Hubbard Alumni Blog: Volunteer Findings

This post was written by Evan Barrientos, one of our Hubbard Fellows from June 2015 through May 2016.  He’s working for Montana State University Extension now, but has returned to write a follow up post on the topic of his Hubbard Fellowship independent project.  You can see what he’s up to in Montana by following his personal blog.  

Hello again! I’m writing from beyond the Fellowship because my final month as a Hubbard Fellow was a whirlwind and I didn’t find time to write a blog post that did the experience justice. First, I want to say that it was the best career-building experience that I could have possibly had. The Fellowship taught me diverse and useful job skills, taught me how to network within a wide conservation community, and transitioned me from a recent graduate to a young  professional. Second, I want to summarize what I learned from my fantastic experience working on the Platte River Prairies’ volunteer program.

Phone Interviews: During my fellowship I conducted 11 phone interviews with other land stewardship volunteer coordinators, mostly in prairie ecosystems. Overall, these coordinators were impressively competent and offered lots of wise advice and great ideas. Here is a very summarized list of what I found.

  • Word-of-mouth is the best form of recruitment, which means volunteer events really need to be enjoyable and meaningful if you want volunteers to bring their friends.
  • Trainings allow volunteers to take on more advanced tasks such as herbicide application and chainsaw use, thereby accomplishing much more work. Several programs also train their volunteers to lead workdays and offer the opportunity to volunteer independently outside of formal workdays. Trainings also promote retention by providing learning opportunities and showing volunteers that they’re valued. Pairing new volunteers with experienced ones is also an efficient way to train.
  • Communication between staff and volunteers is essential. The volunteer coordinator must provide clear and specific instructions and locations and always be reachable by phone to answer questions.
  • Retention is crucial for building efficient volunteers and a productive volunteer program. The longer a volunteer has been volunteering, the better he/she knows the site and tasks. This takes time, but regularly offering quality workdays is the first step towards identifying and developing dedicated volunteers.
  • Ways to promote retention:
    • Treat committed volunteers with the same levels of respect and expectations as paid staff.
    • Integrate staff and volunteers as much as possible.
    • Build a sense of community through formal and informal social opportunities.
    • Provide opportunities to gain skills and knowledge.
    • Express gratitude regularly and at formal events.

Volunteer Survey: I also sent out a survey to collect feedback on our volunteer program. Here are a few things I learned:

  • Helping prairies was the strongest motivation for volunteering, followed by learning and getting outside.
  • More satisfied volunteers were more likely to volunteer in the future and had higher past attendance.
  • There was significant interest in volunteering independently on their own schedule (78%).
  • Distance was the factor discouraging attendance most frequently mentioned (37%).

My own conclusions:

Working with volunteers was the most rewarding work I’ve done in a long time. There are many excellent conservation organizations that significantly expand their stewardship capacity by effectively engaging volunteers, but it takes time, dedication, and the right personality to do so. Regularly holding enjoyable and meaningful workdays is the first step; creating opportunities to grow into new responsibilities is often the second. Last, it is almost always necessary for there to be at least one staff person dedicated to managing the volunteer program in order for it to flourish. With time, it’s possible to create programs that accomplish a lot of work while inspiring a passion for conservation in many people.

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A milkweed sprouts from the prairie that volunteers helped seed last winter.

Hubbard Fellowship Post – Community-Based Stewardship and Long-Term Management

This post is by Eric Chien, one of our 2016-17 Hubbard Fellows.  Eric hails from Minnesota, with an undergraduate education from Bowdoin College in Maine.  He has a strong background in prairie management, and hopefully a bright future in that field as well. 

The most compelling experience of the North American Prairie Conference was on a sweltering Tuesday afternoon on a winding path through the Nature Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands. While I was beaded with sweat from just walking in the Eastern Tallgrass humidity, I saw three people, laden down with seed bags, hand harvesting seed and ripping problem plants from the ground. Jeff Walk, Illinois TNC Science Director and our guide for the walk assured us that these volunteers were not planted. Furthermore, he noted that this was a fairly regular sight at Nachusa.

Three people. Tuesday morning. Maybe I come from a different community context, but for me, seeing three, independently working, non-professional, unpaid, human beings engaged in land management is akin to seeing a prairie chicken drum on a buffalo’s back under a wildfire sunset. Okay, maybe not quite that, but my point is that intensive, regular community engagement and participation in land management is a rare phenomenon. It was a sight that made me wonder how we plan to achieve our restoration goals for individual sites beyond the immediate future. My predecessor, Evan Barrientos, had begun the work of pulling on this loose thread, and I encourage you to read his post on volunteer stewardship if you have not, but I think it begs further unpacking.

These volunteers helped plant prairies and wetlands on our Platte River Prairies.  It can be more difficult to recruit long-term volunteers to help manage restored (and other) sites.

These volunteers helped plant prairies and wetlands on our Platte River Prairies. It can be more difficult to recruit long-term volunteers to help manage restored (and other) sites.

It is a great feeling to stand in a big tract of prairie knowing that it was once cropland. It is a crushing feeling to stand in a big tract of prairie overrun and choked by invasive plants. And it is unfortunately not an uncommon feeling to have both experiences on the same prairie, just a couple years apart. Many prairie restoration sites have found out what happens when management capacity does not match the scope of their restorations: a seemingly endless game of catch-up with invasive plants ever threatening to swallow a new prairie. Addressing the pitfalls of that disjunct approach was one of the Grassland Restoration Network’s primary prescriptions for restoration success (here is the link to that report). However, I want to think beyond even the 5-15 year timeline to the idea of management in perpetuity. In the reality of a fragmented landscape, it appears likely that even the best restorations (well planned and executed) will require regular management for those lands to continue to achieve our respective management goals for them.

It leads us to important questions: As the acreage of restored prairie grows, have we invested in the organizational groundwork to ensure the continuity of our achievements? Is there a need for innovation in stewardship structures as we seek to move to an increased scale of work? Or should we aim to increase funding for professional management staff augmented with whatever traditional volunteer programs that we have?

Invasive species control is a critically important part of land management, both on restored and remnant sites.

Invasive species control is a critically important part of land management, both on restored and remnant sites.

As someone who is seeking a professional stewardship career, more money aimed at increasing the capacity of professional resource management sounds awesome. As someone who has seen the scope of need for stewardship, I have a hard time envisioning that approach rising to the challenge on its own. So then the big question- what does effective community-based stewardship look like?

I think it sort of looks like Nachusa Grasslands. In a talk at the conference, Bill Kleiman, the Nachusa Grasslands land manager, said, “we don’t just produce grasses, flowers, and wildlife, we also produce people.” I don’t know if steward production is part of their long-term management plan, but they seem to approach it with an intentionality that suggests it is. From the little glimpse I saw of it, Nachusa Grasslands has produced a stewardship structure that draws heavily on a capacity that is less tied to The Nature Conservancy, and more attached to the place. The stewards there love the land they work on. That trait gives it a unique resiliency. Organizations come and go over the short and long-term. If we want the successes we have in places to be maintained then we need to make sure we are building stewardship structures that have some independence from the organizations that own the land on which they work. Private lands conservation has focused on empowering non-professionals by necessity. Yet, I think if we take stock of our public and NGO-owned stewardship needs, there is a similar necessity for involving community stewards in a significant way looming on the horizon. I think for many of us it is already here.