Two weeks ago when I was at the Botanic Garden learning about the tremendous amount of work involved in putting the garden to bed, I was invited to join the team for morning tea. Of course, I leaped at the opportunity to warm my hands and to meet some of the other staff and volunteers. It was a Friday and there were about 8 or 9 of us sitting around the table. After introductions were done it took no time at all for the conversation to return to a friendly banter that put me in mind of a family gathering. It was all very insightful. There was talk of books, movies, a case of being mistaken for a celebrity, the perils of driving an E-Type Jag with a heavy foot, and cakes…there was lots of talk about cakes. You see, it would seem that as well as all the other things the volunteers do at the Botanic Garden, many of them can also bake a mean cake.
|Volunteers helping at a fundraising event.
However, one of the most interesting things I learned that day was that some volunteers have been with the University of Bristol Botanic Garden for more than 20 years. That’s an impressive retention rate even for paid staff, let alone volunteers. I had to find out more about the role of volunteers in the Garden and the ethos that manages to cultivate such loyalty.
Volunteers have been a part of the culture of the Botanic Garden for a very long time. There’s photographic evidence of their role dating back to 1970 and when curator Nick Wray joined the garden permanently in 1984 there were a handful of volunteers.
However, in 2002, when it became clear that the garden was going to move location, the volunteer numbers grew dramatically.
“We needed to increase the number of people to help us prepare for the move,” said Nick, “to propagate plants, lift and care for plants. It was clear to me that we were going to end up with thousands and thousands of plants in pots, bags and sacks. Just the shear job of watering in dry weather was going to take a vast amount of time.”
So, with one advertisement in the Friends of the Botanic Garden
newsletter, the volunteer numbers grew from a dozen to twenty-one. Those volunteer gardeners assisted with the preparation of the move as well as carrying out the move itself. It was four years of preparation and eight months of driving back and forth between the two sites to move 12,500 plants, all during a drought year. Volunteers supported all of it.
|Volunteers planting on the ballast seed garden barge.
Today, volunteers at the Garden take on any number of roles and often multiple roles, though gardening is still the most popular. There are currently between 41 and 43 volunteer gardeners working each week, which will probably drop to about 35 in the depth of winter. However, by next Easter there will be a four month waiting list of ready and eager volunteer gardeners, looking for the opportunity to get their hands dirty.
Besides volunteer gardeners there are about 30 volunteer guides who have completed a 10-session training program, which gives them the knowledge and confidence to guide groups around the garden. This training alternates each year and so the Garden will be recruiting and training a new set of volunteer guides in 2013.
There’s also a dedicated group of volunteers that welcome visitors to the Garden. They run the welcome lodge where they hand out leaflets, let people know what’s going on, what’s relevant for their visit in the garden that day and collect the small administration fee. They are on the front-line if you will and are the friendly faces that welcome and point people in the right direction at events throughout the year. There are about 35 people on the welcome lodge roster.
So, by my count that makes over 100 volunteers and I haven’t even mentioned the volunteers that help in the office, mail out newsletters, distribute leaflets through doors, fundraise, work on plant records, tweet on Twitter…the list goes on! Whatever the exact number, it is certainly more than a handful.
To provide some perspective, there are ten paid employees, which equate to seven full time equivalents at the Botanic Garden. They are vastly outnumbered by their volunteers. This clearly has the potential of being a management nightmare. However, whether it’s the quality of the volunteers, the skills of the staff or some combination of both, it all seems to run very smoothly.
Creating the right culture
From an outsider’s perspective there seems to be a few key ways in which the Garden has created a culture that nurtures the growth and retention of volunteers:
- Every job is important – This philosophy seems to be instilled throughout the Garden team. Basically it doesn’t matter what people do, from washing pots to propagating plants, it’s all equally important in the bigger scheme of things because it all needs to get done. This is also reflected in the distribution of work, with everyone having their share of the monotonous as well as the exciting.
- Self-sufficiency and autonomy are supported– Many of the experienced volunteers mentor those that are less experienced. The volunteer guides and welcome lodge volunteers are coordinated by the volunteers themselves, which shifts the responsibility of day-to-day management away from paid staff and gives the volunteers some autonomy as well as additional responsibility.
- Confidence is instilled through training – Whether the volunteers are pruning, or touring a group of enthusiastic gardeners about the garden, the staff at the Botanic Garden have put in place practices that give the volunteers the skills they need to be confident in what they do. This
also means having the flexibility to let people learn through their own mistakes. Nicola Rathbone, better known as Froggie, manages the volunteer gardeners on a day to day basis and was telling me about her approach to providing instruction on pruning. She gives a summary that makes clear what needs to be done, but with enough flexibility that the volunteers have to exercise their own judgement and creativity, which helps them develop their own skills. She said, “Things always grow back. It’s more important that the volunteers are reassured about what they’re doing.”
- Volunteers are valued – If you read last week’s post you’ll know that Andy Winfield claimed that without volunteers he’d be curled up exhausted in a corner of a mud heap somewhere. This attitude seems to be shared among all the staff I spoke to. Nick said, “They are the life blood of what goes on here. We simply couldn’t operate without them.”
Why do they keep coming back?
So what keeps someone coming back at their own expense, on their own time, week after week, year after year? I asked Froggie what she thought kept the volunteers coming back. Her reply, “It’s a family. The volunteers are part of this big team and we’re all working towards the same goal. The volunteers are amazing and they look after us, as much as we look after them.”
The notion of a team of employees and volunteers being a family is often rhetoric rather than reality. However, sitting around that table for tea, I couldn’t differentiate between staff and volunteer – everyone was equal – and everyone felt like family.
Of course to really understand why people commit so much of their time to volunteering, you really need to ask the volunteers themselves, which I intend to do for my next post. Besides, I need an excuse to go back and try some of those cakes everyone was talking about!
If you are interested in volunteering with the Botanic Garden, please click here
, however, be aware that there is already a waiting list for volunteer gardeners.