InÂ my last NEN Blog I wrote about how weâ€™re attacking the process of getting grants to fundÂ Pennsylvania Garden, the guerrilla garden turned San Francisco Street Park in Potrero Hill. This time Iâ€™ll let you in on the secret to getting volunteers to help with your project. You know, those magical people from all walks of life who unselfishly show up and work their butts off for no pay on the weekends.
Where do they come from? What do they get out of it? Why on earth do they keep coming back?!?
It took me a bit of time to realize that I couldnâ€™t do all the work myself, and when my boyfriend Matt started complaining that I was just using him like a donkey to carry heavy objects, I saw right away that Iâ€™d need a few fresh donkeys! Uh, I mean, volunteers.
I started asking people who passed by the garden to help me. Sometimes it was spontaneous. â€œQuick, we need another strong guy to move this bench into position… Hey, you over there!â€ And sometimes at the end of a pleasant conversation with a passer-by about the garden, Iâ€™d slip in my usual trick question: â€œSoâ€¦ do you like gardening?â€
They trickled in, but setting up a monthly volunteer date was much more productive.Â I posted it on my blog, and initially specified a two hour window. People would show up at the end of the window, when I was getting tired, and Iâ€™d be stuck there with them for another two hours!Â I changed to a start time only â€“ much better. Weâ€™re adding an informational signpost with volunteer day details at the front of the garden too. I expect this will help swell the numbers at volunteer days even more.
I explain to volunteers what theyâ€™ll be doing before they come (weeding, pruning, watering), and tell themÂ what to bring (strong shoes, gloves, water, sunscreen) so they are prepared and comfortable. I developed a volunteer orientation document too. It lists all the dangers at Pennsylvania Garden, and details several good starter jobs anyone can do â€“ even if theyâ€™ve never gardened before. We also have a waiver all volunteers must sign before volunteering in the garden. These two documents accompany the volunteer coordinator to every work day we have.
Whatâ€™s the reward? Instant results are great: move the rocks, plant a plant, and get a verbal â€œhigh fiveâ€ from the project leader. Sincere thanks for a job well done is worth a lot, yet so often forgotten!
Encourage people to come back and see the progress of the plants they worked with, and theyâ€™ll get a real sense of satisfaction. They need to â€œownâ€ their project.Â Pretty soon theyâ€™ll become proud of it, and theyâ€™ll work all the harder.
One class I attended said that if you bring coffee and donuts, people will come! If there are flowers, cuttings, seeds, or leftover plants at the end of the day, give them to the volunteers as a gift. People also like to see their name â€œin lightsâ€ so I always try to mention them by name, or add photos of them at work, in the blog post after they volunteer.
How do I keep them coming back? I try and get their email address and just straight up ask them! I also try to make their experience as good as possible. I ask people what they like to do and find at task that makes them feel productive and yet comfortable. Some people hate getting dirty, some people love to weed. Some people find watering soothing, others have pruning skills and other specialized knowledge I can put to great use. Some love to work alone, in peace. Others like to chat as they go. The volunteer coordinator has to tune in to those needs and make this unpaid job fun.
Another important aspect to managing volunteers is managing their energy. If someone is starting to wilt in the sun, or needs to leave to attend to something else but feels they canâ€™t unless they finish their task, take over and send them on their way with a smile. Theyâ€™re not slaves! I might have almost unlimited energy for gardening, but small tasks are more rewarding and manageable for volunteers to begin with.
Finally, I have a secret weapon. Arum is my newest teammate in the garden, a project manager, and neighbor, who succumbed to my pathetic whining about my lack of time to manage volunteers. She can get 50 people out of bed on a Sunday morning to pick up trash. No mean feat!
Yes, itâ€™s true â€“ the real key to managing volunteers is to get another volunteer to manage them!
If you want to do a little gardening one weekend, come to our monthly volunteer day on the first Saturday of each month at 11am where anyone can drop by and try their hand at gardening. Check out myÂ blog. Iâ€™d be happy to show you around.
Annie Shaw is founder and head gardener of Pennsylvania Garden in the Potrero Hill neighborhood. She can be contacted through her blog,Â Pennsylvania Garden.