"I just want to be your Friend"

Logo: East Lothian Council
Logo: East Lothina Countryside Ranger Service

Those of you of a similar (Grange Hill) era may remember this oft quoted phrase between the kind but dippy Janet to the bullied and shy, Roland. Theirs’ was an awkward friendship, built upon mutual isolation and strength through adversity. Depending upon how you plan to develop your ‘Friends’ / volunteer groups you could all too easily find yourself employing these emotions and more besides, for to successfully deliver volunteer conservation groups is not as straight forward as it seems. This article explores some of the issues at stake.

Be clear

Volunteers receive training in bumblebee ID (East Lothian Council)
Volunteers receive training in bumblebee ID (East Lothian Council)

Whilst it may seem abundantly obvious to you the reason for a group’s formation, be aware that volunteers join groups with varying ideas and agendas as to what the group does. To ensure clarity, from the outset a simple document explaining the purpose of the group can avoid any confusion. Should you be seeking to formally constitute the group, this becomes a necessity anyway and can throw up all sorts of misconceptions if they have not been addressed beforehand. I have been involved with a group that I perceived to be created to help clean a local river of litter, whereas to other members the purpose was to secure their properties from the threat of flooding. Quite different agendas.

Be realistic

Volunteers are desperately keen to help out, and those involved in nature conservation / countryside management seem all the more so! If you promise the earth but don’t deliver, you will be turning off not only those volunteers but also all the people they talk to. So from the outset, be realistic in what you can and cannot deliver. If you offer an extensive programme whereby you plan to develop a volunteer from a starting point of no skills to a point where they will be a fully qualified conservationist; that is fine. But if you only are looking for volunteers to help you clean up litter from a beach that is also perfectly reasonable, so long as these expectations are clear from the start. My tip is to keep things simple at the start and develop over time.

Volunteers plant surveying (East Lothian Council)
Volunteers plant surveying (East Lothian Council)

Make time
If you are setting up a ‘Friends of’ or similar group and have a period of time allocated towards it, double that time allowance. There is an incredible burden placed upon the co-ordinator to provide an administrative role, to ensure people deliver on promises to complete supporting work and to nurture the rapport amongst the group in its
early stages. In time, this pressure – in a well-working group – will ease as other people step in to offer help. But that only leaves you with a void of duties which is quickly supplanted by pursuing grants, setting up formal constitutions and seeing these through to a successful conclusion, which all require time. So double it!

Train Yourself

An easy step to miss. But are you suitably experienced in working with people and understanding their needs? Are you familiar with the legal aspects connected with employing volunteers? Many of us end up working with volunteers without taking the chance to learn from specialists who can provide invaluable training for you – here’s an example in Scotland, similar agencies operate elsewhere in the UK – Volunteer Development Scotland

Train / nurture your volunteers

As much as you may require training, ignore your own volunteers’ training at your peril. We all like to learn new skills and volunteers, especially as they are not paid, require the stimulation of training more than most. Fortunately a number of course providers - e.g. The Conservation Volunteers2   and the Paths for All Partnership3 – provide courses either at a discount or free of charge to volunteers. Alongside formal training, you can provide training from your own experiences. Last do not underestimate the morale-boosting properties of tea and biscuits as a means to develop group dynamics!

Volunteers can easily deliver practical improvements to sites with the right training (East Lothian Council)
Volunteers can easily deliver practical improvements to sites with the right training (East Lothian Council)

Be aware of relevant legislation / policies 

Fairly early on in any volunteer group, you’ll start to undertake some kind of practical conservation work. To ensure you don’t find yourself in any hot water ensure you are trained in the production of Risk Assessments, are aware of relevant Health and Safety legislation have appropriate 3rd party insurance and that any tools your volunteers use are only given after appropriate training and recording. This may sound a little ridiculous when it comes to showing someone how to use a spade (it is not), but is certainly an issue if you are training up volunteers in the operation of power tools. Machines, e.g. Strimmers have levels of use which ought not be exceeded in order to protect against Hand and Vibration (‘White finger’) syndrome, alongside Safe Operating Procedures for the tool’s correct usage. If you do not know what these are, find out and ensure each volunteer records levels of use.

If you are involved in a constituted group and finances, be aware also that there are legal requirements with these and someone will need to provide accounts annually.

Health and safety- do you know the legislation! (East Lothian Council)
Health and safety- do you know the legislation! (East Lothian Council)


Not put off yet? Great, because if you take heed of all of this you will potentially reap huge benefits from your group in one of 3 ways;

  • Practical improvements to your site – people make a difference. You may also have skilled biological recorders in your group
  • A far greater interaction with the users of your site – working with those who visit your site and respect it is a fantastic way of broadening your connections with site visitors
  • Funding for projects. It is getting harder to find, but (in Scotland) if your group passes the Charity Test4 this opens up the number of agencies you can apply to funding for. Also, even if you are not a charitable group, community-led groups can apply for funding that are inapplicable to organisations such as Local Authorities

But be under no illusions

You and a small pool of dedicated volunteers will end up doing the most of the work. It is not fair, but the rewards to your patch of green space are going to be immense. Good luck!

Duncan Priddle, Countryside Officer, East Lothian Council

1       Volunteer Development Scotland

2              The Conservation Volunteers;lid=19

3              Paths for All Partnership

4              Charity Test

First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in affiliation with the Association of Countryside Volunteers on 23 September 2013