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getting MG's involved

  • Subject: [cg] getting MG's involved
  • From: Chrys Gardener cab69@cornell.edu
  • Date: Tue, 02 Dec 2003 14:25:29 -0500

Here are a few steps I'd recommend to get your local Master Gardeners involved in volunteering at community gardens:

1. Call/email your county MG program manager and tell him/her of your need for volunteers. Offer to come to a monthly meeting and make a presentation about the garden. Winter is the best time since gardeners have more time and it's cheerful to talk about gardening then. A slide show or power point presentation with colorful, lively photos of people gardening and having fun is a BIG plus.

2. If the MG program manager seems reluctant, mentions that they don't have enough volunteers to do everything as it is, etc etc, find out what projects they currently work on. (Actually you might check you local CE website in advance so you already know something about the focus of their program. Some of the volunteers may be helping with other community gardens in the region.)
If your county is having a budget crisis (as is ours) you might tactfully suggest that it's good PR for their program to help low-income/minority populations as a way to justify their funding. (CE's are primarily funded by their local county taxes, NOT the universities they are associated with. Since we are called Cornell Cooperative Extension, we hear this all the time:"But aren't you funded by Cornell?"....... I wish! Our local budget still hasn't passed, and our CE may be facing some cuts for 2004.)

3. The best time to get MG's involved is when they hold a full training session, usually every other year. In our region, 4 counties team up for this, and trainings are held all day, once a week for 12 weeks. If the organizers let you squeeze in a brief presentation (the schedule is usually packed with 'mandated' topics, one of which is vegetable gardening) then you can reach a lot of potential volunteers this way.

4. The second best time is just after all these new people have trained (which is usually in winter/ early spring) and they are all fresh and eager to start their volunteers. They are required to do a certain number of hours within one year (sometimes two) in order to be called a "certified' MG. Hooking the ones who are more interested in veggies than flowers at this time will likely result in volunteers who will be committed at least that first summer.

5. Finally, suggest that they sign up to this list-serv, or at the very least check out ACGA's website so they can learn more about all the positive aspects of community gardens. This listserv was hugely helpful to me when we were setting up community gardens and school gardens, and helped me see that this is about much more than just growing vegetables. Most CE's have a mission of community development, and if the MG program manager understands that they will be more open to the idea of encouraging volunteer involvement.

6. My experience as an MG program manager was this: some of the people fulfilled their time commitment and continued to be active volunteers with the program for years afterward, while some fulfill their hours and then they're gone. Unfortunately, a few go through the training and never volunteer, which is why some counties now charge a deposit that is refunded if hours are completed on time. I found that it all evened out in the long run, but wasting time and postage communicating with trainees who are dead weight was a nuisance.
I tried to make volunteering as easy as possible - some volunteers were older and not up to hard physical work, so they could answer gardening questions on the Grow-Line, write articles for the media, work in their childrens' or grandchildrens' schools to help with gardening projects, etc. And some people just underestimate how busy they are, or their lives change in some way that makes volunteering difficult (new baby, sick parent, new job, etc). That's why the training sessions happen every two years - each year you end up with a few gems and eventually you have a strong, committed group. That means fresh volunteers to try to engage every couple of years - some of them will get hooked on community gardening.

7. One last point (I promise!) - you can mimic what the MG program does in a more CG specific way: offer free classes in winter on organic vegetable and fruit gardening (and one session specifically about CG's - organizational structure, successes, challenges, etc) in exchange for volunteer time. Get knowledgeable, dynamic speakers to teach different topics. Have tea, coffee and cookies and fruit at the trainings (if you feed them you'll have them in the palm of your hand!)

People (in this area anyway, especially in our long, cold winters) love to take adult ed. classes as a way to learn new skills and meet others with similar interests. It helps them bond as a group in the winter, then they are more likely to show up to volunteer in summer because it's a good time to chat with the friends they've made in the classes. Offer ongoing incentives after a certain # of volunteer hours - such as a free gardening plot, a t-shirt identifying them as a volunteer, or something inexpensive like free seeds/seedlings in spring.

If you don't have much experience in volunteer management, read some books/articles/websites on the topic. One valuable thing that I learned was that different people need encouragement/incentives in different ways - some need to be thanked verbally and in front of a group (public recognition), others prefer a personal message in a note card (private recognition), others like a small gift, even something as small as a packet of seeds. Still others need touch, either a hug or a hand on the arm. Observe your volunteers and see what they do to express thanks to others, and that's usually how they like to be thanked or recognized. Come to think of it, I think I learned all this at an ACGA workshop on working with volunteers!

I hope this helps more partnerships between Master Gardeners and community gardens.

Chrys Gardener
Community Beautification Coordinator
Cornell Cooperative Extension
615 Willow Ave, Ithaca, NY 14850
607-272-2292, ext. 123

The American Community Gardening Association listserve is only one of ACGA's services to community gardeners. To learn more about the ACGA and to find out how to join, please go to http://www.communitygarden.org

To post an e-mail to the list: community_garden@mallorn.com

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