Empowering Volunteers to Take the Lead

November 1, 2016, Department, by Lori Robertson

How can the energy of volunteers be leveraged to accomplish long-term restoration goals while taking into consideration the limited capacity of park staff?Organizing community volunteers is hardly a new idea. Friends groups, nonprofit partners and dedicated park staff have been harnessing the goodwill of their nearby neighbors for generations through one-day and ongoing volunteer service opportunities often focused on land management activities. Most park professionals understand the value of engaging and educating community members through hands-on service and are dedicated to cultivating stewards within their communities. But organizing volunteers can be time consuming and resource heavy, even when dedicated volunteer and outreach staff exist within a department. Often volunteers are tasked with a limited scope of responsibilities — trash cleanup, mulching playgrounds, landscape plantings — that allow a park agency to accomplish in one day work that would otherwise take staff weeks to complete. While these efforts can be vital in keeping up with overflowing and ongoing maintenance needs, volunteer activities are often disconnected from longer-term management strategies or restoration efforts. When volunteer activities do fit into a larger scope of work for the park agency, volunteers themselves are often unaware of the long-term goals or context of their efforts.

Several park agencies across the country have begun to challenge the volunteer status quo and ask themselves, how can the energy of volunteers be leveraged to accomplish our long-term restoration goals while taking into consideration the limited capacity of park staff? Essentially, how can park and recreation leaders empower community members to take the lead in revitalizing their parks? 

The idea of relying on volunteers to implement involved and ongoing restoration work is often met with a slew of skeptical questions: How can we find volunteers that possess the expertise or skills needed for this type of work? Where will we find motivated and reliable members of the community willing to invest their time? Once we do, what is the incentive to keep these volunteers long term? Who is going to manage these volunteers and how will we accurately track their efforts? 

Seattle Parks and Recreation managed to find answers to these questions through the creation of its Green Seattle Partnership (GSP), a 20-year effort to restore 2,500 acres of forested parkland in the city of Seattle. Realizing that Seattle’s parklands faced a critical threat and, without serious intervention, parks would lose 70 percent of their trees by 2042, Seattle Parks and Recreation launched GSP, the largest urban forest restoration program in the nation. A collaborative effort between the city of Seattle, the Forterra Land Conservancy and thousands of community partners, the program relies heavily on a locally recruited volunteer workforce to restore parks. Ten years in, volunteers have logged more than 781,000 volunteer hours valued at an astounding $18 million and have helped the city impact more than 1,040 acres of urban parkland. Volunteer efforts account for more than 70 percent of the restoration work completed to date as part of GSP’s 20-year plan. 

So how did they do it? By creating a program that empowers citizens to take ownership of their local park spaces. 

Forest Stewards

GSP’s Forest Stewards program recruits and trains volunteer leaders who are charged with “bringing together the resources needed to make on-the-ground forest restoration a reality.” Forests Stewards work together in small teams on an assigned close-to-home plot of parkland. In return for ongoing training and support from GSP staff, the Forest Stewards are asked to organize regular volunteer activities that engage diverse members of the surrounding neighborhood, work with GSP staff to manage associated materials requests, track accomplishments and volunteer hours, and assist GSP staff in creating ongoing restoration plans based on their accomplishments. The position is advertised as a two-year commitment. 

Parklands are broken into management zones, each with unique characteristics and needs. Restoration efforts are broken up into four phases — invasive removal, planting, maintenance and long-term stewardship/monitoring. Forest Stewards use a data collection tool called CEDAR (Central Data Repository) to log their hours and activities, register volunteers and request materials. These strategies take the onus off GSP staff and put the organizing, management and tracking responsibility in the hands of the volunteers themselves. 

The program has not only accomplished important work for parks, but has also galvanized an informed and active community of volunteers within parks. In 2015, Seattle reported having 163 active Forest Stewards working in 80 parks citywide. 

While the volunteers in Seattle are highly motivated, that alone is not enough to form a successful volunteer workforce. Promoting volunteer events as social gatherings, where neighbors can meet and new friendships can be made, increases cohesion in communities. By providing high-value educational resources and in-depth training, volunteers feel empowered to make lasting impacts in their communities. By giving volunteers the autonomy to make important decisions, they feel a genuine sense of ownership over projects. For many homeowners, improving local green spaces is also seen as an avenue to increase property value and desirability of their neighborhood — another avenue to attract and build groups of invested volunteers. 

Diversity and Equity

Programs like Seattle’s Forest Stewards also help address issues of equity and diversity by prioritizing underserved neighborhoods for revitalization efforts and having volunteer leaders from within the community lead outreach efforts to engage diverse neighborhood groups and individuals. By relying on those from within the community to lead the efforts, community voices are sure to be represented in each step of the process. 

Partnership for Parks, a public-private partnership between NYC Parks Department and the City Park Foundation is another example of a park agency empowering its citizens to take the lead while intentionally focusing on issues of equity. Partnership for Parks’ Catalyst Program builds the capacity of local leaders in historically disinvested communities by providing free training and grant and networking opportunities. Growing community leaders allows park professionals to take a backseat as residents drive the change they want to see in their local park spaces.

Engaging Youth 

Volunteer programs such as these also are ripe opportunities for engaging youth in stewardship and environmental education. Today, many students are required to complete community service hours in order to graduate and are seeking out close-to-home, free opportunities to meet this requirement. Direct outreach to schools and youth groups can often attract these young stewards and help in connecting a new generation to the natural world. 

Rethinking Volunteerism

By loosening the reins of control on volunteer programs and refocusing efforts on providing training, tools and frameworks, parks can leverage volunteers to accomplish meaningful and valuable restoration work. Taking risks and trusting the local community can yield impressive results and create solutions for daunting management challenges. Parks need to invest in both community spaces and community members in order to realize thriving parks for the future. 


Lori Robertsonis NRPA’s Director of Conservation.