Free labour is expensive. RBG Kew gets back £7 from every £1 spent on volunteers (VIVA) – but still needs the £1 amidst budgets cuts.
This thought is courtesy of PlantNetwork’s conference, July 2011. Nearly 100 industry folk debated the value and risks of volunteers propping up their gardens and parks.
As with Brussels sprouts, there was no consensus. Yet themes did emerge from botanic, historic, and educational sites for what to do with volunteers.
My summary impressions below, with weblinks to further thoughts. Comments very welcome.
How many? Stats stats stats
• 500,000 volunteers across the land based sector
• Most volunteers are white British
• Half of volunteers have other volunteer roles
• Staff:volunteer ratio is 1:4 or higher in gardens/parks
• LANTRA are publishing more details soon from latest research…
• 240 volunteers at Westonbirt Arboretum, contributing 20,000 hours annually (two top photos)
• 61,000 volunteers at the National Trust (NT), contributing 3.5 million volunteer hours worth £30 million
• 240 Master Gardeners (my role) and 600 Master Composters at Garden Organic
• Just starting at Bath Botanic Gardens (bottom two photos)
Plus trustees, councils and committees… common and important in our industry.
Sought-after ‘diversity’ is sometimes best measured against local population. Also compare with visitors diversity. A natural cycle of younger/new volunteers is ideal, possibly by engaging with Groundwork programmes with placements for young people, or NT’s corporate volunteers and working holidays.
Thank you, but no more…
Too many volunteers create false economy. A ‘saturation point’ where staff can’t properly delegate, train, or monitor volunteers. This skews (good word) efforts/attrition on both sides. RBG Kew has 300 volunteers on their waiting list. Suggestions:
• Revise work plans to increase capacity. Break down tasks into ‘volunteer bite’ chunks. Involve volunteers in decision making and communication. Recruit for specialised roles. Ask for ideas from volunteers, and about other skills they have (and not fed up of using).
• Train staff how to manage volunteers, eg courses from LANTRA and Environmental Trainers Network. (Note: many staff use this supervisory experience in job applications.)
• Train volunteers to train other volunteers. Such as the hierarchies of increasing experienced guides with curator Nick Wray at the University of Bristol Botanic Gardens. Here the volunteer community supports a succession of new guides and specialisms. While at the NT’s Stowe Landscape Gardens, staff altered their job descriptions to find lead volunteers who, in
turn, trained more volunteers. ‘Made a huge difference to the garden’, according to head of NT gardens, Mike Calnan.
Get your hands off my job
Often staff are concerned that volunteers replace paid positions. Especially at the time of recruitment freezes/budget cuts, eg RBG Kew, Forestry Commission, local authorities. Suggestions:
• Carefully define volunteer role; they let you do MORE, such as events, guides, better maintenance, etc. Volunteers free up staff time for ‘management and more delicate tasks’.
• Volunteers are equal, but different. Have separate volunteer policies.
• Involve unions, eg at RBG Edunburgh. Transparency is crucial.
• Survey volunteers and staff to find out needs, wants and concerns. Have senior representation for volunteers.
Train volunteers. Hugely increases retention and performance, eg H&S, plant idents, role details. NT’s Nymans Garden even targets volunteers with an interest in professional horticulture and have structured work placements/training.
Have volunteer agreements, outlining ‘reasonable expectations’ of both parties. But never a ‘contract’, so volunteers can’t claim employment and associated protections. Click here for ‘Volunteers and the Law’ by Mark Restall (free PDF).
If possible, pay out-of-pocket expense for costs the person incurred because they volunteered. You otherwise risk limiting your potential volunteers to wealthier communities, so reducing diversity. It was reported that some people can’t afford to volunteer unless their fuel is paid, but also reported that many gardens can’t afford to pay expenses.
Volunteers are thoroughly appreciated and nicely reliable, although not as accountable or obliged as contracted, paid staff. So find out why they volunteer and tailor their experiences, eg team work, learn skills, meet people, believe in garden’s ethos/mission.
Invite volunteers to help on a small task or event first. Many volunteers stay longer… and it’s a useful trial for both sides.
Early communication is key in resolving potential conflicts and poor performance. There’s a level of peer moderation too, as fellow volunteers don’t want conflict. Staff must step in swiftly to sort out health and safety concerns due to duty of care.
Fun phrases from the conference:
‘Currency of recognition/reward’
Eg. written thanks, references, awards, press coverage, certificates from own and other gardens. Plus training – related to role, otherwise could be considered form or payment/valuable (‘consideration’).
“A good volunteer manager should have nothing to do!”.
Nicely put, but not right. Lots of work but huge returns. Volunteers must be purposefully managed. Not more than 60-70 volunteers per FTE co-ordinator recommended.
Calculating the financial costs and valuation of volunteers (links to Institute of Volunteering Research)
Click here for ‘Volunteers and the Law’ by Mark Restall (free PDF).
Association of volunteer managers
Volunteer rights inquiry, including 3R Promise
More conference notes
I’ve volunteered inside and outside the industry at lots of places. My team now manage networks of enthusiastic volunteers. On every occasion, the presence or absence of a willing, trained organiser is obvious and determines the quality of the work and retention. Just like staff, you need genuine appreciation and management of volunteers. And just like staff, this determines whether or not a garden survives.
Special thanks to PlantNetwork for another marvellous conference, especially to Judy Cheney, Christopher Weddell, Pamela Smith, Dr David Rae, and other committee members.
Further thanks my old training ground that hosted the conference, the University of Bath School of Management