Volunteering: developing relationships on Dartmoor

Logo: Dartmoor National Park


Dartmoor National Park Authority has a long tradition of working with longer term volunteers using a Voluntary Warden scheme. Where we had, until recently, been less successful was in responding to ‘out of the blue’ requests. This article describes a change in the way we managed these relationships – turning from a reactive to proactive stance.

Some of the issues

Men’s Health Group from Plymouth – Burrator woods  (© Dartmoor National Park Authority)
Men’s Health Group from Plymouth – Burrator woods (© Dartmoor National Park Authority)

Many countryside professionals will be familiar with the super-keen volunteer – you know the one with loads of skills, plenty of time and a real passion for your protected landscape, your iconic species or your wonderful habitat. For us, responding to these volunteers raised a number of questions – notably: Do we have the capacity to manage, support and mentor this person? Do we have enough volunteer tasks to keep them satisfied? Is it really their satisfaction we should focus on?

In addition, like many in the public and voluntary sectors we have suffered funding cuts which in a service organisation translate into job losses. This meant that remaining staff had a degree of anxiety about volunteers within the workplace.

One way to crack the nut…

We thought about how we were responding, or rather not being able to respond to volunteer offers, and how we could help alleviate staff anxiety and introduced the following web-based scheme.

Tell me what you want, what you really, really want?

Our starting point was to ask staff what they really would like to do but given limited capacity could not hope to tackle – these projects should be ‘icing on the cake’ – those nice, extra mile add-ons that were important but which the urgency of everyday busy-ness cast aside. We developed a very simple volunteer offer template – a little like a job description that would help our staff be clear about the nature of the task, the time commitment, any necessary skills, any potential physical demands and, importantly, who would ‘line manage’ this volunteer. This last was to ensure that staff did not feel volunteers being thrust upon them. Once a few of these templates were completed we uploaded them to our website …and volunteers started to roll in. the scheme has been running for 18 months or so and has helped us undertake a number of projects such as:

  • Collecting data from remote location people counters;
  • Delivery of school fieldtrips using Volunteer Education Guides;
  • Planners have used volunteers to gather data on town centre usage patterns to inform the policy planning process;
  • Taking wildlife photos to build up a stock of images;
  • Restoring bronze-age cairns;
  • Undertaking archaeological monitoring of scheduled and vulnerable sites.

What is important is that many of these ‘new’ opportunities stretch far beyond the traditional work parties undertaking gorse bashing, bracken clearance or path maintenance. Some volunteers have joined us for a short period of time – a task and finish relationship whilst others have contributed to more than one project.

Much of my time in the early phase of this change was spent writing resources that would help my colleagues with the processes of recruitment, induction, training, mentoring and monitoring. Some of this was the slightly bureaucratic exercise of producing induction checklists, monitoring forms and process flowcharts but also included a revamped ‘Volunteers Welcome Pack’. This was particularly to help both sides of the volunteer ‘contract’ understand roles and responsibilities.

Is this enough?…searching for the win-win

Enjoying clearing footpaths (© Dartmoor National Park Authority)
Enjoying clearing footpaths (© Dartmoor National Park Authority)

For some of the volunteers the answer was still ‘no’. They still had more time than we had tasks, even with the range we could provide and so the next step was to make much more public and visible the relationship we had developed with other volunteering organisations active on Dartmoor. Some of these were the key players, like Natural England and the National Trust, but many were also ‘home grown’ groups based in a specific locality, often with good links to our sector rangers who would help identify and manage tasks for these groups. We now provide a clear signposting service to those groups who undertake some of the more traditional habitat management conservation tasks. This has strengthened our relationship with these groups, has increased the volunteer opportunities and we are starting to see some ‘cross-fertilisation’ with some volunteers working for a number of groups

on a wide variety of tasks. Perhaps win-win-win!

To see some of the volunteer offers current and the signposting to other groups take a look at the volunteering pages on our website at:

Orlando Rutter, Senior Learning & Outreach Officer (and Volunteer Co-ordinator)

Dartmoor National Park Authority

First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering in association with The Scottish Countryside Rangers Association, the Countryside Management Association and NATUR on 10 February 2014

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