OPB & Congress Think Volunteers are Free

It’s bad enough that more than 30 miles of dirt trails and primitive roads in Deschutes National Forest in Oregon were deliberately wrecked in 2014 by unsupervised volunteers who were supposed to be doing necessary, environmentally-appropriate trail maintenance, causing more than $200,000 in damage and who, according to this story on OPB News, are still being allowed to do trail maintenance.

But the comments in the OPB story by politicians and others about the role of volunteers has my blood boiling, not to mention that OPB did not call any volunteer management experts, such as those that are a part of the Northwest Oregon Volunteer Administrators Association , to find an Oregon-based professional manager of volunteers to talk to, to find out about the vast amount of volunteer management resources and expertise that could help make things better and about the very high standards of various volunteer engagement programs. Or call Susan Ellis, the world’s foremost trainer and publisher regarding the management and support of volunteers. Or ME, right here in Oregon and registered on the OPB Public Insight Network to offer commentary regarding volunteer engagement!

The National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act, sponsored by Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyoming, has been proposed recently in the USA Congress. It would strongly encourage government agencies to increase volunteer involvement in trail maintenance, but it doesn’t include funding for agency oversight of volunteers – it doesn’t include any money for volunteer management, for recruiting volunteers, screening them, supervising them, etc. Why does it lack such funding? Well, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, a co-sponsor of the act, in his comment to OPB, shows exactly why:

“We don’t have the resources at the federal level to maintain these trails. And yet there’s a group of volunteers out there willing to do the work.”

Could you hear the unspoken “for free” at the end of Walden’s sentence? I could! In short: We have all this work to do. Let’s get some people to work for free to do it. That is a great summation of the National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act. And as any seasoned manager of volunteers or trainer knows, that’s a JOKE we frequently tell at conferences and workshops when trying to show what bad volunteer management looks like. Because NO ONE volunteers for that reason, and because of the implication that volunteers are free – and we know volunteers are NEVER free. Someone has to pay for the volunteers to be appropriately recruited, screened, trained, supervised and supported – otherwise, you end up with tragic consequences similar to what happened in Deschutes National Forest- or worse.

That’s the crux of all these stories from OPB about what happened in Oregon and about this pending bill: volunteers save money! That’s why they are involved!

Here’s a proposal for those managing public lands, and something OPB should consider in future stories about any volunteer engagement, good or bad, at any agency: maybe volunteers are actually the best people to undertake certain activities, like running campgrounds, teaching about Leave No Trace principles and staffing the front desks of ranger stations, not because they are unpaid, but because such involvement allows members of the public to experience first-hand how public lands are administered and how to support the public in experiencing them. Or because of the particular passion or approach volunteers bring to the task that paid employees might not. Or because members of the public might like interacting with a volunteer, rather than someone paid to be there. Or because volunteer involvement is per an organization’s commitment to create opportunities for the community to participate in the org’s work and offer feedback that isn’t financially-based (they aren’t being paid) and endorse the importance of public lands through their investment of time. Say volunteer involvement is part of an organization’s commitment to both transparency and in creating opportunities for community investment in its work. Involve volunteers because it allows people to be involved in the administration and enjoyment of public lands without having to give up whatever they do professionally. Those are reasons that INSPIRE people to volunteer – not, “we have all this work to do, please come do it.”

Emphasizing the money saved in involving unpaid staff also tends to create hostilities with paid staff, who are often angry at the idea of volunteers being involved in order to eliminate paid positions (and they SHOULD be angry at such comments!). The links at the end of this blog explore this and other dangers in emphasizing that the primary reason to involve volunteers is because they aren’t paid.

Instead, organizations that administer public lands should create a mission statement for your volunteer engagement that has NOTHING to do with saving money. And learn to talk about the value of volunteer engagement. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t involve dollar figures.

Oh, but wait, there’s more…. there’s the comments in the story from Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a national watchdog organization. First up from him:

“Relying on volunteers, as well-intentioned as they are, doesn’t always yield good results.”

The implication, of course, is that volunteers are unreliable, can’t be trusted, are incompetent, etc., and that paychecks are magical and make people better workers – thus, only paid employees can do such work properly! Here’s what the quote SHOULD say, to be accurate:

Relying on untrained, unsupervised volunteers, as well-intentioned as they are, doesn’t always yield good results.

And we could substitute the phrase “paid employees” for “volunteers,” and the new sentence would be accurate as well.

Mr. Stahl also made my head explode with his outrageous statement:

“it would be nice if we could hold volunteers to high standards, for even acceptable ones, but you get what you pay for.”

What an insult to every volunteer firefighter, every volunteer emergency rescue person, every Peace Corps member, and every other volunteer out there that goes through hours and hours and hours of training, over many weeks, even months, often right alongside professionals, to master the skills necessary to do their very serious, even dangerous work. These volunteers are held to high standards – and volunteers who can’t meet those standards are FIRED. They are removed from service, just like a paid employee. That loud “bam” you heard if you were listening to the OPB story in Oregon? It was me, hitting the table in front of me out of outrage over this shameful, insulting statement. My dog is still terrified of me over that.

Kevin Larkin, district ranger for the Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District in the Deschutes National Forest, had to learn of the vital importance of the basics of volunteer management the hard way. He says now, “It’s not as simple as welcoming a volunteer through the door, handing that person a shovel and saying, ‘Go do good work. There’s direction, guidance and attention that’s needed.”

Oh, Mr. Larkin, there are vasts amounts of resources that could have helped you manage and support these volunteers right from the get go. Some resources are free. Many aren’t, but they cost much, much less than $200,000. I wish you had known about them, and I wish you had the funding to tap into them – the books, the workshops, the conferences… even university-level certificate programs on managing volunteers.

Congress must realize volunteers aren’t free, and that there will be financial costs in involving volunteers in trail maintenance on US public lands – and that they are going to have to fund those costs. Otherwise, we’re going to have much bigger bills in terms of trail damage – and worse. I’ve created this petition at Change.org, calling on the bill’s co-sponsors to amend the act so that it provides the resources necessary for this increased volunteer engagement on public lands to be successful. If you are in the USA, or you are a USA citizen abroad, please read over the petition, consider signing it, and share it with your network!

And OPB: next time you are doing a story about volunteers, please call me, or the Northwest Oregon Volunteer Administrators Association, to find a volunteerism expert to comment on your story, give you guidance, etc.

Also see Volunteers trying to help on their own, a blog about how DIY “trail improvements” by unsanctioned, unsupervised volunteers are causing serious damage to a nature preserve, and what to do if you discover that an official volunteer of your organization is doing activities in the name of your organization but outside of the approval of your program.

For more on the subject of the value of volunteer or community engagement:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *