A Multitude of Motivations Drive Volunteering in Parks
By Michael Halicki, Executive Director of Park Pride
On September 26th, Park Pride joined DeKalb County, the YMCA and Graced Place, in commemorating “National Public Lands Day” and “Let’s Move – Outside!” at Wade Walker Park. In August, dozens of people answered Park Pride’s call to help with volunteer projects at parks throughout Atlanta. In the coming months, Park Pride will be coordinating a park service project at D.H. Stanton Park for “Hands On Atlanta Day” as well as workdays with Turner Broadcasting on the Atlanta BeltLine (with Atlanta BeltLine Partnership) and Bennett Thrasher at Jennie Drake Park (with Friends of Jennie Drake Park). As I reflected on the success of our volunteer program, I felt it was important to explore the reasons that corporations, groups and individuals volunteer in parks. The answers, I found, are as diverse as our parks themselves.
As I have talked to corporate leaders, it has become clear that they have come to appreciate the tremendous value of volunteer service as an employee engagement and team building tool. These leaders have learned that volunteer projects with real goals and results can be much more effective in fostering collaboration and teamwork than traditional team-building activities which are an end unto themselves. They understand that in a work environment where it can take weeks, months, or longer to see the results of their efforts, employees feel a great sense of accomplishment when they can see tangible results at the end of a hard day’s work. The employees take pride in making a real impact on a public greenspace, and enjoy the feeling of being part of something bigger than themselves. Beyond the intrinsic rewards of volunteering, many companies see volunteer service in bigger picture terms that relate to corporate responsibility and sustainability efforts.
“Increasingly, our company operates from a mindset that recognizes that everything is connected,” said Jami Buck-Vance, Director of Corporate Responsibility & Community Partnerships at Cox Enterprises. “To support our Cox Conserves sustainability initiative, we volunteer locally with groups like Park Pride and The Trust for Public Land to support access to parks and greenspace and, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper to protect our rivers and streams. Additionally, we offer EarthShare of Georgia as an employee giving option. It’s a holistic approach that allows employees to feel they are contributing to something bigger than what they could achieve individually.”
The Corporate Volunteer Council (CVC) of Atlanta’s executive director, Cheryl Kortemeier, has gained valuable insights into volunteering through her role at CVC as well as her experiences with EarthShare and from her days at Trees Atlanta. According to Kortemeier, “Volunteering with organizations like Park Pride makes employees feel good and enhances their job satisfaction. When a corporate volunteer is digging with a shovel or planting flowers, tension slips away and conversation with peers and management comes easily. Many companies encourage junior staff to lead volunteer efforts which may include senior staff – turning traditional workplace structure on its head.”
Kortemeier goes on to explain, “This affords upcoming leaders a chance to glean new people and project management skills while doing good.” So, if your organization is not encouraging employees to participate in volunteer efforts, you might be overlooking a perfect opportunity to cultivate great talent right in front of you!
Last month, as Park Pride partnered with Friends of Mountain Way Common, Friends of Constitution Lakes and the South Fork Conservancy at Zonolite Park for a series of Saturday workdays, I had the opportunity to speak with several individuals to find out their motivations for volunteering. These workdays included support from Georgia Conservancy’s young professionals group, Generation Green, and Community Bucket, a group dedicating to creating community while volunteering.
As one Community Bucket volunteer shared with me, “I recently moved to Atlanta and I was told that this is how you get to know people and get to know the city.” For this millennial volunteer, getting involved with groups like Community Bucket was a behavioral norm for him and his peers. “It was what people did in Atlanta,” he said. So, volunteering offers a means get to know like-minded individuals who share similar values.
For the last word on the topic, I turn to our in-house expert: Park Pride’s volunteer manager, Mr. John Ahern. Over the years, John has organized volunteers at parks all over Atlanta and DeKalb. I had the pleasure of getting to know John prior to joining Park Pride in my former role as Chief Operating Officer at Southface.
At the time, I helped to organize a crew of volunteer leaders from Southface to manage 150 volunteers for a massive project that took place at Renaissance Park (thanks also to the Friends of Renaissance and Central Park). My motivations were: to raise visibility for Southface, to get outside and do some physical work, to do something meaningful with my co-workers, and to help to improve the park across the street. Bringing it all together was our fearless leader, Park Pride’s John Ahern; the calm in center of the storm. As Plan A moved on to Plan B, and C, John improvised without missing a beat, making it work with a smile on his face and a sense of confidence I emulate only on my best days. At the end of the project, John made sure that we took stock of all that we had accomplished.
I posed this question about why people volunteer in parks to John Ahern and what keeps individuals and corporate groups coming back. His response was this: “It’s good for you! Volunteering gives people a chance to step back from their busy lives and live in the moment as they do something positive for their community. Volunteering is selfless, and parks provide the ideal location for volunteering.” I find this response both affirming of my appreciation of our volunteer manager and his sense of volunteerism as a transcendent gift to our community and a way to recalibrate ourselves to the world around us.
Regardless of your reasons for volunteering, the important thing is that you volunteer. The dog days of summer are over and cooler weather is here. Get outside and go to a park. If the spirit moves you, get your hands dirty and spread some mulch, clear some privet, build a bench. You’ll be glad you did.