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Volunteering in Focus: the Broad Picture

Contributed by Carolann Walach Baldyga, Fairchild Tropical Garden, Miami, Florida, U.S.A.


At Fairchild Tropical Garden, volunteers provide more than 35,000 hours of service each year. Volunteers can be found across the Garden supporting staff by doing a range of work including skilled and unskilled duties. More than 400 individuals participate on a regular basis each year. When the people who volunteer only at our annual Garden festival are included, we can add 900 more to that number.

The Volunteer Services Program at Fairchild had its beginnings more than 17 years ago. But the earliest members of the Garden, which was established in 1938, considered themselves to be volunteers. Their membership and donations funded Garden operations. They organized a Garden festival, called the Ramble, to raise funds by selling plants, old books, antiques, and other items to members of the community. This tradition has continued for 64 years, and funds raised help to support Garden operations.

Volunteers support paid staff but do not replace them. The volume of work required of a volunteer is less than would be needed to create a paid job, or the demand may be infrequent. However, sometimes the volume of work assigned to a volunteer increases to the level that it is necessary to develop a paid position to provide constant and consistent support.

The Fairchild school field trip program began as an ambitious volunteer project 22 years ago. Known as the Fairchild Explorer Program, it was created and taught by three women who were members of the Garden. The plan was straightforward. They wanted to share with children the love and interest they had in plants. These women were parents, and one of them had some teaching experience. After creating a field trip program with advice from teachers, they marketed it to school officials, teachers and neighbours. As the demand for the program increased, a staff position was created to manage and expand it in cooperation with local schools. Today, two staff members manage and teach the field trip program with assistance from 35 volunteers. From this beginning, the Education Department has grown to include programs for students K -12, teacher training and adult education.

As a non-profit, charitable organization, Fairchild Tropical Garden would not be able to conduct the variety of activities and provide service to its visitors without the combined work of staff and volunteers. Their assistance ranges from leading school field trips, driving the tram, answering phones, greeting visitors at special events, assisting at plant sales, working in the nursery, the herbarium, the library and archives, assisting in the cafe and gift shop, and designing posters and brochures. Fairchild volunteers contribute their many skills and experiences to the Garden. Their reasons for volunteering vary. Some just like to be outdoors, or want to learn about plants. Others want to work with our science staff. Some volunteers find that in a botanical garden they are likely to meet new friends. Still others just enjoy the satisfaction of doing something worthwhile.


The Volunteer Services Program established 17 years ago has five components: recruitment, selection, training, management, and reward. The program has benefited from having the leadership of a dedicated staff member. Oversight of a volunteer program requires responsiveness to volunteer interests and needs, mediation of difficulties that may arise, and maintenance of volunteer records for service recognition. Attention to the volunteer program increases as the number of volunteers increases. Staff members who supervise volunteers benefit from the support of a full-time program director who can focus on finding the best volunteer to fill a specific need.


The Volunteer Services Director is responsible for recruitment, which takes several forms. The Director attends community events such as Earth Day, garden club meetings and community events where persons interested in the natural environment are likely to participate. Presentations are made to civic organizations. Invitations are extended to corporations, secondary schools and universities that encourage community service among their employees or students. These volunteers can be more difficult to accommodate because employees often want to work as a group, and students have less time to volunteer than adults. Informal recruitment takes place in social settings and whenever there is an opportunity to tell people about volunteer opportunities. We do not urge too strongly. If an individual is interested in committing time as a volunteer once they are aware of the program, they will take the next step and contact the Garden.

Recruitment also occurs throughout the year as a scheduled Fairchild activity. At least twice each year, announcements in the Miami Herald and other local community newspapers invite residents to volunteer at the Garden. Throughout the year the press highlights volunteers who make significant service contributions to the Garden and to hospitals, museums, children's sports clubs, and other charitable organizations, so residents are aware of this activity. Volunteering is an accepted and encouraged form of community service, though not everyone does it. Staff members who seek volunteers must prepare a job description that the Volunteer Services Director uses to interview applicants. Developing the job description helps staff focus their needs and plan the training, the scheduling of volunteer work hours, and to determine appropriate evaluation measures.

At a Volunteer Open House prospective volunteers meet staff, learn about their needs for volunteers, and tour the Garden and Research Center facilities. Typically about 75–100 people attend. There is a slide presentation of volunteers at work in several Garden locations. Garden staff members who seek volunteers make brief, and enthusiastic presentations to promote the benefits of volunteering with them. Training opportunities and other benefits of volunteering are explained. Garden membership is urged. There are displays with information and photos of volunteers enjoying their assignments or participating in a social event. Seasoned volunteers may also attend the recruitment events to assist in delivering the message that volunteering can be both enjoyable and satisfying. A schedule of training and special volunteer events is distributed. Then, volunteers are encouraged to speak to staff and sign up.

All volunteers must complete an application form. Volunteer applications resemble job applications in that they ask about work experience, education, special skills, emergency contact information in addition to name, address, and phone number.


The Volunteer Services Director interviews all applicants to determine their interests, skills, likes, dislikes, and preferences. A volunteer may then be matched with an available job. There is great diversity among applicants. Some wish to learn a new skill and others hope to apply what they are already able to do. Some can only volunteer one morning each month, others can volunteer one day each week or are available only on weekends. Sometimes an applicant wants to do a job for which they are not suited. We try to find an appropriate match between the applicant and staff needs. When that is not possible, the applicant may be encouraged to try us again in the future. The staff person who will supervise them, and who will make the final decision about the assignment also interviews applicants. This is the person who created the job and will have a close working relationship with the volunteer. We do not create jobs just because a person wants to volunteer. That would be too taxing for staff. Sometimes it is difficult to turn a volunteer away, but if we cannot match their requirements and skills to a job that needs to be done, the best option is to thank them for their interest, encourage them to participate in Garden activities, and perhaps return in the future.

Ultimately, the selection of a volunteer and decisions about the schedule and duties are the responsibility of the staff supervisor to whom the volunteer will report. The supervisor records the hours worked by the volunteer. The Director of Volunteer Services maintains the annual record of volunteer service hours. Volunteers who have accumulated 100 hours of work in one year, are eligible for free or reduced admission into an adult education class. Each year volunteers are honoured at special events at the Garden.
Fairchild volunteers come from all walks of life. We strive to make the volunteers representative of the demographics of our community. Volunteers are retired professionals, businesspersons, teachers, winter residents, housewives, skilled workers, plant enthusiasts, and students. (Jacobson, 2001)

Our more difficult task remains to attract as volunteers people who speak fluent Spanish or French/Creole and Portuguese. These languages are spoken by an increasing number of residents of our community. Indeed, more than 50% of our local population and many of our visitors speak Spanish. Fairchild has in recent years added staff members who speak several of the languages that are spoken locally, and we do have speakers of Spanish, French and other languages among our volunteers. We are addressing the challenge of recruiting African Americans to our volunteer program. African Americans are not as attracted to volunteering at the botanical garden, though they are very active in other cultural institutions in our community.(Falk, 1993), so we anticipate that we will be successful. Our Volunteer Services Director meets with members of all community groups to communicate about available opportunities and to learn about how best to make volunteering at Fairchild attractive to them.


At Fairchild Tropical Garden, we invest in training for all volunteers. They are informal Fairchild ambassadors, and we know that they will speak to others about the Garden. We want them to have accurate information and to feel confident representing the Garden.

The Volunteer Handbook is distributed to each volunteer. This document is modeled on our employee handbook. It provides clear and updated information on the opportunities, expectations, rights and restrictions that pertain to volunteers. It covers absences, policy regarding persons with disabilities, use of computers, dress code, drug use, visitor relations, horticulture and collection policies, safety, sexual harassment, smoking, emergency procedures, insurance and other topics.

All volunteers are required to take four Core Courses. Instructors for these 2-3 hour sessions include the Garden Director, the Director of Horticulture, university faculty and other experts. Core courses are central to understanding the history and operations of the Garden and the environment of the South Florida region. Topics include the history and governance of the Garden, its collections, its landscape design, the plants and environments of south Florida, and the focus of Fairchild’s conservation and research activities.

Each new volunteer also receives on-the-job-training. Depending on their service assignment, they may learn about propagation techniques, how to weed, vouchering herbarium specimens, entering data on the Fairchild Virtual Herbarium website, providing membership and visitor services information, maintaining library collections, assisting with sales in the gift shop or providing support in an office.

Volunteers also serve as interpretive guides on the tram tours for school field trips and for walking tours. They also assist instructors in our adult classes and help with office duties. Education assignments require content knowledge, gained through courses such as basic botany, .Many guides begin with only a limited knowledge of plants. Some who have recently moved to south Florida know nothing about tropical and subtropical species.
Volunteers who become interpretive guides may serve in the Fairchild Explorer Program for students in kindergarten 5th grade. There are four curricula offered and each guide is trained in one curriculum and encouraged to cross-train in at least two others. Cross-training allows a guide to fill in for someone who is temporally unavailable.

Each year 9,000 students and their teachers participate in hands-on, inquiry-based programs. They come in busloads of 40–60 students with their teachers and chaperones. Interpretive guides divide them into manageable groups of 10 or less, so we need 5–7 guides each day. Volunteers also assist staff in outreach to schools and community groups, travelling on the Plant Mobile. Guides drive the tram and provide an interpretive tour of the 83-acre Garden. Tram tours are conducted daily every hour from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. every day except Christmas Day. Tram guides also offer tours for special groups. Other interpretive guides provide in-depth walking tours of the Fairchild collections during our busy winter season. Three education staff manage these volunteers and one full-time and one half time staff members are responsible for the school tour interpretive guides; a half-time coordinator manages the tram tour and walking tour guides.

Peer training is very significant in the success of interpretive guides. All guides receive a guide manual, printed resource materials and teaching aids to study in preparation for conducting interpretive tours. Their success is positively influenced by observation of experienced guides who serve as role models (Mortan 2001). Each guide begins by shadowing other guides. This is followed by conducting part of a tour or activity, and progressing as skill and confidence are gained. Messages about the importance of plants in our lives, the fragility of the natural environment and the importance of conservation need to be communicated by botanical gardens; training the volunteers who deliver those messages is a very important responsibility. Ongoing assessment of guide performance is accomplished through peer review, staff observations and visitor reports. Focus groups are conducted with guides to evaluate effectiveness of our programs and to contribute to the development of new programs and activities (Grinder, 1985).


A successful volunteer program requires effective and sensitive management. Many gardens cannot devote a staff position to management of volunteers, but whenever possible it is recommended. This staff position can focus on recruitment, placement, and helping other garden staff to work successfully with volunteers. Staff members who supervise volunteers benefit from the support and leadership of a colleague who develops policies, conducts recruitment and who has the broad view of volunteer service through participation in professional associations. Staff supervisors need to focus on the work the volunteer performs. They also need to be effective in everyday interpersonal relations with the volunteer and the commitment to work with volunteers takes time. A simple gesture, like asking about the volunteer’s family, remembering a birthday, or bringing fruit or baked goods to share is appreciated. Listening to stories about the volunteer's life and sharing our own stories can be as important to a volunteer as conversations about plants, garden activities and conservation issues. Volunteers want to feel that they are included in the Garden community. Working with volunteers can be a mutually rewarding experience.


The Friends of Fairchild is a volunteer organization that promotes social events among volunteers and staff. Each year, a lunch is held for which volunteers prepare their favorite foods for staff. At a Volunteer Appreciation event, we recognize their individual accomplishments, attendance records and longevity of service. Together we dine on culinary specialties prepared by staff. At other Garden events such as our annual meeting the service of volunteers is acknowledged to the larger Garden community. The Friends of Fairchild have undertaken to raise funds for design and installation of an Italian mosaic at the Fairchild Visitor Center, an initiative that will give Fairchild volunteers prominent recognition for all visitors to see. Volunteers are invited to attend Garden lectures and seminars and they offer suggestions for Garden activities and invite their friends and neighbours to become members. They also identify businesses that can provide services or contributions to the Garden. And volunteers communicate with others about conservation and environmental issues. They are an invaluable resource.


When we reflect that volunteers contribute more than 35,000 hours of work at Fairchild Tropical Garden each year, we realize that without them it would be financially extremely difficult to accomplish many things that are important to us and which are recognized and appreciated by members and visitors. Volunteering enriches the lives of those who volunteer and volunteers make significant and valued contributions to the Garden.


Falk, John H. (1993). Leisure Decisions Influencing African American Use of Museums. American Association of Museums, Washington D.C. U.S.A.
Grinder, Alison L., McCoy, E. Sue. (1985). The Good Guide: a Sourcebook for Interpreters, Docents and Tour Guides. Ironwood Publishing, Tucson, Arizona, U.S.A.
Jacobson, Debra. (2001). Playing on the TAG Team: how Local Experts Enrich our Science Center’s Offering. Dimensions, Journal of the Association of Science and Technology Centers. Issue
Mortan, Simone. (2001). Meaningful Contributions: The Role of Training in the Volunteer Experience, Dimensions, Journal of the Association of Science and Technology Centers. Issue