At Park Leaders we examine issues relevant for park leaders. We have heard from more than one guest on the Park Leaders Show about how important volunteers are to the vitality of parks. There are steps you can take to ensure you get the most out of working with volunteers and they get value from working with you too.
I recently read a quote that stood out;
“As a Leader, one must sometimes take actions that are unpopular, or whose results will not be known for years to come. They are victories whose glory lies only in the fact they are known only to those who win them.”
This struck me so much I wrote it down so I could reflect on it. I realized it applied to the work we are doing in parks. The results of our work may not be known for years to come, or perhaps never be known at all.
It is easy to think of someone like Jose Gonzalez and the work he is doing with Latino Outdoors. He is in the big arena, fighting to make a difference for relationship between Latinos and Parks. But all victories do not have to be big to be glorious.
No matter your role in parks, you are experiencing little victories that advance our mission. Whether you are a park manager balancing a tight budget and a thin staff, a park ranger still learning the ropes, a corps member building a trail, or a volunteer doing work the public may never see, you know the glory of your victories. They may only be small victories right now, but it is the start of something bigger.
Working with volunteers was one of the true delights of the last two years of my ranger career. I worked with a wide variety of people from all over the country, each with the own unique story. The park I worked at consistently registered more than 20,000 volunteer hours each year. The park manager was known as “The King of Volunteers”. I learned so much from the volunteers I worked with. There are steps you can take to get the most out of working with volunteers and ensure they get the most out of working with you.
I developed this list with camphosts in mind because they are with the staff for an extended period of time. They live with you, work with you, and can make your life so much better. Some of these tips may apply to other volunteers as well.
Here are 10 tips for getting the most out of working with volunteers;
10. Take the time to interview them before you put them on the schedule. In the initial talk you will find out there experience and what they hope to get out of the experience. You are also likely to find something that lets you know they would or would not be a good fit.
9. Before you put them to work, schedule an hour or more to sit with them. Use this time to explain your agency, talk about the park and staff, and clearly discuss your expectations.
8. Find out what they actually want to do. If you are scheduling volunteers to be camphosts, do they only want to clean firepits, or do they want to be involved in more. I have had volunteers who wanted to clean firepits and greet campers and nothing more. I have also had volunteers who wanted to be busy 8 hours per day and create something they could be proud of. I worked with one volunteer to create recycling bins that saved hundreds of dollars each year for the park.
I also had a camphost who owned a painting company. My natural assumption was I could use him for the backlog of painting projects at the park. After talking with him, he did not want to do any painting. He had painted his whole career and did not want to spend his retirement years painting too. It is important to flush that information out early.
7. Take time to hear their story. I know I am asking you to take a lot time out of your busy schedule to slow down long enough to talk extensively with your volunteers, but you need to hear their story. It is important you have an informal, not official feeling talk with them. Find out their story. This will make them feel welcome and show that you are interested in them, not just the work they will do. Hearing their story will bring out any special skills they have that may help you and the park. Often, there is something more they can do that you haven’t discovered yet.
6. Spend more time with them. After the initial investment in time, you cannot turn them loose and expect to only hear from them when something is wrong and then say goodbye when they leave. You need to spend time with them. Stop by to say hello. Ask them what they are seeing. Find out if they need anything to be able to perform their job. The less time you spend with them, the less likely they are to tell you what is really going on around you.
5. Include them in the Parks story. When volunteers know the history, challenges, goals, and vision of the park they can write themselves into the story. When they write themselves into the story, they will take ownership into their area of responsibility and pride in all areas of the park.
Volunteers are the face of the park to many park visitors. Consider how many people will visit your park and never see a Park Ranger. You want volunteers to feel they are part of the overall story of the park.
4. Create an atmosphere where volunteers can get to know each other. At Fort Flagler State Park volunteers had their own break room, laundry facilities, library and more. Volunteers where included in staff meetings, which also helped tie them into the park’s story. This usually worked out so well volunteers would plan their own events and many created friendships they took outside of the park.
3. Create a sense of security. It is important for volunteers to feel they are safe while doing their job. Whatever you need to do to make a volunteer feel safe, do it. Provide cell phone or radio if possible. As best you can, let them know who is working on what days and who is on call when no one is working. Let them know how to get a hold of you when there is an emergency or uncomfortable situation.
2. Motivate, inspire, and include them just as you would with paid staff. You would not expect your paid staff to work unmotivated, uninspired, or feeling like an outsider. I know some park managers do, but not anyone who is ambitious enough to listen to the Park Leaders Show. Volunteers should be treated with the same respect you give to other staff.
1. Recognize them for good work. I don’t believe you should take any staff for granted. No one is ever “just doing their job”, even if they are doing what they are paid to do. Appreciate people. Recognize people. Even if they are doing the exact job outlined in their job description, it goes a long way when you let them know you notice when they do a good job. If that is true for paid staff, imagine how important it is for staff you do not pay.
Bonus Tip – Interview them when they leave. Interviewing volunteers when they leave will accomplish two things. First, you will find out how they felt about their time with you. You can discuss how you feel they did and they can do likewise. Second, it gets it on your calendar to spend time with them before they leave. Saying goodbye is as important as saying hello.
There you have it friends, ten ways you can get the most out of working with volunteers and ensure they get value out of working for you.
A strong connection to volunteers gives your park a citizen voice. And when times get tough, a citizen voice is important.
Many of those tips I learned from working with Mike Zimmerman, the King of Volunteers, at Fort Flagler State Park. That is what we do at Park Leaders, take the wisdom of the people who have done it, and pass it on to the next generation of leaders, the ones with all of the passion to have an impact.