Retaining Volunteers at Thurston County Food Bank
Volunteers are the most essential piece of a functioning gleaning program. Keeping a well-trained and supported group of gleaning volunteers will lead to its success. The first thing to remember is that volunteer recruitment is never done. Gleaning is physically demanding, subject to bad weather, and can be intense during the short harvest season. The vast majority of your volunteers will likely change from season to season. Olympia’s main gleaning volunteer demographic is 20-35 year-olds who are often unemployed or underemployed. Many volunteers decide to volunteer while in between work, and once they find a job their volunteering availability is limited. To compensate for these constraints the coordinator worked with The Evergreen State College, a local school emphasizing community engagement, to enlist student groups as gleaning teams. Having a consistent contact person to act as the gleaning team leader to recruit within their student group made for a solid gleaning team each week.
Networking with local churches, community groups, scout troops, and businesses is a great way to recruit groups to participate in gleaning activities. It is an easy sell for groups! Highlight the opportunity for bonding, team building, outdoor education, and the fun of working in nature. Groups will get a lot done in a day, and you will not stretch the volunteer base too thinly. However, it is also great to have a handful of ‘Super Volunteers’ who are passionate about the cause, will glean with you rain or shine, and help recruit by word of mouth.
The Thurston County Food Bank has been successful in recruiting groups to glean throughout the season and once a year. The gleaning coordinator built a great relationship with Olympia United Methodist. The church has a gleaning team, with one point person to contact. This group has been very helpful for the Thurston County Food Bank. The gleaning coordinator and AmeriCorps member are now working on building a stronger relationship with the local military base to have units come to the Food Bank Garden and on-farm gleans, which provides the servicemen with volunteer hour opportunities, a mutually beneficial relationship.
This year the Thurston County Food Bank is taking a new approach with volunteers and groups during the holidays. Many people show interest in volunteering during the holidays and come out to volunteer during a Thanksgiving or Christmas box build. The goal is to encourage people who volunteer at these times to ‘make it twice a year’. Many volunteers and groups do not think about volunteer opportunities at food banks outside of the holidays. This is the time to remind them with a glean during the summer or fall.
No matter your volunteer base, it is important to maintain regular contact with them to keep them connected to the work being done and give them opportunities to stay involved. The gleaning coordinator in Olympia utilized the website www.Mailchimp.com to send out weekly updates, informing volunteers about the event schedule, the amount of produce gleaned at recent events, and messages of appreciation. Having a volunteer appreciation event or gift is also a great way to remind volunteers that their efforts are valued. Because gleaning is a seasonal volunteer activity, try to find a way to engage your volunteer base during the off-season. Can they work within the organization in another capacity during the winter? If you create meaningful projects for your volunteers over the winter, they are more likely to remember when it is time for the gleaning season to begin.