Green Space Management - Take steps to harness volunteers' potential

A volunteer strategy adds real value to the service - as well as the participants' CVs, says Sid Sullivan.

Involving volunteers requires careful planning and good management - image: Alamy
Involving volunteers requires careful planning and good management - image: Alamy

Current efforts to reform and protect parks from the now habitual budget reductions will not succeed if they do not include a volunteer scheme. In response to this need, many service managers are increasingly seeking volunteers to deliver significant aspects of their business and green space strategy. Engaging with a delivery model that enables volunteering represents the new managerial challenge.

Involving the service with the expertise and enthusiasm that volunteers contribute requires both planning for and managing in order to succeed. For so many volunteer schemes the aim seems to be to achieve something akin to a Kibbutz ethos, but this is somewhat mistaken. A far more sophisticated and involving approach is required. This begins with the development of a volunteer strategy.

Developing a volunteer strategy

Formulating a volunteer strategy should start with the questions: "What work will I require them to undertake?" and "How will I persuade people to volunteer in sufficient numbers to make a useful contribution to the business plan?"

Think the range of work and expertise you are seeking and how this will complement and involve all of your current staffs' expertise and that of your external landscape maintenance contractors.

One way to do this is to list potential volunteer's contributions into a series of groups.

1 Managerial and technical expertise.

2 Customer care and parks rangers' roles.

Often these two volunteer groups possess the skills or transferable skills you require, but are likely to require sophisticated recruiting techniques.

3 Parks maintenance expertise.

This group often includes the older, and sometimes retired, person that is looking to give something back to the community. They invariably work well with landscape maintenance contractors.

4 People with few or no directly related skills, but a willingness and commitment to be trained and to be flexible about involvement. They will encompass all ages and abilities.

These groups require different recruitment strategies and some volunteers may require training. You may seek more of groups 3 and 4, than of groups 1 and 2.

At this stage it is also necessary to:

- Draft a job description and person specification that reflects the role and advantages of volunteering.

- Ensure that you have finance to train and equip them.

Determine what you require as a minimum commitment and how flexible you can be. Allowing them to vary their time beyond the minimum will attract a wider cross-section. Giving them the chance to tailor their contribution to match their circumstances and passion will be an advantage to them and the service.

To be successful with an enabling volunteer strategy it is essential that you find the right combination of flexibility, adaptability and a willingness to understand and to provide answers to their most basic concerns - what it is that they will get out of the experience. For some it will be to enhance their CV by extending their range of skills and work experience. For others it will be the satisfaction of contributing to something they are passionate about.

Tapping into those desires is the way to understand not just how to recruit them, but how they will add value to the organisation. It will also assist you to understanding how to motivate these individuals and to get the best for them and from them.

Managing volunteers

Once you have a volunteering strategy, provision can be made to recruit a volunteers' manager. This is someone whose day job is to manage and motivate the volunteers, because the success of your strategy is dependent on those two tasks. It is managing their effort, aspirations, energies and motivating them that holds the key to a successful volunteering strategy and scheme.

And the first place to look for that crucial mix of experience and expertise is recently-retired managers that are keen to continue to contribute their expertise. It is not, however, necessary for them to have sector-specific experience. Many private-sector managers have the necessary managerial and interpersonal skills and additionally bring new insights and enthusiasm that are of benefit. What does matter is their willingness to work in the sector and to be flexible in their approach to managing volunteers.

You will also want to involve the volunteers' manager in reviewing your volunteering strategy. A further refinement is to identify a mentor to work with them so can quickly understand your culture and support them as they progress.

Integrating volunteers

While planning your scheme, include opportunities for the volunteers to meet their colleagues and other volunteers. Making it fun and rewarding helps to retain volunteers. Ensure therefore that you also celebrate their success. Your long-term success will hinge on the publicity you achieve in the national and local press. This publicity will also help you to begin to encourage potential volunteers to nominate themselves to you and to enable you to recruit the very best people possible to your scheme.

Their passion and commitment to the service makes volunteers extremely effective advocates. This is why having a well-developed volunteer strategy is so important to the delivery of a diverse and valued 21st-century parks service.

Sid Sullivan is a parks consultant.

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