Engaging Volunteers

By October 8, 2014April 17th, 2020Environmental Education and Interpretation

Engaging Volunteers for the Environment

Austin is fortunate to have a community of active, environmentally and socially responsible people ready and willing to donate their time to meaningful projects that improve our health, education, and quality of life. ESC has been involved in many projects over the years that involve volunteers, but maintaining and rewarding the interest and enthusiasm of volunteers can sometimes be a challenge. ESC has been able to employ certain strategies to maximize volunteer experiences and keep folks returning for more.

“Compensation” Through Education

Kicking off each volunteer workday with a brief “outdoor classroom” session can serve to educate participants on the techniques and processes they will be directly involved with. “Cheat sheet” handouts can assist with this. It’s a great way to provide volunteers with the reward of new and useful information they may take home and be able to use in their own careers, on their own properties, or when educating others. Examples include: which plants can tolerate drought, which weeds are most pernicious, techniques for different types of invasive species, how to sow native seed, how to create deer resistant areas, etc.

Role in the Process of Ecological Restoration

By explaining the process of ecological restoration to volunteers, they can readily see where their particular work on a given day fits into the overall project that ultimately results in healthy, stable habitats. This can foster a sense of pride in their work, as well as encourage them to tell their story to others who could be potential volunteers as well.

Being Part of a Story

Whether it’s a schoolyard habitat, a nature preserve along an urban trail, a water quality pond, a wildlife garden for a retirement community, etc., providing information about the bigger picture can really enhance the volunteer experience. When volunteers see themselves as important contributors to a greater effort where the benefits to society are real and impactful, a greater sense of pride in their work develops.

Volunteers Can be Anyone

No matter who shows up to a project, they must be given a role and a task. Be prepared for more than the obvious young, fit, fully abled body to show up. You may need to accommodate and provide tools for elderly, disabled, or very young volunteers. Enthusiastically provide them with the same level of experience all volunteers should receive. Never turn away a willing participant.

Teams Within Teams

Larger groups of volunteers can be best managed in groups of 3-6 (sometimes more). There are many ways to establish groups…by task, by work area, by a balance of experience levels, etc. Ask the group, by show of hands, who has experience in what and begin to assemble small teams in ways where group leaders can emerge and mentor/protégé relationships can develop within the teams. It’ll save the volunteer leader(s) from having to manage everyone at once by allowing delegation to take place .

Hydration and Carbs

Provide water and snacks (such as trail mix, granola bars, and/or fruit) whenever possible. If budgetary factors prevent this, make sure to communicate to volunteers prior to the work day that they should bring water and snacks.


If you cannot provide personal protective equipment and other items, communicate to the volunteers prior to the work day what they should bring to the site. Items to provide (or to encourage) may include: sturdy shoes or closed-toe footwear, sunglasses, hats, gloves, sunscreen, poison ivy antidote (such as Tecnu), knee pads, etc.

Tools and Equipment

Be sure to prepare for more volunteers than expected with a few extra tools and equipment, which allows for work day flexibility.

No Pressure

Try not to get hung up on meeting deadlines and quotas if possible. Allow for people to stop when they are tired or otherwise simply feel like stopping or resting. Thank everyone for their hard work, regardless of their actual output. From their perspective, it may have been the toughest few hours they’ve had in a long time, and for that the project leader should be grateful.

Above all, make sure the day is safe, fun, and educational for all involved. The project will show it!

Written by Stan Wilson