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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Restoration, Volunteers and the Human Community

Note: This post is a book chapter(see references)that I wrote primarily for professionals - the audience of the book. In time, I hope to write a companion piece primarily for volunteers. One way volunteers might use this professional version is to share it with sympathetic ecologists or volunteer coordinators in the agencies that own conservation land. They, in turn, might share it with others in their agencies who may have trouble supporting or understanding how and why volunteers are empowered.  

A thriving volunteer program can be a major ecological (and political) asset, but it’s not easy to build. Such a program, in some situations, may make the difference between success and failure. Creating and supporting a fine program requires special kinds of proficiency, resources, and leadership.

Especially for public lands in or near metropolitan areas – the influence, expertise, and commitment of volunteers (and the community support that they may help foster) can help determine: a) whether project components get approved in the first place, b) whether needed permits are issued, c) how well the work is funded, d) whether the press and community support the mission, and e) whether long term follow-up is adequate.

Collaborative volunteer programs are fundamentally different from many standard volunteer programs and need different kinds of leadership. Many professionals are surprised by how much decision-making authority is delegated to highly experienced volunteer stewards in some of the best programs. Leadership restoration volunteers may in time become dedicated experts who make technical decisions on a regular basis. In an advanced program, some volunteers become colleagues and spokespeople as full partners.

A collaborative rather than “top down” approach is crucial. Training and empowering volunteer leaders and volunteer experts opens the door to initiative, creativity, and dedication far beyond what any organization could afford to hire, especially at this stage in the history of restoration.  Some volunteers have worked for decades to be become experts in some fields. The respect and freedom granted them are crucial parts of the volunteers’ motivation and “compensation.” Some organizations with the most advanced programs regularly entrust some expert volunteers with broader authorization and flexibility than some professional staff in some situations.

This chapter is directed to those who make three sets of decisions. Section 1 speaks to those who decide whether or not, and at what phase, a project will support the creation of a collaborative volunteer program (often called a “volunteer community”). Section 2 is directed toward those who will hire and supervise the leader(s) of that program. Section 3 is speaks to those who will launch and lead the program day to day (including the leadership volunteer themselves).

Section 1.
Recommendations to Upper-level Decision-makers

Volunteers may cost more than they’re worth. Or they can be crucial to the success of the project. To determine whether a collaborative volunteer program is worth it to you, consider these questions.

1.     How important is community support for getting needed funding and permits?

2.     Can your goals be achieved by the level of funding and staff available? If not, you may want to a) choose more realistic goals, b) find a way to increase professional resources available, or c) plan and implement a volunteer program that can do what otherwise couldn’t be done.  

3.     How important is public support and media? What advantages would accrue from community spokespeople and educational “human interest” stories about dedicated local volunteers?

4.     How secure is the long-term plan? Will there be the necessary resources from year to year and decade to decade? How important might community support and volunteer commitment be to the continuing evolution of the restored natural community?

One way to approach these questions is to explore how ambitious the effort will be and what the long-term vision is. Aiming for a high diversity of plants and animals (especially species of conservation concern) may enhance community support. But such quality can be expensive. 

Early Planning

If you’ve decided on strong community involvement, involve local community leaders, conservation activists, and the prospective volunteer facilitator in the early planning. They may improve some fundamental components of the project. They may suggest major or subtle changes in language, sequencing, etc. that can have powerful leverage. Most important, they will be partners.

One key element is the “spirit” of the “people component” of the mission. This spirit needs attention, even in early planning stages. What you want is a lofty vision supported by a collaborative, get-things-done, agreeable work ethic. One thing you do not want from staff or volunteers is a “crusading,” “fundamentalist,” “holier than thou” kind of environmentalism that, among other problems, is prone to public contention and internal bickering.

Would a pilot project help tell the story and close the deal? A positive atmosphere surrounding a much smaller project in the same area could go a long way toward selling a larger project. The smaller project could have its own little “kick-off” and messaging (see section 3). If the pilot were to have expensive expert guidance but otherwise be run collaboratively with true volunteers, then media and community interactions could thoroughly set the stage for the larger project.

On the other hand, it’s a mistake to ask for volunteers for a project that is not approved and may be subject to delays. People who drop out are not likely to drop back in later. People who become adversarial advocates may foster an unhelpful spirit of controversy around the project.

Planners of restoration may adopt a variety of approaches to sequencing. Those in charge may choose, for example, to plant ten percent of its area each year for ten years. Or it may choose to start the work in the whole area at the same time and gradually improve diversity and quality over years or decades. Volunteer strategies should be part of these decisions.

Quality restoration typically takes years to initiate and decades to mature. Some decades-old projects still consider themselves to be in early stages. Poorly planned initiatives often identify funding for a few years and assume that minor custodial care will be sufficient for the subsequent decades. In some cases you can almost hear backroom planners say, “Let’s do the parts that are easy to fund and them dump the mess on local staff or volunteers.” In certain situations the “low maintenance” prediction may be accurate. In others, especially those with ambitious biodiversity and conservation goals, substantial inputs may be needed for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, there are examples where the restoration makes progress for a while and then deteriorates, or a project may even be abandoned as invasives overwhelm resources, commitment, and patience.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service adopted an existing volunteer program to help rescue the prairie white-fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) from its Threatened status. At certain sites – where volunteers do most of the scientific monitoring, hand-pollinate the plants, cage them from deer, and combat invasive species – orchid numbers have soared where few plants or none had survived before the volunteer teams went to work.

Another problem for organization decision-makers to consider: you may not be in that position ten or twenty years from now. A collaborative volunteer program may be expensive to initiate yet more than worth it as the investment pays increasing dividends decades after decade. However, a community of stewards will thrive only with support from future decision-makers. Be creative about adopting effective means of communicating strategy and commitments to future leaders. In the short run, take pains to truly support the volunteer facilitation staff – to protect them from other parts of the organization where current and future staff may be slow to understand the unusual nature of the partnership with the volunteers.

Section 2.

Recommendations to the person who hires and supervises the volunteer “coach” or “boss”

What kinds of people make the best leadership for collaborative volunteer projects?

The principle facilitator is typically a paid staff member, but it can be a dedicated volunteer who wants to make a major commitment. Regardless, this person has to be smart, nice, and dedicated. Those three words pack great power. A “smart” person is preferably knowledgeable, but the people we’re looking for are quick to admit what they don’t know and talented at finding out where to go for various types of expertise. A “nice” person, in this context, is fundamentally generous and has excellent social skills. You can be well intentioned but not really “nice” in this context without those social skills. You have to understand what the other people need, what they perceive, how to help them grow and their spirits to blossom.  A person too “self-confident” or “full of themself” often can’t do it – even though knowledgeable and dedicated.

An alternative is to have the volunteers report to a dedicated conservation ecologist whose knowledge and commitment inspires the volunteers – who then themselves handle many of the interpersonal, political, and organizational challenges, through accomplished individuals with the needed skills.

In my experience, professionally trained “Volunteer Coordinators” are often the worst choice for leadership. Though they may be excellent for the needs of some institutions, they are likely to try to create the wrong kind of program for this purpose. At a conference that featured a collaborative volunteer program, a puzzled representative of a federal agency revealed his experience with this comment, "At first I couldn't understand how volunteers could be given so much authority and do so well by it. After a while it came to me. Volunteers can work wonders if you keep them away from  the Volunteer Coordinators.” In his agency, he was familiar with outstanding volunteerism mostly in a few “hardship” situations where a dedicated scientist or ranger worked directly with the volunteers, instead of through a staff volunteer coordinator. These volunteers were motivated by and learned from the vision and passion of the expert. The professional volunteer coordinator may believe in motivation through donuts, embossed certificates, and wanting busy smart people to sit through tedious “volunteer appreciation events. 

Perhaps even more importantly, professional volunteer coordinators may have learned to look for the wrong people and make the wrong decisions for this kind of initiative. Many programs are designed for relatively passive (by-the-book, “easy to work with”) volunteers who are able to withstand the delays, reverses, and limitations of bureaucracies. These people may be expensive to supervise, relative to what they can accomplish. In contrast, what a collaborative program wants is volunteer leaders who will do the supervision and who themselves may organize their own more meaningful appreciation events.

In other words, for this kind of initiative, we are looking for volunteer leaders who are motivated by the actual mission. This kind of person is impatient for real results, creative about new approaches, viscerally dedicated to the ecosystem, and has good judgment on when to seek official approval and when not to bother people. Such people move on if bureaucracy prevents them from making the kinds of contribution they’re capable of making.

Effective volunteer facilitators have only casual contact with most volunteers and spend most of their time recruiting, training, and empowering volunteer leaders. A big part of the work of a good volunteer facilitator is to protect the leadership volunteers from bottlenecks and agency politics.

It’s worth time and trouble to find the unusual person who can facilitate a strong program of this kind. She or he will likely have to work hard for modest pay. But the satisfaction is huge. Sometimes the right person is a bit old for an apparently “entry level” job but has “special circumstances.” Perhaps he or she is emerging from an early adulthood headed in the wrong direction by pursuit of flawed idealism and now is eager to finally sink their teeth into something important for the long haul. Perhaps they’ve had some success at another career trajectory but realize they want more vision, optimism, and real-world results in their lives.

In the best cases, the facilitator finds volunteer leaders who become admired life-long friends. He or she recognizes people ready to commit themselves deeply and helps them do it in a way that works for them.

Assuming for the purposes of this chapter, that the Volunteer Facilitator has now been selected, Section 3 will be addressed to that person.

Section 3.

Recommendations to Volunteer Facilitator and Leaders

Many projects start with a “Kick-Off” event that can be utterly critical. This event is worth thorough preparation and a lot of work. The principles of the volunteer component should have been agreed to in a way that will empower the facilitator and emerging volunteer leaders to start right in to run their own part of the operation. The most important preparation work is inspired outreach that attracts many potential leadership volunteers.

During the kick-off, define the project in the minds of the public and potential volunteer leaders. In good graphics and summarizing language convey the vision, the challenge, and that this important mission truly needs dedicated, trained volunteers to succeed. Convey why the event is historic and that people who want to lend a hand can be a part of that history.

Have a kick-off event at the right time of year. Seasonality issues will differ depending on geography and ecosystem type. For example, in northern Illinois, late March and early September are good times. Fall and spring are key times for “getting to know you” events and stewardship tasks (planting, controlling weeds, gathering seeds). They allow for three months of opportunity for potential leaders to bond with the site and their colleagues under the most welcoming conditions. In mature projects, winter becomes a major time for strategic volunteer brush control (and bonfire burning with cookouts and socializing in the snow), but new people may stop coming when wintry weather challenges them. Summer can also put people off, partly because of heat, mosquitoes, and chiggers, but also because the work needed may be more demanding and thus is less accessible to new people. Examples of summer work include applying herbicides to problem invasives and technically complex care for endangered and rare species.

It’s sometimes a good idea to headline the kick-off with an inspiring speaker who believes in the project (but has the political good sense to get out of the way after speaking). It’s never a good idea to burden the event with bureaucrats or officials who “need to be included” for political reasons. Find some other way to honor them. The speeches and displays at the event should be brief enough to “leave people wanting more” when the time comes to hike through the ecosystem and sign up for possible responsibilities.

A detailed example of such a kick-off may make this critical event easier to understand. When the Forest Preserve District of Cook County and The Nature Conservancy decided to work together on a major restoration of the Poplar Creek Prairie, the event had just two speakers, Professor Robert F. Betz and me. Professor Betz was a respected veteran of many restoration projects large and small (e.g. the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory prairie restoration). He told the crowd of the plight of the nearly vanished eastern tallgrass prairie, regaled them with a couple of brief stories of problem solving and dramatic success, and ended with a vision. It went something like: “You know how when you get a new car or a new appliance, at first you’re proud and take such good care of it. And then one day it gets its first scratch, and bit by bit it ages and starts to go down hill? Well look around at this beautiful site and realize today is the exact opposite. This is the worst you’ll ever see it. Year by year, month by month, and day by day, thanks to many of you, it will get richer, more beautiful, more important, more worthy of your pride. Thank you.”

I said rather little. As the person who was to be the volunteer facilitator, I just needed to establish myself as the guy to talk to – and briefly describe next steps.  I had intended to announce a walking tour where I’d have the opportunity to answer specific questions and listen to the ideas of people who seemed to be especially interested. But we had an unexpected problem. Although we had put notices in every newspaper and group newsletter we could reach and sent notes to every possibly interested name we could round up, we had expected perhaps 15 or 20 people to show up. The invitation had said, “Come if you want to volunteer.” Eighty people showed. I quickly found substitute tour leaders to replace me and then made this announcement:

“Thanks for the impressive turnout. We had expected to do some initial planning with the group as a whole, on the hike. But, congratulations, this is too big a turnout for that. We need a smaller group to develop some plans for our larger group. How many people, in addition to volunteering, would be willing to help make the plan and lead?”

An impressive twelve people raised their hands. I said, “Great, meet me right now, under that tree over there, and we’ll get down to work.” Then someone else took over and organized tour groups for the seventy. (The tour leaders would then end with the announcement that the planning group would reach out to everyone before next weekend with a volunteer schedule.)

Thus, for a few minutes our group under the tree discussed our abilities and passions. Then we stopped for initial comments. One person said, “I could write the newsletter.” One said, “I know how to do seed gathering, I could lead that.” Another said, “I did controlled burns for the Forest Service, I could head that up.” Soon we had weekly organized projects of many kinds. The burn crews, of course, had professional staff as training wheels for a while, but in time, the expert volunteer crew did burns on their own. One of the most important offers came a few days later: “I’m VP for personnel at a tech company. I could head up recruiting, training, community outreach, parties, and internal leadership ladders.” We were off and running.

Some volunteer programs start big. After a well-publicized kick-off, these dozen quickly-trained new lead volunteers plan the first big work event. They supervised the 80 new volunteers who responded to publicity and turned up to seed eight miles of plowed strips. Some of these leaders would still be with the “Poplar Creek Prairie Stewards” (as they named themselves) three decades later. 

Over the decades that project saw ups and downs in levels of funding, staff support, special appropriations for “heavy lifting” components, etc. What it did not see was “downs” in the commitment and confidence of the volunteer congregation. Leaders evolved and changed. Many new people joined the team. And the consistent motivator and reward was the ecosystem. As Dr. Betz predicted, Poplar Creek’s prairie, woodland, and wetland communities got richer and healthier year after year. Rare plants proliferated by the thousands, then millions; rare birds returned to sing and nest and raise young; rare butterflies and dragonflies hovered over flowers and ponds.

The “Poplar Creek Prairie Stewards,” as the group chose to call itself, have been a consistent community that Forest Preserve staff have relied on. Over a quarter century, the project has grown in size, goals, quality, and reputation, with dozens of volunteer leaders and hundreds of dedicated individuals. It’s crucial that they enjoy each other and are appreciated. But fundamentally, they do it because they’re needed and because it works.

Challenges in Early Stages

The stories of successful volunteer communities are variations on the theme illustrated by Poplar Creek. What are the elements that contribute to success for this kind of conservation?

After the kick-off, the new community needs momentum and triumphs in order to jell as a group and begin its own evolution. While collaborating with the overall plan, the new people need to begin problem-solving. Staff can help in many ways, but a key is to admit and convey that paid people are not capable of doing the volunteer leader job. It is crucial that capable leaders be empowered as soon as possible.

A schedule of bi-weekly or weekly events (three hours long) often seems right for a start. “Too much too quick” scares people away. Too infrequent events prevent the formation of a growing critical mass. Some good people may say, “Well, I only have time for this once a month, or once a quarter, so let’s start slow.” No good. Those people don’t believe in this particular mission enough to make it part of their day-to-day lives. They can’t lead it. Find people who believe in it. Don’t let ‘important’ or ‘expert’ putative volunteer leaders intimidate the people who actually could lead day to day. Respect the people who show up; listen to their ideas; give them your time; help them succeed.

Harvesting seeds too rare to buy is often a good first focus when starting in fall. Even a project with millions of dollars in funding often misses two important components in their seed mixes. One is the highly local seed that may contain parts of the gene pool found nowhere else. The other is certain ‘difficult to propagate’ species that may be important to certain animals, to community structure, and to natural diversity generally. The volunteers can learn these species, seek them out (often in interesting places that add to the drama of the mission), harvest them, and sow them. Volunteers may be able to negotiate approval to gather seed from sites that would otherwise be off limits to contractors and agencies. They may be willing to search out some species that otherwise would be prohibitively expensive for contractors or agency staff to find. Some species that aren’t commercially available can be introduced in small numbers by painstaking volunteer work (for example, growing bulbs in gardens and transplanting them into the ecosystem while dormant). In many cases, once introduced in small numbers, species left out of most restorations start to proliferate profusely according to their own ways. Professionals can (expensively) do this work too, but it may take years, and the results are often better as product of a volunteer community and very rewarding for the people who do it.

At early sessions, initially perhaps led by the volunteer facilitator, be quick about empowering people, ambitiously but reasonably. One potential leader may offer to start a Facebook page. Another may offer to help lead a special brush control or seed gathering project. Excellent. Jump on it. Help potential leaders be successful and seen as such.
Mentor leaders to contribute to plans. Don’t do the plan yourself. Focus your time on the many people who seem to have potential to lead. Even a superhero facilitator often can’t tell for a while who will come through. Many will have limitations that take some time to overcome. Some who seem great initially may fade in the long run, for a wide variety of reasons. You’re actually fishing for someone in the tiny minority of people who have what it takes – and for whom this opportunity is just what they need.

Often the best leaders are humble and argue that others with more expertise should be given authority. Fine. Let them consider themselves to be more “supporters” than “leaders.” But help them be successful; show them publically the respect their work deserves; help the group sort out leader relationships that work. Often an ‘introvert’ and an ‘extrovert’ make an effective leadership team, if they trust and support each other. Focus on the mission. Volunteers quickly support others who are advancing a mission all believe in.

Although it should go without saying, never give volunteers trivial work “to keep them busy.” That’s a sure way to lose the volunteers with the most capability and integrity. If some snafu stands in the way of the most important work, and you must offer lesser work in the meantime, be honest about the process, reasons, etc. Do not be cynical and pessimistic, of course. Resolve the snafu as quickly as possible.

As volunteers develop abilities and achieve goals, celebrate them in the ways that will be most appreciated by the individuals and the group. Perhaps quietly; perhaps publically; perhaps both. Do the humble work that will support the leaders’ successes. Later, members of their teams will do that work, but for now you find needed tools, or expertise, or take on some of the drudge tasks. Your most important job is to facilitate the success of the volunteer leaders.  

Mistakes to avoid

A longer list of cautions would be easy to make. But the seven examples below illustrate general principles.

1.     Approving bad ideas. What do you do when a new leader excitedly proposes something that is “not that great” an idea? There’s a temptation to say, “Well that really isn’t a priority” (discouraging?) and there’s an opposing temptation to say “Sure, let’s try it” (possible learning and increased commitment; possible disappointment and disruption?). One good alternative may be to explore “tweaks” that might transform the proposal into something good. Another possibility is to suggest comparing that approach with a more tried-and-true one – possibly even proposing to write up the results for a contribution to the literature or blogosphere.  
2.     Wasting early time on schools, companies, and churches. It’s tempting to shy away from the one-to-one relationships that are key to community. Schools, companies, churches, and other groups may be valuable components in the longer run, but early on, focus on individuals who’ll be regulars. Find the project’s own people.
3.     Lack of clear chain of authority. In agencies where a collaborative volunteer program is not well understood, any staff person may believe that they have the authority to start, stop, or overrule the work of any volunteer. Instead, it is critical that the each lead volunteer “reports” through one person who can approve or not. If other staff people want to make changes, they should work through that chain of command.
4.     Avoid bureaucratic “start,” “stop,” and “do the opposite.” People in large organizations often have to put up with a lot of waiting and reversals. Although in many respects it is good practice to “treat volunteers like unpaid staff,” in this case it is not. Every effort should be made by the volunteer facilitator to protect the volunteers from this kind of thing. Staffs have to put up with it. Volunteer dedication deserves and requires a higher standard.
5.     Avoid staff resentment. One frequent result of efforts to avoid problem 4 is that some staff may begin to resent the volunteers as “pampered.” But one of the payments to volunteers is that they are spared as much of the idiocy of bureaucracy as possible. Some staff actually work as volunteers for other organizations which give them more freedom to think, solve problems, and see quick results. Good relations between staff and volunteers is a priority that requires creativity. Talk with people; promote understanding.
6.     The “Individualist Hero” error. In celebrating triumphs of volunteerism, beware of the temptation to present the steward as a crusader against the world. The public loves (and thus media rushes to celebrate) the lone hero who triumphs. Some element of that can be in the PR. But overall, it’s misleading and provokes resentment among partners. Ecological restoration is so complex that deep expertise and teamwork are usually required. Plans deserve advice and review by the most dedicated and knowledgeable people (possibly professors, long-time volunteer experts, specialist staff, entrepreneurs). Celebrate them too. Celebrate collaboration.

7.     Undue deference to counterproductive experts. Many professors and other “experts” give counterproductive advice. Some respected project leader needs to mediate and point the team toward conservationist scientists with true expertise on practical questions. The project needs a core of scientific expertise that is respected. All concerned need to know that the overall decision-making process is well-founded.

Watch your language!

Because this work depends on collaboration, facilitative language is key. Expert use of volunteer language is not “common sense.” Here’s a bad example illustrating three common errors: “Thanks for helping us. We’re really glad we decided to use volunteers. You’ve saved us a lot of money.”

The first fault in the bad example is the verb “use.” To speak of “using” people is alienating. In common language, when people “use” others, they are taking advantage of them manipulatively.   

The second error often results from quick briefings. Some official has been told that the volunteers have saved the organization money. “Bottom line” is all some officials have time for. But it’s the wrong bottom line. Better: “With our collaborative volunteer program we have set higher goals, met higher standards, and accomplished more. We can all be proud.” Conservation volunteers are motivated by the opportunity to make things better than they otherwise would be. That’s what they want to be recognized for. Often volunteer facilitators and leaders find ourselves needing to apologize for short-sighted comments of this sort. The program volunteers and staff can deal with it. But the less miscommunication the better.

Another way to put it is that the well-intentioned decision maker has lost sight of the program’s vision. A volunteer’s motivation is probably not principally to save the taxpayers money. It’s to help nature, the environment, and or people’s quality of life.

The third problem is the “we” versus “you” contrast. The language should be inclusive. When someone says, “We want to thank you,” that person is saying that those being addressed are not one of “us.” Better language: “We are gathered to celebrate major steps forward in this partnership of staff and volunteers. We have a lot to be proud of.”

Considerations as the program matures

A project with strong agency and public support will over the years grow in staff, volunteers, and advisors. These people will have the experience, wisdom, and ability to notice opportunities or problems and design initiatives far better than what can be suggested generically here. But a few principles, special cautions, and success stories seem worth outlining.

Ongoing education

Occasional “field seminars” and indoor educational events can attract experts who will inform and inspire participants. Diversified educational opportunities promote a diversified team. Let volunteers pick and choose what skills they want to master. Many people will thrive best in a few chosen areas that may be as diverse as chain-sawing, monitoring breeding birds by ear, designing seed mixes, or identifying and monitoring rare sedges or dragonflies.

Educational events should avoid academic self-promoter and contentious types. Instead, seek out dedicated conservationists who genuinely appreciate the goals and the work. Also feature volunteer and staff “heroes.” Doing so motivates the people chosen, encourages them to step back and re-think their work from a broader perspective, and provides role models for other staff and volunteers.

Do not demand that the volunteers attend an “educational” event featuring something they already know or could read in an email. People are negatively motivated by requirements that take away the time they have to contribute. Do offer occasional events or publications that help people feel the coherence and energy of the cause. Do provide opportunities for subsets of people to gain expertise in any of the special skills that may be helpful. For education, the best approach is to “offer” more than “require.” If it’s really good people will come.

At least occasionally, provide education about the program to all concerned, especially the elected officials who make policy and the staff people involved in any way. It is important that all participants in this collaboration understand the vision and methodology. Conflicts and misunderstandings should be resolved and successes celebrated. Outreach to neighbors and preserve users is also important.  

Image, media, and motivation

Good media (including, of course, social media) can be highly effective at supporting the stewards, the staff, the agency, and the cause. Some organizations or regions have annual or biennial “Conservation Award” events that lead to multiple local news stories featuring local personalities, local preserves, and key values and issues. Widespread recognition by neighbors, co-workers, friends, relatives, and local officials can be highly motivational to the volunteers and staff so recognized.

It takes work to write many little press releases and round up good photos for each, but the rewards are worth it. Desirable “byproducts” often include less misuse and damage to preserves, more support for the agencies that own the preserves, better reporting about related issues, more volunteers attracted to the project, and more motivation in the hearts the people honored. Most neighbors and local officials may have little idea that important and needy ecological sites are in their midst, much less that local people care about them.

Language that has been carefully formulated is important when dealing with the press, partner agencies, and among the various parts of larger agencies. Most leadership volunteers are happy to take coaching in these situations, because they want their work to succeed. “Good communication skills” seem to come more easily to some people, and it is those people who should be put forward when community spokespeople are needed.

Newspapers and TV - and now social media, especially - often look for controversy, of course. It is in our interest to help them find better ways to tell ecology and stewardship stories appealingly. Some of the best and most striking advice ever given to me came from a high official of a major agency at the point (just before an election) when a bitter advocacy dispute (over whether to purchase threatened land) was settled. To seal the deal, we had to go public, but controversy could hurt us. I spoke for the advocates. The official advising me said, Steve, when you talk with the media, don’t forget: “It’s a wonderful world, and we’re all working together.”

That recommendation has a lot of applications. Griping and cynicism come naturally to many people, even some environmentalists. Cynics are not the best “messengers” It’s worth serious effort to establish a spirit of generosity and optimism in the volunteer community. Sometimes that leads to the need for “inside” and “outside” language. In large organizations, one part of the organization may intentionally make trouble for another, and it’s important for good leaders to strategize and repair damage. Thus volunteer leaders and key staff may need to speak freely among themselves about conflicts while with most people using language that focused on the vision.

Although it’s crucial to tell volunteers enough “inside politics” to protect them from infighting, we don’t want a volunteer crew that feels it is at loggerheads with parts of the staff. Unlike participants in some advocacy organizations, the kinds of people who thrive as restoration volunteers don’t want an atmosphere of politics. These volunteers have little in common with traditional environmental protestors. Motivation by anger and fear is brief for most people. To attract the decades of commitment we seek for volunteer leaders, motivation by hope, vision, and ongoing success works best.

Both staff facilitators and leadership volunteers need to understand and be sympathetic to the challenges of upper-level decision-makers and the staff in other parts of the organization. Helping make their work as uncomplicated and un-stressful as possible is one of your major responsibilities. Much of what leadership volunteers need to know is beyond the scope of this chapter, but they definitely need to understand the challenges of the staff – and how to represent the landowners in whatever authority is delegated to them.

Almost all the time, don’t go public with interpersonal conflict. It’s a distraction. The real dramas of conservation and restoration focus on winning battles against degradation and creatively developing solutions.

Coaching Tips

As a trainer, you can be a tough and demanding coach, with some people, sometimes. But as a rule, when you’re seeking to empower someone, you need to be more facilitative and less directive. Listen to their ideas; listen to their view of what is needed and what would work. Perhaps they have a slightly different (or very different) route of getting there, but possibly the end result would be more-or-less the same. They perhaps understand their own approach better and would feel more committed to it – and more proud of its success. If so, then perhaps they’d have more self-confidence and would work harder to succeed. Go with it.

As referenced in Section 2, some staff, trained in traditional “Volunteer Coordination,” focus their motivation efforts on certificates, memento gifts, “recognition parties,” etc. The leadership volunteers, who should be their focus, would much more appreciate real help that benefits the work they believe in. The leadership volunteers should be the chairs and spokespeople at events for volunteers generally. It’s fine if they give recognition (even awards) to staff. But it undermines the relationship you want the volunteer leaders to have with most volunteers if staff members are the principal leaders at volunteer meetings. Partner agency staff can sometimes be helpful in these situations.

Volunteer impacts on levels of staff and funding.

One of the arguments against volunteer programs that has been used by some professionals is that decision-makers might see volunteerism as an excuse not to hire staff or to provide funding. In the case of collaborative volunteer programs, my experience has been the opposite. Programs and projects not supported by volunteers have tended to stagnate or lose funding and staff. Those with strong volunteer constituencies have tended to get the highest levels of staffing and funding.

Volunteer relations with funding and partner agencies

After decades of a restoration program in which the volunteers did the lion’s share of the work, the Forest Preserve District of Cook County realized that there was sufficiently widespread support to dramatically expand the program. Some of the volunteers and staff had recommended a prairie restoration project considerably more ambitious than the agency had done before. It would require cutting large numbers of mature trees, hundreds of acres of weed control, and expensive seed planting. Volunteer bird monitoring had documented a dramatic loss of breeding grassland birds, a conservation priority. With strong volunteer support, collaborating NGOs launched major outreach programs that engaged community groups, churches, bird clubs, and neighbors. A partner agency, the Openlands Project, contracted with professionals for the initial “heavy-lifting” of tree-cutting, prairie seed acquisition, and invasives control. Over time the project grew from 275 to more than 900 acres and attracted more than $5M in outside funding.

Another ambitious project, the Orland Grassland, proceeded similarly at first. Its prairie and savanna became a central feature of the Village of Orland Park’s image and culture. The new library soon sported a 26-foot mural by a National Geographic illustrator showing plants and animals (and human visitors) thriving as they would in years ahead. The local Congresswoman saw that it was good and secured $7M in additional restoration funding. Over the years, the Forest Preserve District hired new science and land management staff to support the project. Today the Orland Grassland Volunteers sponsor tours and festivals every spring, summer, and fall, while continuing to find and control isolated weeds, gather rare seed, and do other restoration work that can’t so easily be done by staff. Trained volunteers annually monitor plant, bird, and butterfly transects. Others lead grammar and high school trips, put out newsletters and social media, serve on committees, and generally act as the Orland Grassland outreach.

An expert volunteer team can sometimes find and harvest local and rare seed that is obtainable in no other practical way. Volunteers hand-broadcasting seed from buckets inspires the troops – and is an especially effective method for some species.

With the region’s strongest volunteer programs, this Cook County (Illinois) agency embarked in 2014 on a “blue ribbon” planning process that emerged with a board-approved plan to expand restoration contract funding from $3.5M/year to $40M/year, to hire 500 full time “intern level” young adults for the restoration program, to expand its program from about 7,000 acres to 55,000 acres, and a long list of similar lofty aspirations which will need to be worked out in reality over the fullness of time but which have already dramatically increased numbers and quality of staffing and increased the prescribed burn program from about 3,000 acres per year to about 7,000 acres. 

Small agencies, private lands and not-for-profits

Any preserve can have a strong volunteer program with the right leadership. The Nature Conservancy can boast a fine example at its Nachusa Grasslands south of Rockford Illinois. It began with a few hundred acres, including just half a dozen acres of high quality prairie. This preserve in twenty-five years has initiated restoration on thousands of acres and now contains hundreds of acres that have achieved high quality. The site benefits from a level of expertise, detail-work, and funding that could not be achieved in any other way.

Although the Conservancy has on site the most advanced equipment, major components of the work are done by hand, because that way results in the best conservation. For example, despite tractors and harvesting equipment, most seed is gathered by hand, because so many hands are willing and ready, and because the seed of most species can’t be successfully harvested mechanically. The goal of the preserve is full natural biodiversity, and many obscure species are needed, whether or not tractor-pulled machinery can harvest them.

The preserve is divided into units, many in the 20 to 40-acre range.  For each unit, a steward makes the major week-to-week decisions and supervises the volunteer work. Such work includes much of the weed control, planting strategies, seed gathering and broadcasting. Some stewards have been restoring their units for decades; new stewards are being recruited all the time.


Collaborative restoration volunteer programs can be well worth the costs – but to thrive the staff needs to empower leadership volunteers as partners. An ambitious and far-sighted program requires many people with a variety of skill-sets. Such programs work best (and in some cases only) with understanding and support from four principal types of people:

1) upper-level decision-makers,
2) the people who will hire and supervise the volunteer facilitator,
3) dedicated volunteer facilitators, and
4) wise volunteer leaders.

If possible, all these four must understand or at least respect this kind of program. When all four work together, conservation can be successful for decades, ultimately centuries, which means for generations.


Allison, Stuart K. and Stephen D. Murphy eds., Routledge Handbook of Ecological and Environmental Restoration, Routledge, 2017.
Note: The above 604-page book (cost $225) contains the final edited version of this post (without the photos, sadly). To learn more about this handbook, visit: 

Bonney, R, JL Shirk, TB Phillips, A Wiggins, HL Ballard, AJ Miller-Rushing, & JK Parrish. 2014. Next steps for citizen science. Science 343:1436-1437.

Dickinson, JL, B Zuckerberg, & DN Bonter. 2010. Citizen science as an ecological research tool: challenges and benefits. Annuals of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 41: 149-172.

Dickinson, JL, J Shirk, D Bonter, R Bonney, RL Crain, J Martin, T Phillips, & K Purcell. 2012. The current state of citizen science as a tool for ecological research and public engagement. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 10(6): 291-297.

Packard, Stephen and Cornelia Mutel eds. Tallgrass Restoration Handbook: for Prairies, Savannas and Woodlands, Island Press, 1997.


  1. Steve,
    I heartily agree!
    Illinois Extension Master Naturalists may have addressed many of these
    My best friends are quick to set me straight when I get of path.
    We have a terrific chain of Authority and are well trained by scientists from State Universities and the Natural History Survey, etc.

    Of course stewardship is only one way that our group serves.
    We also do surveys of Emerald Ash Borers for local communities and
    help with archaeological digs for local professionals and classes.
    Water Survey Specialists need water data from rain gauges.
    City engineers need help with rain gardens and clearing waterways near bike trails.

    It is so much fun to be needed.

    Jim Hoyt
    Master Gardener (2001)
    ECIMN Master Naturalist (2006)

  2. I think it would be helpful to mention that volunteers working in suburban/urban areas should put out a sign saying something along the lines of “conservation volunteer” which also has a phone number people can call for more information.

    When volunteering at an over grown savanna I had some neighbors giving me dirty looks and one even approached me to tell me a neighbor did not want me there. I was not even given an opportunity to explain. While working at this same site at a later date the police showed up and questioned me for a long time before finally releasing me. Once I started bringing a sign the problem temporarily stopped. I thought the mischief was past, but I was wrong. I became lazy and forgot to bring my sign at a later date. I had a neighbor and his wife visit and tell me they were on the neighborhood board, had gotten the license plate of my car, and were going to call the police on me. At least these people let me explain. However, they were not polite and said they had received reports that there was someone in the park previously, but he was black. This person was probably me, I just wear a black balaclava to keep warm in winter. Considering what the neighbors had probably told the police, I consider myself lucky that I only had to answer a bunch of questions.

    In contrast, at a prairie restoration down the road from the above mentioned savanna remnant the neighbors are friendly with me. They see me out there removing weeds and like that I am making their view better. Although people driving along the road do occasionally yell things at me from their vehicles. Most recently, some teenage male yelled “hobo” from the back of a jeep as he and his friend drove by. At least I can’t complain that the invasive species control work I do is dull (sigh).

  3. Some people have easier times with public relations than others. At some sites, passers-by regularly thank us for our work.

    James' suggestion seems like a good one to me - for areas where the work might be questioned. The North Branch Restoration Project used to have a sign that read something like: "Volunteers working to restore the ecosystem. We welcome your questions - or your help. Forest Preserve District of Cook County." Or something like that. These days, in my experience, it's not worth the time to drag it out. People are friendly, thank us, and ask questions.

    1. There are other issues that would be useful to mention so they can be avoided, or mitigated, by volunteer program professionals. These are not mistakes in interacting with volunteers. These are concerns that occasionally are intensely voiced by a few members of the general public. Volunteer facilitators should know of issues that have arisen in the past so they can either avoid them or prepare volunteer leaders if they happen to be confronted by a patron of the preserve regarding these issues.

  4. Thank you for sharing this blog.
    Collaboration is key!

  5. The most disheartening thing for me as a volunteer is to be given excuses from an organization’s leadership as to why no progress is occurring. Some of these excuses include “it costs a lot of money”, “we tried to control it but it just came back”, “whenever we get rid of the invasive species new ones just come in”, or “that one (an invasive species) has been around forever.” The above rationalizations for failure are amplified in my mind against the various road blocks that are erected to prevent volunteers from doing anything useful. These road blocks include not allowing volunteers, who sometimes are more knowledgeable than staff, to use herbicide, not allowing volunteers to use power tools, or saying a staff member has to lead all workdays and the date must be scheduled over a month in advance.

    After a while, a volunteer may begin to feel an organization is being deceitful. Watching buckthorn that you and many others worked really hard to cut sprout into horrible thickets of multi-stemmed monstrosities because an inept staff member does not apply enough herbicide to stumps and staff was not directed to follow up is very difficult. Seeing locations where groups, some who write a big checks to volunteer, have planted native plants become overtaken by invasive species because maintenance was not included in the planning is likewise really hard. Watching the invasive species spreading in the prairie restoration areas because of a flawed notion that “the natives will eventually win” while conservation staff and volunteers are directed to put all resources into projects unrelated to conservation appears short sighted at best and at worst a misallocation of resources.

    Sometimes I feel like the individualist hero you caution against, but not because I triumph. I feel like a crusader against the world because I believe things can be made better when the organizations have stopped trying.