Volunteer Relations at Boston Area Gleaners
Image Credit: Bob Durling
Folks report to BAG that they are drawn to gleaning for a number of reasons. Most commonly, they’ll find that gleaning presents a very tangible way to make a difference—the potential to serve as the connection between a bounty of surplus food and people in need. In addition, volunteers value the chance to learn more about the regional farm landscape, enjoy working outside, and appreciate the camaraderie that forms as they work towards a common goal.
BAG’s gleaning program is coordinated around local farmers’ availability and short-term stock of surplus crops, and as such, volunteer outings are scheduled on a rolling basis—anywhere from a week to less than 24 hours in advance. The volunteer system therefore must be modeled around maintaining a pool of interested volunteers, who can be alerted about new opportunities as they arise and sign up at a moment’s notice. Volunteers must first register on the BAG website to get their contact information into our system, and then they can sign up for any gleaning trip that gets posted.
In-person events are an important arm of volunteer recruitment at Boston Area Gleaners. This includes volunteer fairs, farmers markets, and presentations to community and educational groups. BAG keeps year-by-year records of events attended in the “Outreach and Communications” sections of the shared cloud server, as well as in their “Development and Outreach” shared Google Calendar. The shared server folder also contains presentations templates given in the past—which generally circle around (1) introducing folks to the issue of on-farm food waste, (2) addressing the scale of food insecurity in the state & the particular dearth of fresh food in hunger relief, and (3) outlining how they can get involved with Boston Area Gleaners.
New opportunities for visibility can also often be found by combing the newsletters of local food, farming, and service organizations. In the era of COVID, in-person events were largely curtailed, though virtual opportunities (mostly in college classes during the fall and spring) have also been valuable chances for engagement.
Consider posting flyers at sites where you can reach folks with interests in local food, community support, and service. Community gardens, for example, are a prime site for posting flyers about an organization’s programs and events.
Physical marketing has the potential to eat up a lot of time, so consider how you can most efficiently distribute materials. A great option is to collaborate with other groups. In the case of community gardens, BAG compiled a list of gardens in the Greater Boston area, and discovered that The Trustees of Reservations—already a partner of the Gleaners—oversees a large portion of these gardens. The first year Harvest VISTA Outreach Coordinator reached out to the garden manager directly, and coordinated to leave them a stack of flyers to post on each property as they made their maintenance rounds. BAG staff will also bring a handful of flyers on gleaning trips to farms, and can check in with the farmer to see if they can post them on the property. The second year Harvest VISTA spent time collecting locations to distribute and hang flyers around BAG’s new location in Acton, distributing flyers to more than 20 local businesses in the area. They posted flyers at many local businesses, including at local coffee shops, restaurants, ice cream stores, general stores, libraries, parks and town halls. The list of successful postings has been recorded and saved in the organization’s shared drive for further use in future years.
BAG maintains volunteer postings on the websites Volunteermatch and United Way. Rather than spend excess bandwidth posting individual trip opportunities to each of these sites, BAG has found that it is more valuable to have a single posting on each site that generally describes seasonal volunteer opportunities and directs folks to sign up on bostonareagleaners.org. Still, most volunteering sites will require a posting to be updated every few months in order to remain live on the site. Interested community members will often reach out to BAG through these channels, and it’s best to respond to these folks with information and encouragement as soon as possible. Social media channels are also a great way to expose potential supporters to the organization.
The second-year AmeriCorps member also contacted many groups and organizations about engaging new volunteers – in particular focusing on high schools, churches, and community colleges in the area. The successful contacts were saved for future years in the organization’s shared drive.
WORD-OF-MOUTH AND MEDIA COVERAGE
The majority of volunteers that engage with Boston Area Gleaners discover the organization through word-of-mouth or their own research. With a base of over 4,000 registered volunteers and dozens of farm and agency partners, BAG’s collaborators can often be the organization’s best advocates. Maintaining relations with a network of partners, ensuring that our interactions with constituents are positive, and stressing the importance of spreading the word to supporters are key to maintaining visibility in the community. All thank-yous that BAG sends to volunteers and donors include an appeal to share the work of the Gleaners with friends and family.
What to say to potential volunteers:
What gleaning is—we collect surplus food from local farms, which would otherwise be plowed under, to distribute to local hunger relief organizations.
Open to all—no experience is required to come out on a glean, and anyone (age 13+) is welcome to sign up. Experienced staff will train you, do all the heavy lifting, and keep the trip running smoothly.
It’s a flexible model, with a range of opportunities—gleaning trips might be held any day of the week, from May through December, at any number of our partner sites across Eastern MA. We have also been coordinating a food box program during the off-season since the beginning of COVID-19, so there are now opportunities to support the Gleaners during the winter as well. Once you register online, you’ll be able to sign up for any trip that fits your location and schedule!
Once registered, volunteers will receive emailed ‘Trip Alerts’ from the BAG Operations Team, letting them know about weekly opportunities as they are scheduled. Because gleaning trips are posted on a rolling basis, these emailed alerts tend to be the most effective way to draw volunteers’ attention as postings are published. If a glean is scheduled at the very last minute, it may be worth posting a call for volunteers on social media as well. Upon signup for a trip, volunteers will receive all the relevant information about the location and project.
In 2021, the outreach team worked on adding a texting alert system for volunteers to be contacted for trips with very low signups. The list is small, but calls for volunteers in this way seem to be more effective when staff are desperate for signups.
Out on trips, it is important for staff to engage volunteers as a part of our community. Making a personal connection, and facilitating camaraderie in the group, is a vital way to retain volunteers.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS AND APPRECIATION
Stressing the importance of the work that volunteers are doing, and expressing gratitude for their support in furthering the organization’s mission, is an essential part of maintaining a positive volunteer community and increasing retention:
- On trips, letting volunteers know that their work is essential, urgent, and much-appreciated. This includes thanking them before and after the trip, explaining why crops were left in the field and that they’d be plowed under without us, and telling them where the food they rescue is headed (in a general sense).
- After the trip, a thank-you is sent out through BAG’s volunteer management system, with data on the pounds of food—and equivalent servings—the volunteers helped to recover. This message also encourages volunteers to continue engaging with BAG by volunteering again (as a now-seasoned gleaner), donating, and spreading the word. A volunteer survey is also included, by which the Outreach Coordinator can assess what volunteers appreciated and/or struggled with in order to improve their experience.
- On social media, BAG features pictures from trips demonstrating volunteers’ hard work and thanking them for their commitment. Regular volunteers may also be interviewed and featured individually on social media or asked to write a blog post for BAG’s website.
- During the offseason and at the season kickoff, BAG hosts volunteer potlucks. The ‘top volunteers’ at these events get special recognition and special BAG merchandise.