Funding for parks, both local and national, seems to always be on the chopping block—when the government has to tighten its belt, money to protect and preserve the great outdoors is often one of the first things to go. And while you may not be able to donate enough to make up for the deficit, you could probably donate a bit of your time by planning a volunteer day at a city, state, or national park near you.
It’s not as hard as you might think, and you don’t have to be part of an environmental organization to give a hand to the the natural spaces you hold dear.
Determine what you want to do, and where
Putting together an afternoon or weekend event that benefits parks starts with deciding where you want to volunteer, and how. Selecting the location isn’t tricky.
Joe Gibson knows a bit about rallying up volunteers. He is the community coordinator at Los Angeles-based apparel company Parks Project, leads regular volunteer days organized by the company—everything from cleanup projects to trail maintenance and habitat restoration. When it comes to deciding what parks to contact, Gibson says he occasionally searches for big blocks of green on Google Maps.
Of course, your choice doesn’t have to be so arbitrary. You could pick a park that you know could use your attention, or one you have fond memories of. You can also keep it simple by choosing a location close to home. But deciding where you’ll be working is only half the battle. You’ll also need to decide what you’ll be doing.
“Picking up trash is great and easy to do, but it’s not always the best use of a group of volunteers’ time,” Gibson says. This is especially true in national parks that are often well maintained and cared for.
Groups of people can knock out more involved projects that a single person couldn’t do on their own—habitat restoration and trail maintenance, for example, are great ideas. Just keep in mind that these sorts of efforts are often on ranger or local government project lists and require professional input and instruction to complete—especially if delicate ecosystems are concerned. Parks can often provide the assistance of an on-site volunteer coordinator or ranger for these kinds of projects and others, such as gathering and redistributing seeds or clearing trails.
Whether you plan on one of these types of initiatives or come up with something completely different, you’ll want to get in touch with park staff to coordinate and help you plan and prepare. To find the right person, check the park’s website. Look for titles like “volunteer coordinator” or “stewardship manager”—they’re the people you’ll want to get in touch with. If you don’t see those or similar titles, use the general contact information and your message will be forwarded to the right person.
Promote your initiative
After you’ve decided on the park and project, it’s time to promote the event. If your goal is simply to get a group of friends and family involved, Facebook event invitations and informal emails will probably be enough to rally the troops. If you’re hoping to get a larger community involved, however, you’ll need to spread the word.
Start with flyers, online event pages on sites like Facebook or Meetup, and reach out to local news organizations to promote the outing, starting about a month in advance for outlets with publication deadlines. Two weeks leading up to the event, touch base on your social media event pages—people tend to forget things, even though they may be excited to participate. And if you’re lucky enough to receive an overwhelmingly positive response, don’t go for that victory lap just yet.
“There is such a thing as too many volunteers,” Gibson says. “It won’t feel meaningful if there’s not enough work to do.” Though it’s a bit counterintuitive, “the more, the merrier” doesn’t apply when it comes to planning a volunteer day, so setting a limit of participants is always a good idea.
Think about the ideal number of people you’ll need for your project, and then consider the drop-out rate which, for this kind of event, Gibson says could be anywhere between 30-50 percent. For example, if the total amount of volunteers cannot exceed 20, only provide up to 30 slots for people to sign up.
Organize and execute
Whether big or small, when it’s go-time, organization is key to pulling off a successful park volunteer day. Start by clearly communicating details like time, date, and location, so volunteers know where to go, what to bring, and precisely what they’re in for. Consider that some parks may not have cell service, so designate a clear meeting point where people can easily find you or any park coordinators.
Make sure everyone knows who’s in charge. If it’s a small park cleanup, that might be you—introduce yourself to everyone, and wear a name tag and distinctive work vest. But if you’re working at a large city, state or national park initiative, also make sure to point out the ranger or coordinator in charge so volunteers know who to go to with questions or concerns. Then, as the organizer, make yourself available as the middleman between volunteers and park employees to ensure the event runs smoothly.
When it comes to tools, parks may be able to provide what you need, so check with them before you ask anybody to bring any equipment or supplies like trash bags and gloves.
The key to success
While coordinating a volunteer day may seem a pretty straightforward task, Gibson says it involves more than planning and organization to do so in a way that is meaningful and fulfilling for everyone involved—it also requires information. “It’s really important to spend time explaining why you’re doing the project in the first place,” he says.
That’s because understanding why the work is important is what makes an event worthwhile, even more than personal gratification (usually in the form of warm fuzzies after doing something good for a beloved park) does. It also creates volunteers who will want to participate again in the future, because they understand that their actions can make an impact regionally and globally.
That doesn’t mean you have to be the one with all the knowledge and know-how. Often, it will come from a park ranger or an experienced trail technician—an expert who can explain why cigarettes on the beach are harmful to more than wildlife, or how a particular invasive species is damaging the local ecosystem. Having a knowledgeable coordinator onsite to explain why your team is harvesting and redistributing native seed pods is the key to not only having a productive event, but creating a deeper, more meaningful connection to the outdoors.
Make it happen
You don’t have to have special experience or training to plan a park volunteer day, and there are no age requirements to participate. A park maintenance or cleanup day is easy, fun, and a great excuse not only to spend time outdoors, but to care for the public spaces around you. And a little planning, organization, and perspective are all you need to make it happen and facilitate a positive change in the world around you.