How conservation non-profits can recruit and retain volunteers for exotic invasive plant control projects
by Bruce Wenning
Many non-profit conservation organizations struggle with well-intentioned ideas and plans about how to rid their lands of exotic invasive plants. Some have enlisted interested staff with a few dedicated, but sporadic volunteers to help with the removal of a particular invasive from an ecologically critical parcel or from a highly visible area.
Unfortunately, most organizations lack the available in-house staff and the extra time and money required to effectively complete such projects for the long-term. Similarly, most hardy volunteers do not have the life style to give forty hours per week of continuous labor to such projects.
To better understand the potential problem at hand at your organization, take a survey of the invasive plant group or groups that need to be removed or reduced. Most invasive plant removal projects tend to fall into two time related categories which are based on the abundance of the targeted invasive species and its distribution pattern in the infested area. Start with short-term projects first then larger projects will feel less overwhelming.
The first category is a short-term time commitment project and frequently encompasses invasive plants of all kinds (herbaceous and woody) infesting small areas (< 1/2 acre) such as neglected gardens and fields; building and parking lot edges; pond, lake, and stream buffer zones; pine wood lots vs. abandoned apple orchards; specific lengths of trails, roads, and stonewalls to mention a few.
For most conservation organizations with limited resources directed at invasive plant control projects, short-term projects, with sporadic volunteer and staff help, take one year or less to complete. Short-term control projects become quite popular with in-house staff and volunteers.
The second category is long-term and involves a more scheduled and extended time commitment for invasive plant removal because the targeted invasive is more abundant and/or distributed over a wider range (e.g. dense glossy buckthorn population infesting an area greater than one acre). This type of control project involves additional criteria for completion such as the hauling and proper stacking of the removed targeted invasive into piles for transport out of the work area to a centralized location for pick up and then disposal off site or woodchip processing on site. In other words, more project planning for equipment needed, volunteer and paid staff scheduling, and specified work dates and times are involved.
These and other work tasks associated with larger removal projects tend to complicate the schedules and mindset of budget conscious administrators who want definite start and finish times for work projects. Again, the extra labor, time and money required for these long-term control projects tend to strain existing budgets and the busy schedules of paid staff. It’s not uncommon that well-intentioned, long-term control projects become delayed or even abandoned because of the frustration generated by the lack of in-house resources.
Therefore, to be on the path to success at removing exotic invasive plants your conservation organization must develop and maintain a strong or sustainable volunteer program that specifically supports your organization’s mission statement, strategic plan, and invasive plant management goals. If your organization does not have a definite invasive plant management plan as part of its strategic plan, it must make additions or corrections into the strategic plan for a permanent volunteer invasive plant management program for the sole purpose of saving native plant germination, growth, and sustainability. Remember, exotic invasive plants are pests on the native landscape, slowly and effectively weakening native plant establishment and sustainability.
Crafting Your Volunteer Exotic Invasive Plant Management Program
It’s important to insert the terms “ongoing” and “monitoring” into your written invasive plant management plan. Also, make sure that the terms are defined.
Organize for Ongoing Efforts
For long-term projects (greater than one year), the invasive plant management goals must include and embrace the concept of having no immediate timeline for completion. In other words, the goal timeframe must be termed “ongoing.” Ongoing means that you and your well-trained and enthusiastic volunteers return to the designated project at least four times a year (preferably six or more times a year) until the targeted invasive plant population is removed or reduced by 90% of its total population in your chosen area of infestation.
Inserting the term ongoing into project written descriptions relieves the host organization from unattainable completion dates (including conflicts with administrators) and allows more time for the continuous recruitment of interested volunteers, because volunteers have their own lives and come and go at will. It also implies to the public and your membership that a definite, working invasive plant management plan is in continuous operation as part of your organization’s strategic plan for native plant conservation.
Eventually, a strong and frequently small number of volunteers will emerge to help your organization with the daunting task of managing the conservation of native plant populations from the encroachment of exotic invasive plant populations.
Plan for Continued Monitoring
Monitoring in the profession of pest control implies that pest surveillance must be continuous or ongoing for control to be effective. We all know this from personal experience!
Inserting the term “monitoring” into project written descriptions and in management practices also strengthens the dedication staff and volunteers have for the ongoing project and shows that there are more important pest control tasks in exotic invasive plant control programs than just removing invasive plants from a designated site. Monitoring (visually inspecting) for newly germinating invasive plants is a necessary pest control component for saving native plant populations from encroaching invasive plants. Monitoring for invasive plants during and after project completion must be ongoing. Monitoring for newly emerging invasive plants in the area of removed invasive plants as well as in areas not worked can be a task for trained volunteers that will make your ongoing program a success. Monitoring is always ongoing whether it is checking for aphids on garden plants or for weeds in your prized rose garden.
Competing for grant money or donations to supplement existing invasive plant control programs or to start a new program should not be mutually exclusive. In other words, developing a strong volunteer program and competing for grant money should be done simultaneously. Do everything you can for saving your native plant populations on your site and reduce the spread of exotic invasive plants beyond your property line.
Developing Your Volunteer Exotic Invasive Plant Management Program
Conduct a survey. First, your organization needs to survey (identify) the particular exotic invasive plant or plants that need to be removed for the purpose of conserving the surrounding native plant populations. [Based on my experience, there will be high interest and support for removing invasive plants, but few, if any interested paid staff will participate more than once on scheduled work days. It will prove to be too time consuming and laborious. Grounds personnel are usually the ones that participate]. Conducting an invasive plant survey of woody and herbaceous plants will help shape the control strategies needed and volunteer deployment. Keep in mind that not all control options are suitable and legal for volunteers. You may not want volunteers operating wood chippers and chainsaws, and herbicide use is restricted to trained and licensed grounds staff.
Develop logistics. Second, all organization staff, including Human Resources, should meet to determine the logistics for the development and need for a volunteer exotic invasive plant management program based on your exotic invasive plant survey. The meeting or meetings should define the goal, which is to preserve native plant populations both woody and herbaceous. Human Resources can advise you about volunteer liability issues and waiver agreements.
Put someone in charge. Third, define who will develop and coordinate the volunteer program and work with the volunteers. Almost all conservation organizations have a grounds department or grounds personnel. An interested person from grounds should be responsible for program development, coordination in the field, and for follow up progress reports to the organization. He or she should be in communication with other departments within the organization via e-mail reports and/or basic staff meetings about program developments, needs, problems, and progress.
Progress reports of work done help people in the organization connect with the visual change presented in the landscape after a volunteer group has been working in a specified area. The landscape being worked will show a new openness in combination with new plant refuse piles. Visiting members may inquire at the front office about what is going on and why. This is the best time to educate members, face to face, about the dangers of exotic invasive plants and the importance of native plant conservation.
Keep your organization’s membership informed. They can read the progress reports written in your newsletter. Exotic invasive plant fact sheets produced in-house can be very useful tools for educating volunteers and membership about the dangers of these types of plants and also confirm your organization’s commitment to this volunteer program.
In-house produced fact sheets on the exotic invasive plant targeted for removal should be written by knowledgeable staff using science-based resources or downloaded and printed off from reputable science-based websites such as www.invasive.org or The Nature Conservancy.
The processing or removal of invasive plant refuse piles is also an important component to your overall volunteer program and needs to be carried out as part of your defined exotic invasive plant management plan. The logistics for this should be worked out by in-house staff.
If your conservation organization is a small one and has limited grounds staff, you could make the volunteer coordinator position a volunteer job; however, an administrator would work closely with this person.
A word of caution. If an administrator or other non-grounds staff becomes appointed as the volunteer coordinator, that individual must have a good working relationship with existing grounds personnel. Good communication is the key. For example, if the volunteer coordinator changes work times or work locations without prior communication of the change to grounds people, resentment between the grounds personnel and coordinator can damage the continuity of the program. Most likely, the grounds personnel will feel less appreciated and less respected.
Often breakdown in communication can be traced to secrecy between groups or real or perceived favoritism of one group over another. Staff competition for personal recognition within the organization can play out to the point of hurting the entire volunteer program. To be fair, you also want to avoid the situation in which the grounds personnel override the volunteer coordinator. Communication must be transparent! It may be necessary to have your immediate department or organization take a seminar about the strategies of managing people in the work environment, particularly managing difficult people. See Resources below.
Define volunteer roles. Fourth, your organization’s staff needs to produce a volunteer announcement, schedule a volunteer orientation meeting and present a volunteer job description. Specifically focusing on invasive plant removal clearly states the ecological problem at hand and the skills and abilities needed of potential volunteers to manage the problem. Without volunteer help to remove these problem plants, the preserve, arboretum or sanctuary’s exotic invasive plant populations will only get worse and continue threatening, overtaking, and encroaching on various native plant populations on the property and beyond its property line. Neighbors of such organizations will be delighted to find out that the invasive plants are being managed by staff and organized volunteers. Some of these neighbors may be potential volunteers!
Volunteer Announcement: how to get the word out
Volunteer recruitment can be done in many ways: (1) word of mouth; (2) Board of Directors; (3) local newspaper ads or articles (This avenue was the most successful for me when I worked at Mass Audubon.); (4) websites and the many social media sites in existence (facebook, twitter, etc.); (5) flyers and posters posted at local businesses; (6) networking with similar like-minded organizations; (7) posting ads at local colleges, libraries, and schools; (8) posting ads that other conservation organizations use to recruit volunteers; (9) set up a booth representing your organization and volunteer needs at fairs and professional conferences; (10) give a free talk at the local library or garden club about your volunteer program and the biology of invasive plants; or (11) advertise in your own organization’s newsletter.
These announcements should include all the vital details. Include a volunteer description and give the date, time, and location of the Volunteer Orientation Meeting. Describe the work needing to be done and indicate why it is important for native plant conservation at your organization.
Volunteer Job Description. A volunteer job description is the best way to inform people about your plan. It should be developed carefully and then written and posted in all announcements. It should also be passed out to all potential volunteers at the orientation meeting.
Here is a sample volunteer job description. You can develop one that fits your situation.
The Native Woodlands Wildlife Sanctuary (NWWS), 1234 Country Road, Any Town, Any State, Zip Code – Phone #
Point Person: (include contact information)
The Native Woodlands Wildlife Sanctuary is seeking able-bodied conservation volunteers of all ages (or list age range ) to help with the ongoing removal (pulling by hand or mechanical pulling device) of the exotic invasive shrub, glossy buckthorn, Rhamnus frangula. Less able-bodied people can assist with monitoring (visually inspecting) for newly emerging shrubs. Our goal is to remove this spreading shrub from selected sites on the sanctuary where it is threatening native plant populations and reducing and/or weakening native plant germination, growth, and sustainability.
Conservation minded volunteers are needed to assist staff with the management of this highly invasive shrub. If you are interested, we are having an orientation meeting on July 15, 2015, from 9 a.m. to 12 noon in the main lecture hall. ALL INTERESTED VOLUNTEERS MUST ATTEND THIS MEETING. Please contact_____________ at phone # __________ or e-mail at __________ to register.
Conducting a Volunteer Orientation Meeting
This meeting informs potential volunteers that have responded to your advertisement about the specifics of the program and should be scheduled during the hours of the actual volunteer program. For example, if you need volunteers to pull glossy buckthorn on Wednesday morning from 9 a.m. to 12 noon, then hold your orientation meeting for volunteer recruitment at that time. Potential volunteers that have that time available in their schedules will more than likely make time for you.
The Orientation Meeting is the time when you can review the biology of invasive plants needing removal and explain why it is important to protect native plant populations from these invasive plants. You can also give a property tour and show potential volunteers what these exotic plants look like and the damage they do. Take time to demonstrate how hard or easy it is to hand pull them and how to use a Weed Wrench® or other plant pulling device.
As part of an Integrated Pest Management (I.P.M.) program you can explain that woody plants that are hard to hand pull or are difficult to mechanically pull must be cut one inch from the ground so that pesticide licensed staff can apply an appropriate herbicide to the freshly cut stump. Brush hauling and brush pile stacking can be reviewed as well as other labor tasks pertinent to your site and program goals. It is a very physical endeavor and not all volunteers will perform at the same level of physical exertion.
Both potential volunteers and the host organization need to know the program expectations and physical skills needed for the program to be effective. Many people will be interested in the cause but will not have the physical capability to participate in more rigorous tasks. Those people can still participate by doing less strenuous tasks. It’s up to you to place these types of volunteers where applicable. Some potential volunteers just won’t work out.
At your orientation meeting, potential volunteers find out if they can or cannot participate. Volunteers also need to know the volunteer work dates, times, locations and work time commitment for the host organization to reach its goal. Remember, long-term projects (> 1 year) should be defined as ongoing. Once the program is underway, volunteer work dates can be placed in the organization’s newsletter. You can also update volunteers through periodic e-mails and personal phone calls.
Your Small, Dedicated Volunteer Group or Groups
There are many types of people who volunteer. You might get youth, middle-aged or older adults, or individuals with special needs. You may get people interested in a short-term commitment as well as long-term commitment types. Individuals may be motivated for personal reasons, or their interest may come from a community service program run by the local schools, religious organizations, or Boy Scout and Girl Scout programs. At Mass Audubon, I was very successful at recruiting and maintaining Eagle Scouts, individuals and families, and members of religious organizations as volunteers. Over time, a small and very dedicated invasive plant volunteer group emerged that returned year after year to help with invasive plant removal.
Some Extra Points to Consider to Retain Volunteers
- Treat every volunteer as an equal. Always work with them. There is no bad motivation when people volunteer. They just have different levels of ability and motivation. All are valued and all are welcomed.
- Structure the event. Provide a checklist of tasks and include the reason why these tasks are important. You need to be available for volunteers needing direction and finding out their interests. Remember, volunteers are helping you for free! Be on their side.
- Observe volunteer’s behaviors. Some like doing things for a short time, some for a long time. As a supervisor, you need to adjust to their levels of motivation and ability. If someone wants to use a Weed Wrench® for only five shrubs, that’s okay. If the task is too difficult, have another task ready for that person. Don’t let volunteers be idle or they will feel left out of the event. You must help them connect to your organization. Make them feel useful by providing them with other work task choices. Focus on their interests and skill levels. Do not be judgmental and compare who is better than whom. Competing against one another is out. I used to frequently say to my volunteer groups that pulling out buckthorn is not a race about who can pull more. It is a task that helps native plants survive. You need to create an atmosphere of “no competition,” where everyone’s ability is contributing to the goal! I frequently found myself stating this with every short-term group that volunteered for me at Mass Audubon. It worked! I got a few people who expressed to me that they liked feeling included and not judged. Again, focus on your volunteers’ interests and skill levels. Be a careful listener!
- Have food and beverage breaks during the volunteer work day. Everyone breaks at the same time. I found that volunteers take the time to socialize and get to know one another. You need to provide this kind of structure so volunteers feel it is more than just a work event. Volunteering is a social event too!
- Have name tags and/or special tee-shirts made for volunteers. Give volunteers something that identifies them as a part of your organization. It is now their organization!
- Include your volunteers in your organization’s holiday parties and other special events. These events are usually reserved for paid employees, but need to include the volunteer staff so they get the signal that they are a part of the organization and greatly appreciated. I used to have a separate “greenhouse party” for volunteers at Mass Audubon just before Thanksgiving to show my personal appreciation for their efforts. Volunteers were always invited to our sanctuary holiday party.
- Break up work groups by age and ability. Weaker people work with stronger people. Older people work with younger people. Mixing up ages and abilities helps with the socialization process. This especially works well with large, long-term invasive plant projects.
- Do not view volunteers as your personal servants. Volunteers continue to volunteer because they feel respected, needed, and valued. If you frequently lose volunteers, you may need to go through some self evaluation. Ask your departed volunteers why they did not stay. Did the organization or volunteer program or supervisor meet their expectations? Did they have personal problems with the work tasks or other volunteers? When we lost a few volunteers at Mass Audubon they said that the organization was great, but they had physical difficulty with pulling and stacking buckthorn. We still included them in all staff parties because they volunteered for a long-term project and contributed to native plant conservation goals for the organization.
- Be flexible with your long-term volunteers. Some have other commitments and may skip one or many volunteer events or work days. Assure them that they are not out of the volunteer program. We (the organization) adapts to them. Let them know that you appreciate their efforts and allow flexibility. This approach works for short-term projects too.
- In addition to invitations to holiday parties and the like, you can show your appreciation by holding a once a year Volunteer Appreciation Party where you can provide food and citations. Thank everyone all in the same event at the same time and hope that all your volunteers are present.
- Have your volunteers sign a volunteer work log for each session to keep track of the hours they donate to the project. This will also give you a better idea about the time required, in person hours, for you to reach your goal.
- As your program becomes more successful, you may want to write down the details learned in a volunteer handbook for your own organization.
Keep It Local
In closing, aim your efforts towards the people in your community. Local people have more concern for conservation projects close to where they live. Exotic invasive plant control projects are a direct way to save native plant life. Volunteering at conservation organizations in your community or region is the best way to start learning and doing real conservation work. Check out Mass Audubon, The Trustees of Reservations, New England Wildflower Society, Lands Sake in the Town of Weston, and other non-profit conservation organizations for invasive plant control volunteer opportunities. Local garden clubs may have their own invasive plant projects too. Check around if you want to be a volunteer. Non-profit conservation organizations will be grateful!
SkillPath Seminars. www.SkillPath.com (800) – 873-7545
I have attended two SkillPath seminars and found them to be very informative. If you are involved with volunteers at your organization check into the seminar they offer called “Dealing Effectively with Unacceptable Employee Behavior.” I took it, and it was excellent. SkillPath offers many publications to help with managing organizations. The SkillPath book, Coping with Supervisory Nightmares by Michael and Deborah Singer Dobson, is a valuable reference for managing employees, paid or volunteer.
About the author
Bruce Wenning is the horticulturist at The Country Club, Brookline, MA, and has managed volunteers for invasive plant projects for more than 15 years. When he worked at Mass Audubon, Habitat Sanctuary, Belmont, MA he developed and coordinated the Save Our Sanctuary (S.O.S.) Invasive Exotic Plant Management Volunteer Group. From 1998 to 2006 the Habitat sanctuary grounds department recruited and worked with approximately 110 volunteers and removed close to 9,000 buckthorn plants covering about 25 plus acres.