This post is written by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows. As part of his Fellowship, Evan is trying to help us build and improve upon our volunteer program. Please consider taking his short survey if you live in Nebraska or would be interested in coming from further away to volunteer with us (we can often provide housing for someone who wants to volunteer for weeks or months at at a time).
Ever wonder, “What’s something I could do in five minutes that would really help Nebraska’s prairies?” Wonder no longer. As part of my Hubbard Fellowship I’m trying to identify ways that the Nebraska Chapter of The Nature Conservancy can improve its volunteer opportunities. To do so, I’ve created a 10-question survey. DON’T CLOSE THIS WINDOW!
I know, I know, surveys are annoying, but this isn’t for some online store you bought soap from once. This one could really help our prairies and even you. How? It would help us better manage our prairies. The sad fact is, our land needs more stewardship than our staff could ever hope to accomplish alone. There will always be more invasive plants than we can control, more trees than we can cut, more flowers than we can collect seed from…
BUT, this means that there are tons of opportunities for people like YOU to get involved. Volunteers can play a vital role in helping us restore and manage healthy, diverse prairies, but only if we employ them well. We’d like to hear how you think we can do that. If you have ever volunteered for the Nebraska Chapter of The Nature Conservancy or even just live in Nebraska, please take this 10-question survey. This survey is completely voluntary and anonymous, so don’t hold back. By answering these ten questions you can help us conduct research to more effectively employ and satisfy our volunteers, and that would mean healthier, happier prairies.
To get started, click here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/GHSV6R2
If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!
If you want people to be interested in land management then you have to get them doing it near or at home.
I have collected a small amount of seed from railroad prairies and grew them to plants in my garden. I now collect this seed and give it to local restorations. I think local volunteers should be offered seed to grow in their home gardens because it is more efficient to collect seed from your yard than drive to a site every time the seed of another species is ripe. Native gardening is a great way to get people involved in land management.
Although events are great for socialization and learning, I think the best restoration work is often done by dedicated individuals who live near a site and work on their own as time permits. I am finding that I am able to get a lot of work done on woody species control on winter evenings when most people are holed up inside watching television. I just wear a head lamp so I can see. I find working during the evening to be more enjoyable than working during the day because I don’t have to worry about getting sun burned.
I already filled out you survey but I had a few additional ideas occur to me.
I think having school groups come out to do some easy projects is a good way to plant a seed. Then offer related projects for the whole family after getting the kids out there, kind of completing the circle so to speak.
Another idea is too have some long term citizen science projects started such as plant phenology.
Asking volunteers to assist grad students in their research is a good way to engage naturalists in the scientific world. I have truly enjoyed doing this kind of work myself and would jump at the chance to do it again.
Offering armature naturalists to come up with their own projects that would benefit TNC is another idea. The pamphlet myself and two other Master Naturalists just completed is just one example of this.
James McGee had an excellent idea as well. I have done prairie gardening myself for many years.
I have several people ask me for seeds and plants every year for their gardens. They then pass seeds and knowledge to others.
Thanks Karen, those are all good and creative ideas. I think citizen science and independent projects are two particularly appealing ideas because of their autonomy, but they also require the that volunteer spend a bit of time working with us beforehand in order to gain familiarity with our site and trust from our staff. My goal is to help develop the initial opportunities (like volunteer workdays) that can build the foundation for independent and innovative projects like these.
Being a volunteer and working with other volunteers for a long time has taught me somethings. Developing a volunteer program, like any human endeavor requiring working with other people, is about creating relationships. You have to make the first gesture of friendship fully knowing that it will not always be reciprocated and it may take time for some people to return the good will you offer.
Often young people are overly enthusiastic and make a big deal about things that they think are really important, which really are not important at all. Knowing what is important and what is not important takes experience.
The above being said, volunteers do not like to be told that they have to gain “trust.” People should be given the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. We are not dealing with state secrets, just pulling weeds and collecting seed. I think what you meant to say was people have to work with you beforehand so you can make sure they have enough knowledge and experience do the job and be safe. This is how I would explain the necessity for volunteers to work with staff before embarking on independent projects in the future.
Thank you for your advice; I think we are both right. Yes, I did mean to say, “people have to work with you beforehand so you can make sure they have enough knowledge…” but I also stand by what I said about gaining staff trust before letting a volunteer work on an independent project. “Just pulling weeds and collecting seed” is not as simple as it may seem. For example, before sending a volunteer out to collect seed alone, a volunteer coordinator needs to be confident in a volunteer’s ability to identify and notice invasive seeds, otherwise that volunteer might come back with a tub laced with smooth brome. Before sending a volunteer out to spray invasives alone the volunteer needs to know how to identify any rare plant species to avoid accidentally spraying them. Additionally, it’s important that staff feel confident that the volunteer has a good work ethic, doesn’t take unnecessary risks, and pays attention to detail. Otherwise staff might have to spend more time than the volunteer contributed fixing a poorly done task, such as treating suckering tree saplings that the volunteer forgot to herbicide.
I do not at all mean to say that this is what I EXPECT a new volunteer to be like. In my experience the vast majority are competent, hardworking people that I love to work with. My point is that we need to verify that before we let a volunteer work independently or with potentially hazardous tools.
I could tell you stories, but I don’t want to write that much. The simple fact is even the best in the business occasionally make mistakes. For the example with seed collecting, you should keep all species separate so you can check each batch before adding them to a mix. I have previously said what I think about spraying herbicide. Simply, I don’t like it for the reason you mentioned and other reasons. I prefer people are slowed down by using some sort of wicking application. As for the suckering tree saplings, someone is always going to have to follow up after cut and herbicide application no matter if a volunteer forgot to apply herbicide or staff has done the work. This is just a reality of using herbicides. Additional applications are always needed. If everything you have applied herbicide to is killed after the first application then you are applying too much herbicide.
The problem I have seen with making volunteers “gain trust from our staff” is I have seen it used as an excuse to not allow new volunteers do any of the fun jobs like seed collecting or getting training to do things like chainsawing or prescribed burning. I argue the risk of making a dedicated volunteer lose interest from not letting them work towards things they want to do is greater than the risk that you do not get enough work from some people to make the effort to train them worthwhile. However, I volunteer with government entities. I am sure TNC treats their volunteers better than large bureaucratic governments sometimes do.
The suggestions I made were not intended to mean that you should just open the doors to any one and every one that comes along and allow them to just do what ever they want. It would quickly descend in to mayhem. TRAINING IS VERY IMPORTANT. It can take along time to ascertain if some one knows what they are doing and will be safe in the execution of their projects. Yes, you need to have a relationship. Yes, you need trust. Asking some one to prove themselves is not unreasonable.
Pulling weeds and picking seeds can be a lot of work and a great learning experience but can get very tedious very quickly for some. Those keep coming back time after time to do this kind of work are the ones with passion and will be the keepers. But they will eventually want to broaden their horizons.
Projects similar to my suggestions should be incentives to work towards.
Many organizations do not want volunteers because of the time and labor it takes to train them and most don’t have the resources. So when some one comes along that wants to take the time and has the patience to work with volunteers, knowing how to help them expand their service abilities and offering them other opportunities that will benefit every one is just as important as recruiting and training them in the first place. And it is the key to retaining them in the long term.
Other wise, why recruit volunteers in the first place?
Thanks Karen. I understood your original meaning and agree completely with what you wrote.