Botanic Gardens Conservation International
BGCI provides a global voice for all botanic gardens, championing and celebrating their inspiring work. We are the world's largest plant conservation network, open to all. Join us in helping to save the world's threatened plants.

Guide to Using Volunteers

Howard, J. (1998) Environmental Education in Botanic Gardens Training Course, Kirstenbosch Botanic Garden, South Africa


It seems that environmental education is generally under-funded in many countries and therefore understaffed.Yet there is gathering momentum to the development of EE and EE provision. So the workload of education officers is increasing exponentially and audiences cannot be reached without the help of a team of volunteers.Using volunteers has its pros and cons, but if managed successfully the rewards can be tremendous.The advantages and disadvantages are summarised below – it is important to bear both parties in mind as the programme will only work if it is mutually beneficial. Many of the disadvantages can be overcome by having a few simple strategies in place.


To the volunteer

To the organisation

Opportunity to ‘give back’ to society and feel useful

Reach more people

Fills a gap in personal life

Expand the programme e.g. outreach, workshops

Flexibility compared with a full time job

Full time staff can concentrate on the bigger picture

Intellectual stimulation and growth

Rich and diverse pool of experience to call on

Meet new, like-minded people

Frees up staff time to specialise in different areas

Actively contribute to education change

More time to develop and explore new methods

Provides job experience if unemployed / student

Ready made sounding board /trial team


Disadvantages and Difficulties in a Volunteer Programme

To the volunteer

To the organisation

The term ‘volunteer’

Recruitment of suitable people

Could take up too much time

Getting rid of unsuitable volunteers

Could feel under-valued

Hidden costs

Personality clashes

Extra training needs

Sense of not quite belonging to the organisation

Different levels of training to be accommodated

Might not be keen on further training

Extra time need to manage volunteers

Role my be unclear

Full time staff could feel the volunteers ‘take over’

May not be consulted on new policy affecting them

Legislation and unions


Internal employment protocols

Definition of a Volunteer

The meaning will vary from organisation to organisation, but generally speaking a volunteer is someone who, for altruistic reasons, donates their time and efforts to a given cause. It is important to clarify this within the organisation before the programme starts.

Volunteer Policy

You should determine the niche and need for a volunteer programme in your organisation – you should be clear about

  • what you can expect from volunteers
  • what they can expect from you
  • the kind of volunteer you require (i.e. with regard to relevant experience, age etc)

Task Description

This is so the volunteers know exactly what is expected of them, and is called a task description to avoid some of the benefits expected with a the word ‘job’ such as formal employment, salary and fringe benefits.It is also important to detail what is not expected of a volunteer.If you decide not to draw up aformal contract, you should include a section in the task description which both parties can sign, showing that they have understood the policy.


These are useful to protect your organisation, in case a volunteer proves unsuitable for the task. You may wish to run a criminal check, particularly if the volunteer is to work with children.

Recognition and Motivation

Recognition is the best tool for building a successful and happy team.Too often we forget that volunteers are a team and take their time and efforts for granted.If you concentrate on team building, giving recognition is easy.Keep a hands-on approach in your programme and ensure good lines of communication. Provide ample time for feedback, both in a group and individually.

Recognition: Showing You Care


  • corporate wear
  • badges
  • staff cards
  • staff discounts
  • free entrance to garden, including families


  • long term service awards
  • fun awards
  • celebrations


  • newspaper and magazine articles
  • radio interviews
  • ensure sponsors and chief role players are aware of the volunteers work

Golden Rules

  • always listen first then respond rather than react
  • make sure volunteers do get some fun jobs and not just the drudgery
  • listen to what they need – do not assume you know their needs better than they do
  • find out what their special talents are and make opportunities to use them
  • raise awareness of your team and its talents in your organisation and in the community
  • network with other organisation who use volunteers


Once you have completed the above processes you will have a good idea of why you need volunteers, how many you need, what they are going to do for your organisation and what sort of background they need to have.Now you need to find the candidates and interview them.Service organisation, religious groups, teacher’s unions and other organisation who already use volunteers may be your first options.Be wary of recruiting through the media, as you may get responses form people looking for paid work – put leaflet around the gardens so attract people who are already keen on the garden.Be prepared to spend a long time on the phone discussing what you want with potential applicants.If you are veryclear about what you want you will save yourself a lot of time in the future by dissuading unsuitable applicants at this early stage.

Training and Development

Volunteers require as much, if not more, training than fulltime staff. Often they will join your team without the professional training and experience in education you take for granted in a paid staff member, a regular training and development programme is therefore essential.

This should operate on a regular basis (e.g. once a month) and include information session, general team-building opportunities and sessions to develop and evaluate teaching andlearning methods.These sessions are essential for personal and professional development, and to ensure high quality delivery.They also enable and sense of team to develop.

Volunteers should not be treated as ‘second class’ citizens in the workplace- indeed may of them may have more experience that regular staff. Involvement with lesson and resource planning and evaluation develops a sense of responsibility and commitment to your organisation.