All over Australia there are thousands of hard working teams of nature conservation volunteers – Landcare, Bushcare and their cousins – each with a handful of active members, scratching their heads about how to grow their numbers.
The reason that Landcare and Bushcare groups get stuck is, surely, not just because of poor marketing, but because of what Landcare and Bushcare ARE. If all you’re doing is weeding the same patch of blighted bushland month after month it’s no wonder your membership gets stuck. So it’s possible that recruiting more volunteers might depend on evolving a better kind of Landcare/Bushcare experience. A more meaningful and enjoyable Bushcare experience would mean more inspired stories to share, better word of mouth (the only kind of marketing that counts) and more people dipping their toes in the water. And a better experience means they’re likely to stay.
And of course there ought to be plenty of innovators already out there, just waiting for a chance to share their ideas.
So, at the 2010 Sydney Bushcare Forum, I facilitated a session with around 100 reps from groups all over Sydney to share their Bushcare innovations.
It turned into a marvellous idea-fest. Here are a few of their innovations:
Reframing the vision from bushland to wildlife corridor
Ross Muller of Roselea Bushcare Group described how his group joined up with two nearby groups and changed their focus from bushland rehabilitation to creating a Wildlife Corridor (a more visionary goal). They have nesting boxes all along the corridor, each one sponsored by a local family (one with a family of seven sugar gliders living in it). They also joined up with a local Heritage group to set up a Heritage Walk.
Partnerships with schools
Ross’s group also talked to a nearby school and now have 25 students spending an hour a week helping out. Several other groups were doing the same thing. (In fact plenty of schools are desperate for someone to walk in and offer this kind of “Beyond the Fence” learning opportunity for kids).
Outsourcing your nursery
Ross’s group have a “native grass farm”, essentially a patch of dense native grasses. They invite school kids to harvest the seeds, plant them in boxes, take them home to germinate, and return to plant them as seedlings.
Chris Bartlett of Cooks River Mudcrabs reckons that having a memorable brand (“Mudcrabs”) really helps. They wear their Mudcrab T-shirts whenever they’re on the job, and have a clean one to wear socially.
Making it fun
The Cooks River Mudcrabs have a birthday party for their group each year.
Another group has annual awards, including “Asparagus Assassin”.
Most groups have morning tea (though this was a surprise to some!)
One group has a regular baking competition to see who made the best cake.
(I’ve been told that The Illawarra Youth Landcare Group always do something social after each work session…swimming at the beach, playing cricket, or going to the pub together.)
Some groups go and help out other groups occasionally (“sister groups?”). This turns a weeding session into a special occasion and “spreads the love”.
Have a few sites in different environments and shift between them e.g. frog habitat. Make one site could be near pristine so people can really experience the beauty of nature.
Don’t forget to mix in higher energy activities for men and young folks.
Spreading the message
Don Wilson of Willoughby Bushcare talked about the “Major Day Out” initiative. They arranged for all of Willoughby’s bushcare groups to run “bush open days” on the same day so it becomes a major community event. Groups in other parts of Sydney and one in Brisbane are picking up the idea. (Hey isn’t that how Clean Up the World began!?) Just Google “Bushcare Major Day Out”.
One group has a “why we are here” pamphlet and gives it to people when they are in the field, starting a conversation and inviting them to join in.
Another group invited their local State MP (and she became a regular member!).
One group has occasional spotlighting nights, including a BBQ.
Another organises bus trips “free scenic bus trip and bushwalk”.
Give volunteers a special title and spoil them.
Another invited a Mens’ Shed on a tour.
Another invited 8-10 year olds to “Adopt an Animal” as a class research project and then come along and help restore its habitat.
Spot the kind of people who already use the park for recreation and devise a special event for them.
Bronte Gully Bushcare has a website www.brontebushcare.org.au<o:p></o:p>
A flowering calendar of local plants, so everyone can do their bit on their own properties.
Who knew that Boy Scouts and Girl Guides have a Landcare badge?
One group had an inventor, so they let him make wheelbarrows and equipment (“let people do what interests them”).
Instead of spraying, one group uses overlapping paper and cardboard, to show “we can be organic”.
One group invites their kids along and gives them their own site to look after responsibly.
And I might add:
An idea that came up in a recent workshop with health promoters who are looking for ways to get and keep volunteers: When you communicate with potential volunteers, clearly specify the extent of their expected commitment (e.g. “two hours per month”), the kind of work, and the support and mentoring they’ll receive. Also clearly identify the extent of their autonomy – the decisions they’ll be able to make themselves, even down to their choice of days. This degree of detail ought to lower potential volunteers’ anxieties about engaging in an unfamiliar activity.