honch
  • RSVPs? 
  • Brief your crew leaders beforehand so they know what they’ll need to do
  • Be clear in your event announcements about what to wear and what to bring
 
ORIENTATION AND EXECUTION
 
Good things to have on hand on the day of the event
  • Coffee and snacks
  • Water and energy bars
  • Sign in and liability waiver forms
  • Park maps
  • Extra pairs of work gloves and eye projection
  • Oh.. and everything you need for your project: materials and tools!
 
Orientation
  • Be social as people arrive. Introduce yourself and introduce volunteers to each other.  Create a friendly and comfortable atmosphere.
  • Waiver / Sign In
  • Gather everyone around and make formal introductions, perhaps a quick round robin of name, hometown, and why they love the park.        
  • Explain the project, why it’s important and what people will be doing.
  • If the land manager is present, have him or her express a few words of greeting and introduction to the park
 
Safety Talk – Critical step for Risk Management and a safe event
  • Explain the uses and dangers of each of the tools that will be used
  • “Circle of Death.” This distance should be maintained at the worksite at all times.
  • Carry the tool with the “business end” pointed down.  One tool, one person
  • Ask if anyone has any medical conditions / allergies
  • Have first aid kit, cell phone and emergency contact numbers
  • Download a PDF of NEMBA's Safety Talk
 
Crew Leaders
  • Work in small groups, each with a leader
  • Teach new skills – educate
  • Motivate and manage – Praise, Appreciation and Respect
  • CLs should make sure the work flows smoothly, people have what they need and are enjoying themselves.  They should manage more than just work.
 
Photograph your work
            Take before and after shots
            Take some “action” shots
            Create project web pages to inspire others to volunteer
            Use in press releases
 
Feed Volunteers and Offer post-event event
 
 
POST-EVENT FOLLOW-UP
 
Database volunteer contact and email info.  Note any important skill/interest a particular volunteer has
 
Follow up with an email “Thank You” to each volunteer
  • Send this blind copy or to your email list – protect individuals private contact information
 
Keep track of your volunteer hours.
  • Important for future PR and creating a track record for future grants or grant reimbursement
 
Write up a description of the event and what was accomplished
  • Report back to land manager
  • Use info for press releases
  • Create a web page about project (w/ photos)
 
 
TRAIL CREW LEADERS
 
What makes NEMBA TM program work so well are our trail crew leaders  It is the trail crew which holds our volunteer crews together and makes them into a professional, efficient trail maintenance machine. 
 
What is a Trail Crew Leader?
Organizer          --works with NEMBA park coordinator
Leader              --is the "foreman" of our maintenance events
Delegator          --is the gentle arm twister to make sure all the jobs get done
Teacher             --shows new techniques/skills to the volunteers
Motivator          --keeps it fun, keeps people psyched to be there
Psychologist     --defuse personality convicts
Supervisor        --assures both safety and quality
Public Relations person --gets the word out
AND Trail Maintenance Expert --know what to do
 
Working with Volunteers
 
The best thing about being a trail crew leader is that you don’t do any of the real work!
 
One volunteer, one tool, one task – make sure everyone is equipped and busy
 
1). Trail Crew Code of Ethics:  Do a good job, be safe, and HAVE FUN.
 
2) About Volunteers
           Volunteers come for a variety of reasons: to give back, to meet other people, to relieve guilt, to feel good about themselves, to make the park a better place
           Volunteers like to feel special and that they're having a positive effect.
           Don't waste a volunteer’s time --ever!
 
3) Trail Crew Leaders are, in part, trail "hosts"
           If a volunteer is standing around or appears confused, the TB should set in and guide.
           If a volunteer has a particular goal or expertise, the TB should try to satisfy
           If a volunteer is a problem, the TB must step in
 
4) TBs should delegate, and not do all the work.  Example of Bad TB: Everyone standing around watching the TB build something.  Sometimes the most productive thing a TB can do is to float between different projects and make sure that everyone is productive, doing a good job and having fun.
 
5) Find the right volunteer for the task. Evaluate your volunteer pool.
Does a volunteer have a particular expertise? A carpenter, mason?  Make them shovel!
            If a volunteer is frail: make them carry big stones!
            Encourage people to rotate and try different tasks: they'll be more satisfied
 
6) Teaching volunteers:
           Don't talk down to volunteers.  Explain both the "how" and the "why"  Volunteers love to learn new skills, so try to make the event an educational experience that helps enrich volunteers’ experience and knowledge.
 
7) Motivation: Talk about access issues.  Get people psyched by your one enthusiasm.
           Make them realize that there making a real difference.
           Try to make them feel mentally and physically fulfilled and satisfied
           Show appreciation
           Try to feed your volunteers
           Go for a post-work day ride/hike
           When all else fails: Swag is always good.
 
Sidebar: Encounters with other Trail Users
 
1) Let anyone who passes by know who we are and what we do.
2) Have some applications on hand.
3) Don't guilt trip them, but let them know when the next event is.
 
Go for a ride through the project site
 
Following the Event
Does a bridge that’s build in the forest exist if no one knows about it?
 
1) Have someone write up a piece for your newsletter
2) Copy Sign In sheets and keep them to document
3) Database everyone's email address and send a thank you, inviting them to the next event.
 
Threee goals
Have a great event
Do some great work
Develop great volunteers who keep coming back for more!