“RAPTORS, Come and see the Raptors!” I shout from the top of my lungs to travelers making their way down the beaten path of the Renaissance Festival in Larkspur, Colorado. Visitors approach the booth with oohs and ahhs at the sight of the rehabilitated great-horned owl who perches on the arm of a Rocky Mountain Raptor Program volunteer. The outreach volunteer stands beside me and tells the bird’s story. As she passionately describes how he was injured and rehabilitated, but unfit for the wild, visitors are drawn in by her enthusiasm and some even drop donations into our basket. Many are intrigued by the owl’s role as an “Educational Ambassador” and want to know more about his species and his sustained injuries. Others are mesmerized by his beautiful feathers and ask if they could own one as a pet. The volunteer acknowledges the questions and politely responds about the legalities of possessing raptors or their parts as stated in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This experience, along with other outreach events, is a great example of volunteerism done right. The excitement and dedication of a valued and supported volunteer is contagious and priceless.
As an Outreach Intern with the Rocky Mountain Raptor Program (RMRP) and with a Volunteer Coordinator as my guide, I was exposed to the ins and outs of working with volunteers. Based on this knowledge and my personal experiences, here are some lessons that could be applied to any organization utilizing volunteers.
Left: A RMRP outreach volunteer handling a non-releasable Golden Eagle at the Renaissance Festival in Larkspur, Colorado. Photo by Rocky Mountain Raptor Program; Right: A RMRP outreach volunteer handling a non-releasable Great-horned Owl at the Renaissance Festival in Larkspur, Colorado. Photo by Rocky Mountain Raptor Program
Lesson #1: An investment with great return
When recruiting and working with volunteers, organizations should ask themselves “What does it mean to have a volunteer?” Depending on the answer, it could represent the foundation of the organization’s volunteer management strategy. In my past experiences as a volunteer, I have had a range of supervisors with diverse views of what a volunteer is and should be. Some viewed their volunteers as those that will dutifully complete every less desirable task that is assigned to them. Others may consider volunteers valuable assets that have the potential to help the organization flourish and grow, and RMRP was an organization that did just this.
How volunteers perform on the job may depend on the orders they are given and the people giving them. If given only menial tasks a volunteer may burn out quickly, and lose sight of why they volunteer in the first place. If treated as a valuable asset to the organization and trusted with a variety of responsibilities, the volunteer is equipped to become a productive and inspired team member. In my personal experiences, I started to see my volunteer supervisors as leaders who motivated me to work harder, contribute ideas, and take initiative.
Lesson #2: They come in all shapes and sizes
With my experience working both as a volunteer and a volunteer supervisor, I’ve learned that not all volunteers are in it for the same reasons. They may share the common goal of supporting the organization’s mission, but their backgrounds and interests may differ from one another. Most organizations want their volunteers to be driven to invest their heart and soul rather than feel like they have to check some moral box. To kindle this drive, supervisors should recognize and acknowledge the differences between their volunteers and create ways to use each person’s unique skill set. Because of RMRP’s recognition and acknowledgement of my skillsets, not only did I fulfill the needs of assigned projects, I went above and beyond and exceeded their expectations. By playing to an individual’s interests and strengths we are not only benefiting from their unique contributions to the organization, we are also giving them the opportunity to feel like they are truly contributing to the cause.
Lesson #3: Help them grow
When we can’t pay our volunteers in money, we pay them in experiences. Organizations need to take advantage of the skills of those volunteering, but they also need to recognize the needs and wants of those volunteering. For instance, a volunteer may be interested in gaining a new skill but is not sure where to start. That’s where a supervisor can offer volunteers optional training in topics such as human-wildlife conflict, issues in conservation, history of wildlife law, public speaking, etc. They may provide brainstorming sessions discussing a case-scenario about wildlife issues and possible solutions. Include volunteers in the organizations meetings, give them an understanding of the inner workings and let their voice be heard. With access to personal and professional growth opportunities, volunteers can gain skills in areas they are interested in.
Get the picture?
So we’ve thought about this long and hard. We get that we need to invest in our volunteers, understand that they’re not all the same, and provide room for them to grow, but how does this help the organization? A volunteer who feels empowered, necessary, and supported will be proper representatives of the organization, build relationships with constituents, and all in all do a better job. RMRP is a perfect example of this: the volunteers had a feeling of inclusion, a sense of individuality, and a comfortable space to share their knowledge and skills with the community. They were capable extensions of RMRP because the organization provided volunteers with mentors, training, library resources, and evaluations of their knowledge, skills and abilities.
As a non-profit organization, RMRP relied heavily on volunteers to carry out its mission and goals. As was the case for the outreach volunteer at the Renaissance Festival, more often than not, volunteers were the community’s first impression of the organization through various outreach events and fundraising festivities. In my observations, as visitors came to see the raptors, they also interacted with the volunteers to hear their stories and experiences with RMRP. As the face of the organization, volunteers had the ability to inspire a sense of responsibility, encourage donations, and motivate visitors to come back a second, third, or even fourth time! RMNP's investment, appreciation, and support gave volunteers the power to be role-models for youth, examples of environmental stewardship, and the bridge between the organization and its constituents.