How To Attract and Retain Volunteers

To make a community forestry program a reality in your town, you need either paid staff or the help of volunteers or, more likely, a combination of both. Volunteers are valuable because they bring to their work a degree of commitment and enthusiasm often unmatched in the marketplace. Volunteers can steward our community forests if their skills and energy are, like any resource, managed wisely. Volunteers that come from the community also confer to a tree program a status of acceptance that elected officials are unlikely to ignore.

How Can My Tree Group Attract Able Volunteers?

Volunteers affiliate with organizations that produce results, so to attract good volunteers, your tree group must be very good at what it does. To attract able volunteers, consider the following general guidelines:

  • Communicate your mission simply and clearly.

  • Develop creative and challenging ways to translate group ideals into effective, visible action.

  • Develop rewarding and creative positions that empower volunteers: use their talents in appropriate and meaningful ways that encourage personal growth, self-expression, and the exercise of leadership and managerial skills.

  • Create a positive image. Be perceived as an organization that contributes to society in a meaningful way.

  • Always keep in mind that the best way to recruit volunteers is by word of mouth. Satisfied members bring in new members.

  • Include minorities. Tree-planting initiatives will not succeed unless the whole community is involved.

  • Include children. Global ReLeaf stresses that "'kid energy' is a powerful ingredient in the alchemy of community action." Recruit children and you automatically involve their parents and perhaps even their teachers.

How Can Volunteers Be Put To Best Use?

Tree groups which at their core consist of dedicated volunteers are able to accomplish tasks on many levels and attain their objectives because volunteers are motivated, flexible, creative and often very well connected to influential people. A few simple rules apply:

  • When a particular task needs to be done, define it carefully and ask a suitable person or institution to volunteer to do it. For example, if your tree group has drafted an ordinance, ask a lawyer to examine it. If you're a nonprofit and your tax return is complicated, ask an accountant to prepare it. Trees Atlanta, the citizen group responsible for the first tree planting and protection laws in a major city, has attained virtually all of its objectives through the efforts of volunteers.

  • Never hesitate to ask. The worst that can happen is that someone may say "no."

  • Provide training. For exampe, TreePeople of Los Angeles, a highly visible and notably successful tree group, developed a special training program to train people who supervise the planting of trees. Even "tree skills" that appear to be simple (for example, inventorying trees) require workshops or several training sessions and working with a professional.

  • Use volunteers to train volunteers. In any organization, there will be seasoned veterans who can assume the task of training others to be effective in their area of expertise, be it technical, financial, legal or practical.

How Can My Tree Group Keep Good Volunteers?

  • Make every effort to match the qualifications of volunteers to the specific needs of your group, and, whenever possible, do this by personal interview. This makes it more likely that volunteers will be fulfilled by their work.

  • Create direct-contact positions and situations. People want to know that they are serving the community. Direct contact with the people being served is the surest way to satisfy the volunteer need to feel worthwhile.

  • Take whatever practical steps are necessary to facilitate volunteer efforts. You may wish to offer child care, provide short-term tasks and/or refine tasks that can be performed at home.

  • Record the efforts of volunteers in order to provide them with references useful in the marketplace.

  • Appeal to retired people who are rich in skills and often have more time than others.

  • You should make a special effort to design your appeal thoughtfully to attract the variety of "audiences" that constitute your specific community. Be sure that minorities feel at home in your organization. It is foolhardy not to integrate minorities fully into your tree group since trees will not thrive unless the people living with them care for them. As one urban forester observed, "by promoting urban forestry in the nontraditional sectors of America, You create a broader base for the movement."

  • Give volunteers a choice of activities. TreePeople, for example, provides a "broad range of involvement opportunities" to appeal to just about anybody.

  • Express appreciation. Tell your volunteers, "We couldn't have planted all those maples without you." TreePeople hosts a celebration for its volunteers every year. The Meskwaka Tree Project, a program initiated by the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension System, awards handsome T-shirts imprinted with the Meskwaka logo to participants. Write letters of appreciation. Say "thank you!"

How Can My Tree Attract Minority Volunteers?

Competition for volunteer services is fierce. If the tree group fails to include minorities in its activities in a meaningful way, other groups more alert to the potential of this vast and skilled human resource, will. Connecticut's cities are places where people of diverse cultural backgrounds live, yet the state's demographic richness is often not reflected in community programs. As a black forester observed, "If America's minority population remains uninvolved, urban forests have little chance of thriving in the future."

Working With Professionals

In certain situations it is essential that a professional work on or supervise projects or tasks conducted by volunteers. For example, when performing a street tree inventory it is prudent to have the municipal tree warden assess trees for hazardous conditions and earmark trees for removal or pruning. The tree warden that can effectively use the support and time provided by volunteers can accomplish more than the tree warden who shuns the efforts of volunteers. Conversely, the volunteer group that passes up professional assistance may fail in its mission.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Connecticut's Urban Forestry Program contact:

Robert M. Ricard, Ph.D., CF
Senior Extension Educator

* Urban and Community Forestry

* Human Dimensions of Natural Resources
West Hartford Extension Center
1800 Asylum Avenue
West Hartford, CT 06117
Tel: (860) 570-9257
Fax: (860) 570-9008

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  College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Cooperative Extension System
1376 Storrs Road, Unit 4036
Storrs, Connecticut 06269

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