1993 Proceedings of the Midwest Oak Savanna Conferences
A COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH TO VOLUNTEER ADMINISTRATION FOR OAK SAVANNA RESTORATION PROJECTS
*This paper was written with assistance from Tim Girmscheid, Land Steward and Volunteer Coordinator at the Walter E. Heller Nature Center, Park District of Highland Park, IL
Many of the public and not-for-profit agencies involved in the field of oak savanna restoration depend on volunteer contributions to accomplish their goals. While the results of volunteer efforts include the restored health of many oak savanna remnants, this paper addresses processes related to volunteer administration. Consideration of volunteer recruitment begins with evaluating agency needs, resulting in volunteer job descriptions. Job descriptions will include an explanation of training and benefits, which also serve as marketing and recruitment tools for the volunteer restoration project. An innovative marketing program from Lake County, Illinois, is featured. Assessment of the volunteer program and the volunteer experience is mentioned, and serves as the basis for evaluating the quality of the volunteer opportunities.
Land management agencies depend on volunteer contributions of time and effort to manage natural areas. Quite simply, funds are not available to restore and maintain all of the savanna groves in public ownership without the help of volunteers. While units of local government in Illinois are restrained by tax-cap legislation, this trend towards volunteer restoration management will continue.
"[T]he volunteers are responsible for the tremendous change in how the Forest Preserve District land will look and sound in the future," says Ralph Thornton, Land Manager at the Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois (Sacco 1993, P. 4). Further, this volunteer restoration work ". . . is literally saving an endangered ecosystem (oak savanna) from extinction" (Rude 1993, P.4).
Volunteer and land managers need to recognize the niche for volunteers in their agencies, develop training and orientation programs that empower volunteers to restore native landscapes, and publicize these volunteer opportunities. These volunteer programs should be evaluated for their effectiveness, or we risk losing volunteers to a very competitive market.
Understanding your agency's niche(s) for volunteers is the keystone for volunteer program development. This understanding of volunteer roles provides the basis for drafting job descriptions, which define the scope and focus of the position (McCurley and Lynch 1989). Further, understanding of the volunteer niche helps agency personnel to set goals and to develop methods to evaluate the effectiveness of the volunteers. When an agency has a volunteer coordinator on staff, this person should consult with other staff members to assess their needs for volunteers.
The McHenry County Conservation District (MCCD) Natural Resource Management staff develops site management plans consistent with the MCCD Natural Ecosystem Management Policy and the Rules for Management of Illinois Nature Preserves. MCCD staff actively manages and restores large tracts of land, from remnant natural communities to former agricultural land. This approach enables MCCD to connect fragmented high-quality areas with corridors for genetic exchange and habitat enlargement. While some MCCD management plans call for organized volunteer restoration, other sites are managed more efficiently by a full-time staff with mechanized equipment.
With volunteer needs and roles identified, we can begin to develop volunteer job descriptions. Volunteer Job Descriptions are considered an important aspect of stewardship by the Nature Conservancy (Loeser-Small 1992). Besides defining roles for the benefit of staff and volunteers, job descriptions can serve as a marketing tool with an explanation of training and benefits.
Job Descriptions should also include the title of the position, direct supervisor, and a summary of duties, time commitments and other special requirements for the position. This is also a great opportunity to emphasize agency policies such as safety, since each volunteer will receive a copy of the job description (Several MCCD volunteer job descriptions are presented in Appendix A.). Note that the Stewardship Volunteer job description portrays a general "entry-level" position. Some of the other positions are more specialized, offering growth opportunities for the volunteers.
By using a job description we impart to the volunteers that their roles have the importance of the paid staff, and volunteers are full partners in the organization. The job descriptions can be shared with local referral agencies, thus announcing your needs to potential collaborators. Further, some of these referral organizations publish volunteer opportunities in their newsletters, and networking with these services can support your recruitment efforts. In order to assure appropriate placement at sites where volunteer restoration is limited, all volunteer referrals are directed to the MCCD Volunteer Coordinator.
While volunteers will approach organizations with diverse needs and goals, it is necessary to keep them motivated lest they motivate themselves to depart for another agency. While it will not likely be practical to offer volunteers and staff the same comprehensive benefit package, an understanding of volunteer needs and motivation can provide direction for your program. For convenience, volunteer benefits can be divided into two realms: Training and recognition.
Training is also comprised of two components. First, new volunteers at a restoration program should be oriented to the following: The site and its ecology; the landowner, its mission, and any requisite volunteer policies and procedures; other sponsoring restoration organizations; the volunteers present and their level of experience; the ecological rationale and principals used in the savanna restoration project; emergency, first aid and safety procedures; and significant plants and animals.
At the Park District of Highland Park's (PDHP) Highmoor Nature Preserve, this author as the Volunteer Steward provided the orientation while giving a tour of the site to new volunteers. After these new recruits were oriented and they asked any pertinent questions, we rejoined the experienced volunteers for training in the management activity that the volunteer Co-Stewards were leading. Some agencies also use volunteer handbooks or manuals in the orientation process, including Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo.
Orientation programs help to ensure that all of the ". . . volunteers who come out on work days are on the same wavelength," as stressed by Ernie Lopez of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (Rajsky 1993, P. 8). How many of us have attended a restoration workday where a new volunteer has asked "Why are we cutting down trees on Forest Preserve District land?"
Orientation programs should help the individual volunteers understand how their participation contributes to the purpose of the agency, and how their efforts affect the local ecology. In a letter to Michael Reuter of the Nature Conservancy, Illinois Natural Heritage Division (IDOC) Botany Program Manager John Schwegman offered the following suggestion: "In orienting volunteers, I think we need to foster the mind set (sic) that they are to help the natural processes to continue to function, thus allowing the maintenance of 'natural' diversity" (Frye 1993, P. 2). This leads us to the other type of training.
When people are asked to list their reasons for wanting to serve as volunteers, one common response is the desire to learn, and to acquire new skills. "We can all learn elements of restoration and become excited by it," says Laurel Ross of the Nature Conservancy's Illinois Chapter (Martinez and Beltz 1993).
Further, agencies that depend on volunteers are obligated to provide everything that the volunteers need to fulfill their responsibilities and accomplish their duties as specified in the job description. This includes providing equipment, herbicide, safety policies and emergency procedures. However, it also includes the training necessary to properly use these items. A 1993 MCCD training program schedule for natural areas volunteers is included as Appendix B. While this basic training is required for all restoration volunteers, we will be offering more advanced training for interested volunteers in future years.
Some volunteers have turned to another MCCD department for additional training. Greg Hultman, one of MCCD's Education Program Coordinators, has developed an interpretive docent program called Legacy. Legacy volunteers receive training specific to their chosen area of study (e.g. oak savanna and prairie, wildlife ecology, cultural history, etc.), in addition to field exercises in natural or cultural interpretation. "Legacy docents who are active in oak savanna restoration are combining talents that will be useful as we teach our society to heal the earth," says Hultman.
Dan Wilson, the MCCD and Nature Conservancy Volunteer Steward for the District's Alden Sedge Meadow, agrees. "Legacy's training program has improved my ability to inform and educate the public, and will help me to generate more interest in ecological restoration," Wilson adds.
Recognition is another benefit of volunteer service, and some organizations advertise it. In addition to training workshops and field trips, PDHP grants appreciation awards to volunteers who accomplish the following milestones: 30 hours, 90 hours and 150 hours. These awards include t-shirts, gift certificates, program discounts and conference registrations.
PDHP also hosts an annual Volunteer Appreciation Banquet for all Nature Center volunteers. This kind of event brings the ecological restoration volunteers together with other members of the PDHP volunteer family. This is also a great opportunity to recognize outstanding achievement and to roast a staff person, volunteer or other dignitary.
I need to stress, however, that recognition should not be seen as an event. Instead, it is an on-going process. To be effective, recognition must appeal to the volunteer's motivations. Sue Vineyard (1988) recommends involving volunteers in the decision-making processes as a highly valued form of recognition. The Chicago Children's Museum, using this logic, has the annual volunteer recognition event planned and implemented by volunteers. This helps to ensure that the event is both relevant and motivating to the honorees (Kathleen Premer, personal communication).
Benefits and appreciation awards are used by PDHP in marketing and volunteer recruitment correspondence. Volunteer accomplishments are often newsworthy, and published articles in your newsletter and other media can educate the public about restoration projects, recruit new volunteers, and recognize current volunteers, donors, co-sponsors and landowners (Martinez 1991).
An innovative marketing strategy was developed by PDHP for oak savanna and woodland restoration called the Heller Pickpocket program (Appendix C). Individuals or groups can select a remnant pocket for ecological restoration, as delineated in the Heller Nature Park natural areas management plan (Martinez 1993).
Volunteer Pickpockets receive training and orientation from PDHP staff, and have their mug-shot photo taken and posted in the Pickpocket Mug-shot book. After picking a pocket to restore, the volunteers and staff then agree to sentencing. With the management plan as a guide, Pickpockets embark on a management schedule that may take from one to ten years. Signs are posted to educate park users about the ecological restoration program, and recruit additional volunteers (Appendix D).
The Pickpocket program is different from other local volunteer restoration programs in that volunteers have more discretion in scheduling their work than is possible with highly organized projects with pre-determined workdays. Further, there are more opportunities for volunteer-staff contact for those who work on weekdays.
In a competitive market for volunteers, an identity that sets a program apart from the others will receive added publicity. The Pickpocket program has brought many individuals into ecological restoration for the first time, and well-known local environmentalists have also signed up.
Many agencies that work with volunteers are developing volunteer programs that incorporate important on-going processes such as recognition, training, assessment and evaluation. The assessment and evaluation processes help to identify areas where volunteers are effective and successful in achieving agency goals, and likewise where the sponsoring agencies are effective and successful in working with volunteers. Any deficiencies will also become apparent during the assessment and evaluation process, providing opportunities to improve our efforts.
Further, a standardized evaluation process can serve as a component in formal policies related to probationary service, suspension and termination in the event of volunteer misconduct or unsatisfactory performance. These processes are important to consider, since many of us have met individuals who can undermine the morale of an entire group. Or, perhaps you know a horticulturally biased individual who contends publicly that silver maples (Acer saccharinum) are a dominant species of oak savannas. See McCurley and Lynch (1989) for more information on termination procedures. However, volunteer evaluation processes can identify untapped enthusiasm, and suggest opportunities for volunteer advancement.
Evaluation programs for volunteer performance can take two different approaches. Many organizations strive to evaluate each individual volunteer, at least annually or with exit interviews. Most people who are interested in personal growth and development benefit from exercises that help to identify their strengths and weaknesses. Again, the opportunity to improve can be personally motivating.
However, evaluation processes can sometimes be intimidating and cause tension for both volunteers and paid supervisors. To soften this process, the Chicago Botanic Garden's Plant Information Service developed a form that asks the volunteers to evaluate themselves (Appendix E). "This procedure spurs volunteers to consider their weaknesses and strengths as a beginning point for discussion." says Meegan Bilow, the Garden's Plant Information Supervisor. Afterwards, the volunteer and supervisor discuss the evaluation candidly, but the process does not resemble a high school report card. "Since we are treating adults as adults, the whole process is less threatening to everyone," Bilow adds.
"Don't feel bad about evaluation," say McCurley and Lynch (1989). "Most people will be winners, and will want to feel like winners, which they can only do if you provide them with feedback. A good part of your motivational job involves giving them that feedback."
The second approach to evaluating volunteers in an ecological restoration program involves evaluating the results of the project, rather than individual performance. This may be easier in cases where larger-scale restoration projects provide only limited supervision, and staff has less direct contact with the volunteers. Researchers are considering and developing different strategies to assess the effectiveness of restoration projects (Masi 1991, Wetstein 1993, Wilhelm et al. 1992).
These assessment tools can be applied to small management pockets when evaluating individuals or small groups of volunteers in the Heller Pickpocket program. These assessment tools can also be used for organized restoration campaigns that actively solicit wider public participation. MCCD and PDHP both develop management plans for conservation areas that direct staff and volunteers in restoration management. Progress can be assessed by measuring volunteer accomplishments against management plan goals.
If these assessment tools indicate a failure by the volunteers, it may be necessary to upgrade training, orientation, recognition, or other processes in the volunteer program. Agencies might also consider the re-allocation of available in-house resources towards ecological restoration. Perhaps an agency's forestry division or operations department can be equipped to conduct mechanical restoration, or consultants can be retained. However, most county natural resource agencies in Northeastern Illinois have hired volunteer coordinators to assist with volunteer administration.
A complete assessment and evaluation program will also seek to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the agency's staff support. The Steward's Annual Report for MCCD restorations asks volunteer leaders to describe the tools, equipment, and other support that the project needs from the District (Appendix F).
Other forms exist that ask volunteers to evaluate the programs where they serve, and examples are given in McCurley (1988). A different agency evaluation form is included in Appendix G, which is borrowed from the Lincoln Park Zoo Volunteer Handbook (1992). Even if the ecological assessments suggest that we are approaching ecological restoration properly, volunteer assessment of the experience is necessary to provide us with insight into quality of our volunteer services. A volunteer workday summary (Appendix H) can provide us with names of volunteers and phone numbers, and we can call people to inquire about their experiences. However, it may be necessary to use a standardized questionnaire to obtain consistent feedback that enables us to recommend improvements.
As we continue to depend on volunteers to effect the restoration of oak savannas, it is prudent that we use processes that capture the motivation and enthusiasm of the public. Volunteer job descriptions should specify duties and responsibilities, and mention training and other benefits. Volunteer recognition programs should be on-going and relevant. Evaluation and assessment processes will help us grow as individuals and as a community, and attrition resulting from negative experiences should be minimized. Innovative marketing programs will help recruit volunteers, but quality programs will recruit by word of mouth. Motivated and satisfied volunteers are the finest recruiters available.
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