Let Go and Let the Volunteers!

July 5, 2012

It’s July and I find myself between two annual events – a plant sale and a garden tour.  Two annual events that didn’t exist when I started working here. Two annual events that have raised more money for our program than any other fund-raising activities prior.  Two annual events started by volunteers!

I’ll be honest, I don’t like special events – as they say, “been there, done that!”  However, special events are usually key activities in the volunteer program leader’s job description.  When I started with our program in 2005, our only fund-raising was through calendar and book sales (mostly to our members,) and honorariums requested for master gardener volunteers to be present at local garden centers or for teaching community education classes.   Funds are raised to support our activities in the community (computers, LCD projectors, tools, seeds, etc.) and volunteer recognition.  When a huge garden center chain went out of business, and as some of the smaller centers disappeared, we suddenly found ourselves with a cash flow problem.

About this time, a group of volunteers attended a Master Gardener conference in Milwaukee.  This group came back to report that Milwaukee was raising funds through a plant sale.  Not only were they bringing in $50,000 annually, but Milwaukee was willing to share their model with us!  “Oh, great!” was my response, while actually thinking “oh-oh, here we go.”  Then, another group thought it would be wonderful to expand our “volunteer only” tour of master gardener gardens, and start to charge the public to join us – they also thought it would be great if we held demonstrations in the garden, so it would be a “learning garden tour!”  “Super.” I said, all the while wondering “will I ever get to spend time with my family again?”  As with many volunteer programs, I’m a single program coordinator working with a large group.  Frankly, I just didn’t see how I could manage two special events in addition to everything else going on with our program.  But, I did sense that there was a lot of energy around these two events.  Also, that if these events were to be successful, it would need volunteer support and not mine.  So, I let go and let the volunteers! And because of that, our bank account has slowly increased over the past 5 years.

What’s at work here was not rocket science, but basic project management principles:

Define the outcome:  Pretty simple – we were going to hold two special events to raise funds for our community programs.

Set timelines and deadlines:  This was also pretty simple, especially with an event.  It was easy set dates, and then work back from the event date to establish timelines and deadlines.

Work on the terms of the volunteer’s, not your own:  As mentioned earlier, there was only so much I could do to support this effort.  I let volunteers know I was available, but they determined what needed to be done, when it needed to be done, who was going to do it, etc.  I was only included when necessary – like getting contracts signed and covering expenses.

Budget:  Let folks know how much you’re willing to invest, and what will make the project.  Volunteers determined that $4,000 would be a good amount for them to work with.  That became the budget.  I did share with folks that all I wanted to do was to break even.  They were sure we’d bring in $50,000.  We actually netted $8,000 that first year, so truly a good investment.  I did share with our volunteers that if we just broke even, or lost money, we would really need to evaluate whether we’d continue with the events.

Delegate as much as possible; be flexible:  Both projects were under total volunteer control.  All I was asked to do was to purchase cash boxes and show up with cash the day of the event (which I conveniently forgot for our first plant sale!)

Celebrate the successes, and share with others!  We celebrate each committee at our annual recognition banquet, but the real celebration occurs after each event when volunteers hold their own recaps and celebrations.

Our finances would be much leaner had I said “no” when asked about these events.  I also think that the events wouldn’t be as successful if I was the one who said “hey, let’s have a plant sale!”  So, great things can be accomplished by just letting go!  Today’s volunteers seek higher-level roles and want to use their skills – this can be accomplished by just letting go.  Everyone can win when you let go and let the volunteers!

 

Terry Straub, Program Coordinator

University of Minnesota Extension
Master Gardener Program — Hennepin County

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