Research from the Urban Parks Institute
Riverside Park is an Olmsted-designed linear park that runs along the Hudson River, serving as a “backyard” for a variety of neighborhoods ranging from very wealthy to quite poor. The Riverside Park Fund, a private nonprofit membership organization, was founded in 1986 by community, civic and business leaders to raise money for and increase public interest in the Park, and to generate innovative solutions to meet the long-term programming, maintenance, preservation and capital needs of the Park. The Fund oversees volunteers who are taking on an increasing amount of responsibility for the upkeep of the Park as a lack of City funds limits the Parks Department to basic maintenance and trash pickup.
Coordinating all individuals and groups who want to help is primarily the responsibility of the Riverside Park Fund (RPF). The Director of Volunteers, a part-time staff member of the RPF, has responsibility for volunteers and runs the volunteer center where tools and supplies are locked up. She reports that she would very much like to have more volunteers than the 400 plus that currently work in the park, but that her part-time status limits her ability to recruit more heavily than she already does.
The Riverside Park Fund coordinates three different types of volunteer programs:
- One-time projects done in collaboration with a group such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, school groups, or block associations. These groups generally approach the Riverside Park Fund with the intent of doing a service project in the park. The volunteer coordinator works with the group to develop the project.
- Work days for which individuals are invited to join in a specific clean-up effort. These work days are scheduled every other Saturday, one Sunday a month, and occasional weekday mornings. They are small, generally attracting two dozen people, and last for about three hours. The Riverside Park Fund has found three hours is about the right amount of time for these types of projects.
- Volunteer adoption of a piece of the park is the biggest component of the Riverside Park Fund’s volunteer program. Volunteers, either individually or in a group, take on primary responsibility for maintaining a section of the park. The sections range from the very small — such as a single flower bed, to quite large — such as a major park entrance. Approximately 40 such sites have been adopted by about 400 regular volunteers, which has had a significant impact on the appearance of the park.
Volunteer Recruitment and Placement
The Riverside Park Fund actively recruits volunteers using the following methods:
- Monthly postcards are sent to a mailing list of approximately 1000 people who have expressed interest in volunteering. These postcards list the time and location of upcoming work “parties” and any other special events planned for the next month.
- Park News, a quarterly bi-lingual newsletter, is delivered to every building neighboring the park. Park News lists upcoming volunteer events as well as other news of interest to the Riverside Park communities.
- Graffiti-proof signs are posted on fences near locations that have been adopted by volunteers throughout the park which read:
Volunteers work here to keep the park clean and green.
The Park needs your help.
Call Riverside Park Fund at 870-3070.
The signs serve the dual purpose of letting park users know who is maintaining the park and giving them the opportunity to contribute to the park.
- Volunteers themselves have a high profile when working in the Park thanks to the T-shirts Riverside Park Fund gives out to volunteers designating them as such. When people see the T-shirts, many become interested in volunteering themselves.
When people approach the Riverside Park Fund wanting to volunteer, they are asked to fill out a generic parks volunteer application provided by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. In addition, the Director of Volunteers generally interviews them in order to determine their level of commitment and to see where they will best fit. While the work parties allow sporadic commitment to the Park, people who want to adopt a section of the park must be more committed and remain so in all conditions and at all times.
Equipping Volunteers with Training and Tools
In order to give volunteers the skills they need to care for the Park, the Riverside Park Fund offers classes in weeding, pruning, mulching, history and design of park, which are free and open to all. Before being allowed to prune, all volunteers are required to take the pruning class. The Riverside Park Fund requests 40 hours of work in exchange for the classes, but people do not always fulfill this requirement.
Although many volunteers bring their own plants and supply some of their own tools, many more tools and materials, such as garbage bags and gloves, need to be provided. The Parks Department provides some tools, such as shovels and rakes, and the Riverside Park Fund purchases or solicits donations of the rest. The tools are stored in a park house given to the RPF by the Parks Department.
Because volunteers work without direct supervision, they are asked to log their work hours so the Riverside Park Fund is able to track them. In addition, the Director of Volunteers tries to spend eight hours each week walking around the park and checking in with volunteers. This allows the volunteer director to make sure everything is going well and gives her an opportunity to give volunteers a pat on the back. She has found that this encouragement is important to keep the volunteer enthusiasm up and remind them their work does not go unnoticed.
Giving volunteers the recognition they deserve is a constant challenge that the Riverside Park Fund. The signs posted near areas cared for by volunteers and the official T-shirts identify volunteers to all passers-by, who sometimes thank the volunteers for their work which gives the volunteers a big boost. The Riverside Park Fund also thanks the volunteers themselves on a regular basis. Park News and the larger bi-annual newsletter both include thank-yous for all the work done by volunteers, and they often run lists of names of volunteers.
In addition to thanking volunteers in print, the Riverside Park Fund sponsors an annual buffet dinner for park volunteers at the Riverside Park marina, an area that is not usually open to the public. All volunteers receive small gifts at the dinner, such as a lapel pin. In addition, awards are presented to volunteers for accomplishments such as best new project or long-term commitment to the Park.
To supplement Riverside Park Fund’s own volunteer awards, the Volunteer Director often nominates volunteers for awards given by other organizations. Whenever a volunteer receives an award, either from the Riverside Park Fund or from another organization, RPF staff notify the press by sending out press releases. They have found that getting volunteers’ names in print is an excellent way to reward outstanding service to the Park.
- Riverside Park Fund has learned that volunteers who do most of their work unsupervised need to be encouraged and visited regularly or their enthusiasm may dwindle.
- Both the Parks Department and the Riverside Parks Fund have learned to view complaints as opportunities. In fact, the first contact between the Parks Department or the RPF and a new potential volunteer is by way of complaints, so it is important to try to turn every complaint call into a dialogue. Charles McKinney, the Park Administrator, finds that by the end of the call, he is often explaining to the caller the different possibilities available to someone who wants to volunteer or start on a new project. One man complained about the dearth of plantings and general maintenance in a certain area. He was more or less subdued when McKinney offered him a box of 50 ivies to plant. They had been in storage, but no one had been available to plant them! The man is now rebuilding an entire stone stair on one of the paths after successfully lobbying the New York City Parks Department to bring him all the materials he needed.
- It takes several years to develop group leaders. The Riverside Park Fund hoped the training classes they offer would give people the confidence to take a leadership role, but have found that it simply takes time. People who claimed not to want a lot of responsibility when they started as volunteers are now group leaders.
The Riverside Park Fund was started in 1986. For more information, please contact:
Director of Volunteers
Riverside Park Fund
475 Riverside Drive
New York, NY 10115