Getting Schooled: Best Practices for Organizing Volunteers in the Field

Learn some of the best practices for organizing a group of volunteers in the field.

By: Alyssa Allchurch

There are so many things people can do to protect and defend their community’s watershed. Often the most rewarding activity that connects you to your neighbours and local environment is volunteering in your watershed. Whether the event is a water-based cleanup, a town hall meeting or an opportunity to teach others about water issues, volunteers are crucial to the success of the event. It is important that people who are willing to donate their time to a cause are utilized effectively, and that means having a well-organized and planned out event. Today I am going to take you through 6 tips on ways to organize volunteers during an event to help ensure everything goes smoothly.

First off, let me introduce myself. My name is Alyssa Allchurch, I’m currently an Education Coordinator here at the Canadian Freshwater Alliance. My job consists mainly of vetting, organizing and facilitating volunteers who are interested in defending their watersheds. I’ve had many diverse volunteer opportunities myself, from assisting the aquarist team at the Shaw Center for the Salish Sea to baking cookies for families of sick kids at the Ronald McDonald house. I’ve also had a diverse array of experiences where I was the one organizing volunteers, from events involving underwater ghost net cleanups to invasive species culling along the Colquitz River. Being on both sides of volunteer-based events has given me a lot of insight into effective ways to organize people and areas where it is easy to get things wrong.

So let’s start at the beginning. You have managed to recruit a group of awesome volunteers, plan out an event for them to attend and now you are ready to get those volunteers out into the watershed. It is important to be thoughtful about the way you want to communicate and solicit volunteers for any event.

Tip #1: Safety comes first

Make sure all volunteers are aware of any safety requirements prior to the event. This may include things such as proper protective equipment required, such as face masks or good footwear and dress guidelines. Ensure volunteers have the proper safety training and knowledge level required to partake safely. Also mention any site hazards such as slippery conditions, uneven terrain, or temperature anomalies.

Tip #2: Consider transportation limitations to the event

Limitations you have maybe a lack of parking, or the event may be in an area where a lineup of cars may disturb the local population. Recommend volunteers take public transit if this is the case or pre-organize carpool groups to limit the parking space that is required.

Tip #3: Take the time to get to know your volunteers

I have been to a couple of volunteer events where I was thrown right into the task without meeting the people around me. Those situations always made it more difficult for me to connect with the people around me and with what I was doing. Take the time to make your volunteers comfortable before jumping in by sharing something about yourself and asking everyone else to follow. This is how you build rapport with them and start building a group of loyal volunteers that will keep coming back. Even if you know all the volunteers, they might not know each other. Answering questions about who they are and why they care about their watershed always helps create a good atmosphere.

Tip #4: Have a clear orientation

In that orientation give out any gear that is required, brief the volunteers on that gear, give out schedules, tell people if they get to choose their role or if the role is pre-determined by the organizers and say how many volunteers per role. The more information you can provide beforehand the better. A little bit of information about the watershed, some of the issues it is facing and some of the plants/animals they may see while volunteering can help the volunteers leave with a greater appreciation of the watershed. As part of the orientation, include a land acknowledgement that you've written yourself, think about why is it important to you and what you are doing with your event.

Tip #5: Have clear guidelines on the task

Ensure that they know who they need to contact while on-site and that the volunteer has access to communication methods if needed. As well, make sure they are clear on the roles of themselves and those around them. If you are doing invasive species pulls or a task that requires identification skills, make sure they are buddied up with someone who has these skills. Making sure to remind them of how long the event is, when we are ending, where we will meet at the end of the event and where the exits are in case of an emergency. I will also tell them they can leave at any time and they are not obligated to stay the entire event I am just thankful they came.

Tip #6: Thank your volunteers

It is important to recognize these amazing people who came out to support you! You can do this verbally throughout the event, with small appreciation gifts afterwards (such as stickers, merchandise or gift certificates), and possibly prizes after the event (such as for whoever picked up the most trash if you were doing a cleanup). Following the event, ensure that you communicate with your volunteers to thank them again, and maintain contact with them for the next event, But you don't stop there. You follow up a short time after the event, through an email or SM post highlighting volunteer contributions. You can even do a volunteer spotlight for individual volunteers if that is appropriate. This helps with creating that solid foundation of loyal volunteers, and make them feel like they are valuable to you and your event.

I hope you found these 6 tips helpful, and good luck getting into your watersheds!

Previously - Getting Schooled: Hosting a Meeting


The team here at the Canadian Freshwater Alliance wishes you the best of luck in your future events as you seek to create change around freshwater issues in your community, but wants you to know that you are not alone in your organizing efforts! You can always connect with us for additional organizing support, or visit our resources to find more tips and tricks!