Volunteer Management

Appalachian Trail (A.T.) volunteer managers lead the more than 6,000 people who give their time each year to keep the Trail open and in good repair. View our volunteer management resources below, or jump right to the section you’d like to read.

Planning for Volunteers

Much of the success of a volunteer program can be determined early on – during the planning phase that precedes a recruitment campaign. Starting with a well-thought-out volunteer position description and making sure policies and procedures are in place before a volunteer arrives will help ensure that the volunteer’s experience with the program is rewarding for the volunteer and the organization.

Defining Volunteer Work

Defining the work you would like a volunteer to perform is one of the first steps in working with volunteers. A well-written volunteer position description serves several functions in a volunteer program. They are marketing tools when you are recruiting volunteers, and, because they summarize the position’s basic requirements, they also screen out volunteers who are not a good fit for the particular position. For the volunteer manager, defining position descriptions can help you think through how you need to prepare in terms of supervision, training and support.

As a relationship develops between a volunteer and an organization – the position description is a reference both the volunteer and the manager can look back and refine as a volunteer’s role at the organization changes. Though concise, a position description contains a wealth of information. Basic elements of a position description include:
  • Title – The title should briefly describe the volunteer’s role.
  • Purpose/Desired Results – Defining a purpose lets volunteers know what they will accomplish. This is not trivial – it helps to motivate and give direction to volunteers.
  • Contact Information/Logistics – The position description should list the contact person, information about time-frame (general and specific), location and any other logistical information.
  • Responsibilities – Describe the general activities associated with the position.
  • Qualifications – List the skills that are associated with this position. Make sure to note whether they are required skills, or merely desirable. If there are any requirements associated with the position (current sawyer certification, for example) make sure to list them.
  • Participants – Here you can define who can participate in this particular activity. If there are age restrictions, for example, or if you are focusing on recruiting youth, you can include that here.
  • Training – Describe any training provided – required and optional.
  • Benefits – People volunteer for many reasons, and not all of their reasons are purely altruistic. Describe tangible and intangible benefits the volunteer may receive.

Preparing to Manage Volunteers – Policies and Procedures

In addition to position descriptions, all relevant volunteer program policies should be in place before a volunteer starts. Just as a position description should give a volunteer a good idea of the work, it is important that volunteers understand rules, regulations, and other club or program expectations. This common understanding between volunteer and manager will help resolve - and hopefully avoid - any misunderstandings that arise over time.

In addition to general policies developed by clubs and program managers, all authorized A.T. volunteers work for the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service under under the Volunteers in Parks or Volunteers in Forests programs. Certain A.T.-specific procedures have been developed for A.T. volunteer managers. Volunteers are entitled to certain protections, and are required to report hours annually and ensure that their volunteers are properly trained and certified (when required) for the work they are doing. See the Volunteer Protection section below for more information.

Managing all of the data associated with a volunteer program, whether required or optional, can be a challenge for volunteer managers. Storing volunteer data, from contact information, skills, and interests to required data on certifications and tracking hours requires an efficient record-keeping system. Maintaining more than the minimum records required can be helpful for evaluating the true impact of your programs.

Recruiting Volunteers

General Recruiting Tips

Before deciding on a recruitment strategy, it is important to know what you need from the volunteers you are trying to recruit. The practice of writing position descriptions helps you think through what you want from volunteers and how you need to prepare for them in terms of training, supervision and support. Clarifying this in advance will allow you and the volunteer to determine if the position is a good fit. It will serve to screen out volunteers who are not appropriate for the position – saving both you and the volunteer time.

When describing a volunteer position, be clear about what commitment you will be asking volunteers to make. If appropriate, define an opportunity as a short-term project, with a clear deadline and end point, rather than a long term and/or open-ended commitment. People who sign up as short term volunteers often stay on if they find the work is rewarding – but they may never sign up if the initial commitment seems overwhelming or ill-defined. If you really need someone who can commit to 10 hours a week for a year, for instance, be straightforward about that. It is better to wait for the right person than to take an volunteer who will abandon the project if it is a bad fit.

Elements of a Recruitment Message

While the content of the message – format, style, tone – will vary depending on the audience and method of distributing your recruitment message, the basic elements of a recruitment message, regardless of format or length, include:
  • Need – What is the challenge or need?
  • Solution – How will the volunteer’s efforts address the need?
  • Advantages – What do volunteers get from volunteering?
  • Description/Contact – What will the volunteer be doing? Where, when, and for how long?

Recruitment messages cover the who, what, where, when, how, and why of a particular opportunity, but not all of these elements are equally important. In general, spend more time on the need, solution, and advantages, and less time on logistics. Focus on the benefits of volunteering – and you can go beyond the satisfaction of “giving back.” When you describe benefits to volunteers, you’re really addressing their motivations, both altruistic and self-interested. People volunteer for many reasons – and often have more than one motivation. Some simply want to support the Appalachian Trail, while others want to gain a specific skill or meet new people. You can refer to the experiences of your volunteers when making an appeal – many people respond positively to the experiences of others.

Publicize Your Volunteer Opportunities

The strategy you choose to get your message out will depend in large part on who your audience is. When trying to reach as many people as possible for a Trail-wide event – like a National Trails Day project - you’d use a different technique than when trying to attract a new board member. Consider these questions before you decide how to get your message out:
  • What needs to be done, and who would want to do it?
  • Where will you find them?
  • What is the best way to communicate with this group?
  • What motivates the group?

Sometimes this process is a straightforward, but it can be particularly helpful when you are having trouble finding volunteers for a particular position.

One of the most effective ways of recruiting volunteers is to ask people – in person – to volunteer. With written position descriptions, you’ll have material to provide them. If you’re trying to recruit someone for a particular position, state why you think they are such a good fit – it is flattering to be asked. If they refuse, remember that “no” does not mean “never” – the timing or position might be wrong for a volunteer, but he or she may be available in the future or for a different position.

An easy way to reach a wide audience, the web is the first place many people go to search for information. The A.T. volunteer database is available to all clubs for posting volunteer opportunities. Other free sites where you can post volunteer opportunities include Volunteer Match, Idealist, or your local volunteer or community center.

Other common methods:
  • Mass media -- print and broadcast
  • Public speaking
  • Outreach to membership and professional organizations, youth groups and other nonprofits
  • Slide shows
  • Articles in local newspapers and newsletters of other organizations
  • Referrals from individuals associated with your organization
  • Volunteer fairs

Working with Volunteers

Interviewing and Orienting New Volunteers

When you hear from a potential volunteer, always respond with enthusiasm. Move quickly to set up an interview with the person, either over the phone or in person. Unless you have recruited the volunteer personally, this is your first opportunity to make an impression on a potential volunteer.

The content and setting of the interview will vary depending on the position – if you are recruiting for a position that requires special skills and/or a greater commitment – it is best to spend more time on the interview, meeting face-to-face if possible. Even when recruiting for a less-demanding position, it is helpful to speak with the potential volunteer first. During the course of the conversation, either one of you may realize that the position is not a good fit. The interview serves as a screen in that case, saving time for both of you.

Before speaking to the volunteer, have an idea in mind of the qualities needed for a particular position. If they have not expressed interest in a particular opportunity, have some position descriptions on hand to discuss with them. In addition to finding out more about the potential volunteer’s interests, skills, and experience, make sure the volunteer understands the requirements of the position. If both you and the volunteer feel the position is a good fit, you’re ready to move on to the next step. If you feel the person is not a good match for any open position, politely let them know during the interview – don’t leave them hanging.

The volunteer orientation helps volunteers understand how they fit in your program, familiarizes them with any relevant policies and procedures, and makes them feel welcome. Again, the orientation will vary depending on the volunteer’s position. Someone participating in a one-day event will not need as extensive an orientation as a new board member, for example.

Retention: Keeping Volunteers

Not all volunteers are destined to become long-term volunteers – a volunteer’s life circumstances, interests, or temperament may make a long-term commitment impossible. A volunteer who finds an opportunity fulfilling, however, will be motivated to continue volunteering. Discovering what motivates a particular volunteer is a key challenge for volunteer managers. volunteers may be driven by a variety of causes – both altruistic and self-serving – and the motivation may change as the volunteer’s life circumstances change.

Probably the easiest way to figure out what motivates your volunteers is to ask them: during a scheduled meeting, informally during casual conversation or just by keeping your eyes open for signs of dissatisfaction – particularly if the volunteer is valuable to your program. (This attention to the motivational needs of your volunteers is a form of informal recognition.)

Dealing with Conflict

All of the planning and effort you put into working with volunteers – developing volunteer policies, defining interesting position descriptions, recognizing volunteers for their efforts - is intended to keep conflict to a minimum. When volunteers understand what is expected of them, problems are less likely to arise. When they do, often they can be resolved quickly by referring to the position description or to policies covered during the orientation. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you may need to reprimand a volunteer. In its gentlest form, this can be part a discussion you have with a volunteer who seems dissatisfied – as noted above. If caught early, you may be able to turn the problem around – finding a solution that works for both you and your volunteer. For more serious problems, state the problem clearly and directly, let them know what behaviors/actions need to change, and then move on. If your volunteers have clear guidelines for conduct and performance, serious problems can be minimized.

Volunteer Recognition

Rewarding, Motivating, and Retaining Volunteers

Recognizing volunteers for their efforts not only serves to thank and reward them, but also helps to motivate them. When people are recognized in ways that are meaningful to them, they are more likely to continue to volunteer. The challenge for a manager of a volunteer program is finding the form of recognition that best suits the individual volunteer.

People volunteer for many reasons, and those reasons may change over time as their lives – and the time and skills they want to give – change. Someone who starts volunteering because he want to "give back" after completing a thru-hike, for instance, may eventually want family-friendly volunteer opportunities, or the chance to learn a new skill. Though some volunteers will move on as their interests or circumstances change, volunteer managers who pay attention to the needs of their volunteers can recognize their volunteers in a way that keeps them motivated.

Informal and Formal Volunteer Recognition

Of the two basic forms of volunteer recognition, formal and informal, formal recognition is more traditional and structured. Typical examples include giving tangible awards, or recognizing them at annual meetings or events, or at special events held on a national service day. Formal recognition can be an inspirational and motivating experience for volunteers. It brings together all members of an organization – long-time volunteers and newcomers and offers an opportunity to publicly acknowledge and celebrate volunteer efforts.

Despite the value of formal recognition programs, they should not be the only way that volunteers can be recognized. Traditional formal recognition programs only get at one type of motivation – public acknowledgment of volunteer efforts. Many programs have restrictions on the number of people who can be honored - you can only have one "volunteer of the year" each year, for instance.

Informal recognition, based on the day-to-day relationship between volunteer and manager, is often an easier and more effective way of showing appreciation to your volunteers. Ranging from a simple, but sincere, personalized thank-you or a birthday/service anniversary card, to recommending a volunteer for a promotion or training opportunity, informal recognition can be targeted at particular volunteer’s motivational needs. Much more varied than formal recognition, informal recognition is an effective way of acknowledging efforts, as well as a way to build a better volunteer program. 

Recognition Tips

Whether recognizing volunteers formally or informally, there are general guidelines to keep in mind.

Make Recognition a Priority: Recognition is a way of motivating your volunteers – and unmotivated volunteers will not stay with your program. It does not have to be expensive or time-consuming -common courtesy and attention to your volunteer’s needs are among the most effective forms of recognition. If your primary form of recognition is an annual dinner or other event, look for other ways to acknowledge and recognize your volunteers throughout the year.
Be Sincere: Be honest when recognizing your volunteers and recognize or acknowledge them for the types of work you want to see more of.
Be Balanced: Effective recognition involves a balancing act – you want to be fair and consistent in the way you recognize all your volunteers, but also need to take each individual’s motivational needs into account. Have many ways of recognizing volunteers, and make sure that all volunteers are aware of the options available to them.

Appalachian Trail Recognition Programs

The NPS-Appalachian National Scenic Trail office (known as NPS-APPA) and the ATC have several programs that can help you recognize your volunteers. If you have questions about these programs, contact [email protected]

Awards for Hours and Years of Service to the A.T.
ATC provides awards – pins, patches, caps and vests – to volunteers based on the number of cumulative hours they have completed. The guidelines/order form is provided below.

Presidential Lifetime Service Award

ATC has been certified to obtain this award for volunteers who have contributed at least 4,000 hours of service to the Appalachian Trail, the Trail-maintaining clubs, and ATC. The award includes a framed certificate, a letter from the president and a presidential "Call to Service" pin. To order, the Trail club should send the volunteer's name (as it should appear on the certificate), the number of volunteer hours, the Trail club name, and the shipping address for the award to [email protected] A Trail club leader must affirm that the volunteer meets the criteria found here: www.presidentialserviceawards.gov/the-award.
Volunteer Recreation Pass (formerly America the Beautiful Pass)
The NPS-Appalachian National Scenic Trail office provides a Volunteer Recreation pass for volunteers who accumulate 250 hours of service. It provides free access to and use of Federal recreation sites for one year, beginning from the date of award.

Silver and Gold Service Awards
NPS also recognizes volunteers who have completed 25 and 50 years of service to the A.T by giving them Silver or Gold awards at ATC's biennial conferences. Information on nominating those volunteers is provided to club leaders prior to those meetings.
Volunteer of the Month

Each month, the ATC features an A.T. volunteer of the month on our website and our e-newsletters. the intent is to spotlight the wide variety of work done by hard-working volunteers on and for the Appalachian Trail They are not required to have completed a certain number of hours or years or service. Nominations may be made using the Recognize a Volunteer form, or by email to [email protected].

Online Resources

Volunteer Management Research

The internet provides great resources for volunteer managers. The sites listed below provide extensive resources for volunteer managers on all aspects of running a volunteer program: components of a volunteer program, trends in volunteering, sample forms and more.

Energize Inc.
National Service Resources
Volunteer Management Resource Center
Volunteer Today: The Electronic Gazette for Volunteerism
Create the Good

Recruiting Volunteers Online

In addition to the A.T. volunteer database, which is available to all A.T. volunteer managers, other online services exist that will help you get the word out about your opportunities.
Local Volunteer Centers

 Recording Hours

Counting Volunteers

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is required to report all volunteer hours each year to the Appalachian Trail Park Office. We want to make sure that we count all A.T. volunteers, but we only want to count them once, even if they participate in multiple work trips or perform multiple tasks for their clubs. Why? First, to give credit where credit is due—if one maintainer goes on ten separate work trips, we don’t want to credit ten people. An accurate count also allows us to analyze trends, improve recruitment and retention of volunteers, and helps us compete for a significant amount of NPS funding from its national “Volunteer in the Parks” program.

Counting Volunteer Hours

Examples of volunteer activities benefiting the Trail that should be reported:
  • Trail construction and maintenance
  • Shelter, privy, bridge construction and maintenance
  • NPS corridor-boundary monitoring and maintenance
  • Monitoring threatened and endangered species and managing invasive plants
  • Time spent traveling to and from field sites
  • A.T. management—work on local management plans, Trail assessments, regional partnership committees and other committee meetings
  • The ATC biennial meeting—time spent on planning, organizing and scheduling activities, developing materials, tracking registrations, leading hikes and workshops
  • Club administration—attending council and board meetings, accounting/bookkeeping, database management, answering telephones and office work, working at home on club business
  • Communications—producing newsletters and Web sites, responding to inquiries, correspondence
  • Training/workshops—organizing or attending chainsaw certification and other Trail-related workshops, including maintainer and monitor training
  • Public service—Planning and leading hikes, ridgerunning, community outreach, attending hearings and meetings, researching deeds, public presentations or testimony.

Examples of activities that should not be reported:
  • Participating in (as opposed to leading) recreational hikes
  •  Social events such as dinners and picnics
  • Activities not related to the Appalachian Trail or its side trails. Clubs whose volunteers also work on other trails and non-A.T. lands should only report time spent in behalf of the Appalachian Trail. Those clubs may keep track of actual hours or simply estimate a proportion of total volunteer time that is spent on A.T. management in meetings, web and newsletter development, office administration, etc., and submit those figures.
For questions about hours, contact Susan Daniels, Appalachian Trail Conservancy, P.O. Box 807, Harpers Ferry, WV 25425. Or e-mail [email protected].

Volunteer Protection Programs

An authorized volunteer working on the Appalachian National Scenic Trail under the auspices of one of the designated Trail maintaining clubs or ATC is entitled to certain protections under programs managed by either the U.S. Forest Service (Volunteers in Forests) or the National Park Service (Volunteers in Parks) through an individual or a group volunteer agreement. These volunteer protections are especially important in case an injury occurs involving an A.T. volunteer while at work. These protections apply if the volunteer is following the guidelines and standards provided by the club, ATC, or agency

If an injury occurs, a volunteer should follow these five steps:
1.   Immediate care and First Aid
2.   Emergency treatment by a medical provider, if needed (inform agency authorities first, if possible.)
3.   Reporting of the injury to the appropriate agency authorities
4.   Documentation
5.   Follow-up

The documents listed below make up a packet of information about dealing with injuries suffered by A.T. volunteer workers. We recommend that a paper copy of this packet be carried by each A.T. volunteer work leader. Volunteers should be familiar with the contents of this packet, and should complete specific local contact information on the instruction sheet before an accident resulting in injury occurs.

Volunteer Injury Packet

Note: Form CA-16 cannot be posted online; clubs can download a CA-16 form by logging in to the volunteer database or by contacting your ATC regional office for this form.

 Injuries should also be reported to ATC. Complete the ATC Accident Report Form and send to [email protected] and to your ATC regional office.


Engaging Youth and Family Volunteers

Many clubs are interested in engaging youth volunteers, and in response, ATC has developed guidance for creating family programs, and below are links to events that will provide a framework for clubs who are interested in engaging families and youth groups.

Family Program Manual – Created with the help of experienced club volunteers, the family program manual covers the process of creating a family hiking or volunteer program.

Family Hiking Day – Held on National Public Lands Day, the last Saturday in September, Family Hiking Day is an opportunity for Trail maintaining clubs, Appalachian Trail Communities and others to attract new people/ organizations to the A.T. and their clubs/communities and to engage youth. ATC will offer training and resources and will publicize the event annually