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“Growing” Volunteers

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Volunteers are perhaps the most critical, yet neglected, resource in all communities -- but especially in those with little or no professional staff.

Volunteers are perhaps the most critical, yet neglected, resource in all communities -- but especially in those with little or no professional staff. Staff, commission chairs, and elective officials need to be able to realize the potential and appreciate the gifts that community members bring to the process and the outcome of any planning endeavor.

Commissions and boards numerically make up a very small percentage of the people in a community, yet they make decisions and recommendations that affect everyone. Strong and successful communities provide opportunities to increase and nurture the number and caliber of people involved. The key question is how do you use volunteers wisely? How do you prevent or alleviate burnout, create appropriate niches, increase their effectiveness, and be able to say your community was proudly served by itself?

Having spent a number of years in counties and small towns -- where creative use of volunteers is essential to stretch limited resources -- I have found some simple, but highly effective, ways to encourage and enhance the use of volunteers.

Growing volunteers illustration by Paul Hoffman for PlannersWeb
Illustration by Paul Hoffman for PlannersWeb

1. Increase your volunteer pool. We have all lived in communities where most of the work is done by the few mainstays of the community. They sit on all the committees, and seem always willing to help. When they finally leave, either because of burnout, retirement or relocation, the community finds it has lost much of its "institutional memory." Assuring continuity is one important reason to involve more people in local planning.

Although most planning commissions are appointed by the elected body, there should be other committees engaged in research work, surveys, and so on -- work that needs to be done. Planning boards cannot do it all. Your planning commission should keep a list of projects on which you could use additional help, and make it available to others, including elected officials and community leaders. ...

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