COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Increasing Volunteerism in Parks

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 20, 2017

Research from the Urban Parks Institute

The following information was gathered through interviews with volunteer coordinators who run well-respected programs in several parks throughout the U.S. The accompanying case studies - Alley Pond Environmental Center, Glen Canyon, Riverside Park, and Atlantic County Parks - include more information on these coordinators, the organizations for which they work, and their approach to volunteers.

In general, people agree that volunteers have been a great boon to urban parks. They lead nature walks, supervise playgrounds, participate in park-wide clean-ups, adopt flower plots, and help with miscellaneous chores in park offices throughout the country. The benefits resulting from successful volunteer programs in parks have ranged from encouraging community "ownership" and increasing the use of parks to identifying and nurturing future community leaders and park donors. Marlene Wilson, author of The Effective Management of Volunteer Programs, writes that the five motivations for volunteering are:

  • Challenging work
  • Increased responsibility
  • Growth and development
  • Achievement
  • Recognition of accomplishment

Placing Volunteers

While recruiting individuals requires more coordination than recruiting groups (such as schools or community service organizations), individuals can do tasks that groups are not suited for or may not be interested in, such as ongoing projects and office work. Matching volunteers with work that addresses the above motivations is important in order to create a long-term relationship with him or her. Volunteer coordinators often approach the challenge of placing volunteers in the appropriate situation by implementing a placement process similar to any hiring process.

The following is a consolidation of what the people we interviewed felt were the most important elements in a developing an effective volunteer placement process:

Personal Interviews - Although meeting one-on-one with a potential volunteer is time consuming, it was felt that it gives the most accurate understanding of where the volunteer might contribute the most and be the happiest.

Application Forms - Use of application forms to identify tasks and the suitability of potential volunteers, based on their interests, skills and availability was considered critical , especially as the numbers of volunteers increase.

Orientation sessions - Several parks that use volunteer labor hold regular orientation programs as a way to show potential volunteers the options they have to work in the park. Elements of an orientation session often include:

  • A presentation about the history of the park;
  • A talk by a current volunteer;
  • An opportunity for potential volunteers to ask questions;
  • A presentation of all the possible ways in which a volunteer can contribute;
  • Enough time to fill out and submit application materials;
  • Informal social time with refreshments.

The Prospect Park Alliance holds orientation sessions on a monthly basis, while Atlantic County Parks in New Jersey holds theirs annually. Both find that orientation sessions streamline the recruitment process.

Recognizing and Honoring Volunteers - In its newsletter, Missoula Aging Services gives the following advice on recognizing the efforts of volunteers:

  1. Recognize them frequently because it motivates them and keeps them coming back -- it's not advised to wait for an annual recognition event
  2. Recognize them publicly, especially in front of a peer group.
  3. Target the recognition to the individual.
  4. Recognize them consistently and sincerely.
  5. Do not recognize false achievement.
  6. Do not recognize some people and not others for the same level of achievement.

Recognizing Volunteers

The following are a few methods for recognizing volunteers that have been used successfully in parks around the country:

Special Events - Some park groups have an annual event to honor volunteers such as a catered dinner or a reception, to which any volunteer who contributed over a certain number of hours that year is invited. The main advice given by people is that while volunteers enjoy being honored, they will not appreciate an expensive event sponsored by an organization they know needs the money for other, more practical, things, such as new park benches. Something such as a lapel pin or a mug not available to the general public, and perhaps a speech praising the efforts of volunteers by a local VIP such as the mayor or park commissioner is recommended.

Social Events - In many parks, volunteers are rewarded after day-long work events with a social event, such as a reception, a barbecue, or a picnic.

Awards - New Jersey's Atlantic County Park System selects a "Volunteer of the Year," whose name is added to a plaque hanging in the parks department office.

Outside Awards - Since Mayor's offices and charitable organizations already recognize outstanding contributions to the community, a park's best volunteers could also be nominated for these awards.

Publications - The Washington Water Trails Network devotes a short column in its quarterly newsletter to a selected volunteer. Volunteers can also be featured on the organization's website and in the local press - human-interest reporters are always looking for stories.

Special Perks - Recognize volunteers throughout the year through perks that give them a sense of belonging to the park community. A T-shirt that can be worn while working in the park can make the volunteers stand out and look official; volunteer dollars awarded per volunteer hour that can be used to purchase park-related memorabilia or for special event fees; or special areas of the park can be reserved for volunteer-only access before opening or after closing to the general public.

Recruiting Volunteers

Social, academic, professional, and community groups are all sources that have been widely used for recruiting volunteers for parks. For example, social groups often have a community service requirement or a commitment to community service; special interest clubs, such as a garden or sports club, can benefit their own causes while also benefiting the park; and school groups can use volunteer work in parks to enhance their science curriculum. Since an urban setting does not always allow for first hand experience of biology, ecology or environmental science, many science teachers like to give their students hands-on experience in parks. In addition, schools may require students to do a certain amount of community service which volunteer work in parks can sometimes fulfill. Park volunteer coordinators sometimes even work with schools to develop projects.

Phone Trees - A great means for some parks to foster and maintain volunteer relationships. Before its monthly volunteer orientation sessions, the Prospect Park Alliance assigns volunteers to phone everyone who had previously expressed interest in being a volunteer, and the Washington Water Trails Network has set up a phone tree as an efficient method for contacting volunteers prior to events.

Newspapers, Radio and Flyers - Many park organizations take advantage of free publicity opportunities such as radio and television public service announcements (PSAs) and listings in local papers and park newsletter to recruit volunteers. Some local newspapers offer free listings to nonprofit organizations to announce upcoming events and to ask for volunteers. Press coverage of successful volunteer events after they happen also encourages others to become volunteers. Several people recommended posting flyers in neighborhood shop windows and on bulletin boards or dropping flyers in mailboxes to attract new volunteers to a specific event or project.

Volunteer Signs in the Park - The Riverside Park Fund in New York City has permanent signs indicating areas cared for by volunteers. This tells people that the park uses volunteers and gives them a way to contact the office. The Fund get phone calls as a result of their signs frequently, some of which are not from people who want to be volunteers (or know they want to be volunteers!). For example, a man phoned the Riverside Park Fund to complain about the amount of litter, and by the end of the phone conversation, the Park Fund had offered to provide trash bags and he agreed to clean up a particularly dirty area of the park using trash bags provided by the Fund!

One-Time Events - Large-scale, one-day events (a tree-planting festival on Arbor Day; a "Spruce Up" day for repainting benches and fences, repairing playground equipment, and digging flower beds) can bring in new volunteers. These events attract first-time volunteers because they are fun and do not represent a long-term commitment. They also allow a potential volunteer to "try out" volunteering for a day. If they have a positive experience, they may volunteer again on their own later. A list from the sponsoring organization of all those who volunteered in the park during the event provides a way to follow up with a thank-you note and an invitation to volunteer again.

Mail - Many parks remind their list of past and potential volunteers of upcoming opportunities through the mail. Examples include: a volunteer newsletter that reports on past volunteer activities and lists future events; a section in the regular park friends newsletter mentioning volunteer opportunities; a monthly, bi-monthly, or quarterly calendar outlining forthcoming events; a regular postcard sent out to potential volunteers with a brief summary of upcoming opportunities.

Coordinating Volunteers

Many park friends groups that manage volunteer programs have a volunteer coordinator on staff. Occasionally, this person is a volunteer, and sometimes their salary is paid for by foundations or corporations that underwrite volunteer programs. A volunteer coordinator arranges schedules, returns phone calls from interested volunteers, prepares materials for and about the volunteer program, develops a database of current and potential volunteers, coordinates all volunteer recruitment and tracks volunteer hours. The volunteer coordinator must be sensitive to what is and is not working.

Volunteer coordinators offer the following pointers to help minimize potential problems:

  • Impress upon new volunteers their importance to the park and the seriousness of their commitment;
  • When working with young volunteers, try to have the name and number of a person (a teacher or parent) who you can speak to if you are having trouble;
  • If you have trouble with an adult volunteer, talk to them in private to find out if there are any problems you are not aware of that you can help fix;
  • If all else fails, do not hesitate to ask a troublesome volunteer to stop coming.


Although many park volunteer programs require volunteers to sign a waiver declaring that they will not hold the park or the non-profit organization liable in case of injury, these waivers are seldom legally binding. Volunteers can be covered under either the group's insurance policy or the city's policy. According to the Nonprofit Risk Management Center (NRMC), the particular types of coverage that should be considered are:

  • Commercial general liability;
  • Volunteers workers accident, which is a death/dismemberment medical policy insuring volunteers who work in the park in the case of accident or injury;
  • Property and owned asset insurance;
  • Umbrella liability.

Before buying any insurance, the NRMC suggests that the organization speak with the city, state or county's risk manager. This person will be able to provide information about what the government's policy covers and what additional insurance is needed. People can contact the NRMC with insurance and liability questions at: 1001 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Suite 900; Washington, DC 20036; (202) 785-3891.

Volunteer Centers and Volunteer Assistance and Referral Services

Many cities have offices that match potential volunteers with volunteer opportunities. They provide several different types of support services for volunteers and agencies who "employ" volunteers including:

  • Publishing calendars and newsletters which advertise volunteer opportunities;
  • Advertising volunteer opportunities on computer networks;
  • Maintaining a bulletin board on which volunteer opportunities are posted;
  • Sponsoring volunteer fairs at which organizations who need volunteers can
  • set up tables and speak with potential volunteers;
  • Running training programs for paid staff to teach them how to work with volunteers;
  • Placing people ordered to do community service by the courts, or who must work as a condition of receiving welfare.

Local volunteer centers often will help list volunteer opportunities for particular parks. Volunteer centers can be contacted through the mayor's office (many city governments administer volunteer centers) or the Points of Light Foundation, which maintains a directory of volunteer centers (1737 H Street NW; Washington, DC 20006; 202-223-9186).

There are also national volunteer programs that help connect potential volunteers with opportunities. Three of these are:

City Cares of America is a national group which sponsors programs all over the country. These programs, which generally incorporate the name of the city in their names (for example: Atlanta Cares), coordinate groups of people to do volunteer projects in urban areas. Contact: 1737 H Street NW; Washington, DC 20006; 202-887-0500.

Retired Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP) is a program of the Corporation for National Service that helps older people find volunteer opportunities. Contact: 1201 New York Avenue; Washington, DC 20525; 202-606-5000.

Earth Force is a national children's environmental organization that seeks to empower youth to work on behalf of the environment. One of their services is referring kids to local places to volunteer. Contact Heather Stevens-Kittner at Earth Force, 703-807-2804.

National or Regional Volunteer Projects

A number of national and regional work projects provide volunteer work for charities, often raising money for a national organization at the same time. When participating in these projects, the sponsoring organization often coordinates the entire event, so your park may be able to benefit from a day of maintenance or planting or some other chore with very little effort on your part. Two national projects include:

Big Help Day is part of the Big Help, a national service project sponsored by the children's cable television network Nickelodeon. On Big Help Day, children all over the country spend the day volunteering. Contact Candace Riegelhaupt at Nickelodeon: 212-258-7746.

City Year, a national service group which places young adults in service projects, sponsors a ServeAThon once a year in several cities. These events raise funds and awareness while making real improvements in urban areas. Among the cities currently part of the initiative are Boston, Chicago, and Providence.

Related Articles & Resources
COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space