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The Planet

How Can Too Many Volunteers Be a Problem?

by Michael Lynch

(Hint: Once You Have Them, How Do You Harness Them?)

At a recent Sierra Club leader training event, Board of Directors member Greg Casini asked trainees for a show of hands: "How many of you come from a chapter or group with more volunteers than you know what to do with?" After the guffaws, we heard some gasps! To the surprise of many of us, a few leaders enthusiastically raised their hands.

Reyes-ing Expectations: Loma Prieta (California) Chapter leader Rafael Reyes discusses "Engaging Our Members," a model he and other Club leaders are promoting for better communication between members.

Believe it or not, some chapters and groups are struggling with an enviable problem-more volunteers than they can currently harness. Many of these people got involved in 2004 to make the environment matter on Election Day, had positive experiences, and now want to do more. Here's what one volunteer in Florida said:

"In March my despair about the direction our country was heading surfaced, and I felt a dire need to do something about it. The Sierra Club offered that outlet. Thank you to all of you who helped me find meaning in my life over the past few months. The battle did not end on November 2. I feel a renewed sense of obligation to our planet, our country, and our American principles of yore, and I believe there are others like me who will continue this uphill struggle. Thank you for lighting the fire, making me seek out the truth, and giving me hope that there are many people who hold the same beliefs as I do and who want the same change." She ended by saying, "Let me know if there's anything I can help with in the future."

Those are words we like to hear. But with the urgency of the election behind us, we have to find new ways to involve these folks. One way, says Rafael Reyes of the Loma Prieta Chapter, is the "Engaging Our Members" model, a guide to how we should be talking about the environmental challenges that face us in the Bush administration's second term, and how to move forward. "Our members are finding it a useful tool in segueing from anger, and maybe depression, to taking action," says Reyes, who helped coordinate several of the "Road to Somewhere" events during the fall, in which busloads of volunteers went to neighboring states to do voter education or get-out-the-vote work.

The idea behind Engaging Our Members is getting people talking in small groups with fellow chapter and group members.

Reyes reports excellent results from the first round of Engaging Our Members discussions in the summer and fall of 2004. He says the new post-election discussion guide has been well received and a new discussion guide about protecting forests will be available in early 2005. "If we could encourage more Club entities to adopt this discussion format and create their own facilitator guides for specific topics, we could activate even more of our members," he says.

Liz Pallatto, Training Academy organizer in the Office of Volunteer and Activist Services, stresses the importance of engaging these new volunteers in what she calls "appealing activities. We have to focus on their capacity for involvement, the depth of their commitment, and the breadth of their interests in local environmental challenges," she says.

Pallatto also emphasized the importance of remembering the Ask-Thank-Inform-Involve organization building cycle: She shares an example about one volunteer's path from first involvement to leadership: First, the volunteer was asked to do a simple task: bring cookies to a meeting (ask). The local leader told her that food made meetings run better (inform), and told her how much the cookies were appreciated (thank). The volunteer stayed involved and eventually became a Club president (involve).

Of course, not all volunteers will get that deeply involved, but the important first step is to be asked to participate.

Another idea currently percolating looks like this: We start with some hands-on service trip type of activity, like a beach clean-up or trail maintenance. Volunteers can put on gloves and boots and clean up creeksides in our communities, but we can't physically take the mercury out of the air. So we set a goal of, say, 10,000 volunteer hours devoted to this activity, and add to that a policy component: While putting in these hours, we ask the local government to reduce sewage overflows by 10,000 gallons; the state to save 10,000 acres of wetlands; and the appropriate federal agencies to cut mercury emissions by 10,000 pounds.

Chapters and groups could also establish community action teams, with checklists of environmental concerns: Is there recycling in the neighborhood? How about local teams of investigators sampling the waterways? (Many chapters already have Water Sentinels programs- see

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