Working with specialist conservation records on a custom database

Plant Heritage is a small independent charity based in Surrey that operates throughout the UK and Ireland with the support of a large network of volunteers and supporters.  It records, researches, and preserves garden plants through the National Plant Collection Scheme and uses a custom web-interface database (Persephone) for managing its new collection records. Plant Heritage recruited digital volunteers to transfer older records — a mixture of formats from paper to Word and Excel documents — onto the Persephone database to ensure all their plant data is securely stored and improve their curatorial standards.

White flowers in a garden next to a stone colonnade wall
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Working with specialist conservation records on a custom database

This is a ‘how to recruit, manage and support volunteers’ guide produced as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage’s Digital Volunteering programme.

1. Project background

Garden plants have been a significant part of our heritage since people began to grow them.  They are intertwined with our cultural heritage, sense of place, medicine, cuisine, and feature in literature and poetry.  By preserving plant material and the knowledge around how, where, and why these plants were grown, we are safeguarding this horticultural heritage.

Our project focused on the records of National Plant Collections, protected groups of plants of reference, scientific, horticultural, or historic significance.  We use a custom web-interface database (Persephone) for managing our new collection records.  Older records come in a mixture of formats, from paper to Word and Excel documents, and are difficult to access and cross reference.  The main role of our digital volunteers was transferring older records onto the database.  By doing so, the information is securely stored, and our curatorial standards improved.


2. Recruitment

We recruited one full-time member of staff, a Digital Volunteer Officer, who led on the recruitment, training, and support of our digital volunteers. Our Conservation Manager and Plant Conservation Officers supported the Digital Volunteer Officer with knowledge of the conservation schemes, and the Persephone Admin Team Volunteers provided technical support.

We initially targeted our existing membership who are generally of retirement age, with professional or amateur experience with horticulture.  Take-up was limited so we opened recruitment more widely.

Most of the volunteers we worked with were between the ages of 18 and 45 and had a good level of digital skills but less experience of working with plants than our members.  Their primary motivations were gaining knowledge and experience of plants and increasing digital skills, many to enhance their career prospects.

It was a remote volunteering opportunity and we engaged volunteers from across England and in one volunteer based in Italy.

To recruit volunteers we: 

  • contacted existing volunteers/members.
  • put callouts in newsletters.
  • placed free adverts on jobs boards (Environment Jobs, Countryside Jobs).
  • placed an advert on a volunteering hub (
  • advertised on our own website.

The jobs boards were most effective, with around half of our volunteers recruited through them.


3. Volunteer support

We ran inductions and three two-hour training sessions per volunteer over Zoom.  Some were group sessions, but the majority were one-to-one (easier to schedule).

We encouraged volunteers to use the Diary feature in our custom database to record progress and flag up queries.  We held regular one-to-ones over Zoom, plus offered ongoing support via email.

We also used a Slack channel to communicate with all volunteers and to signpost helpful resources and a “FAQ” section.  We also created support documentation (videos, picture guides and reference texts) and invited volunteers to participate in other activities like our conference and other workshops.


4. Digital technology and tools

Digital volunteers:

  • used their own electronic devices (desktops, laptops, and tablets)
  • researched records using online horticultural databases (RHS Plant Finder and Kew Plants of the World Online)
  • uploaded and corrected records using our custom-made database, Persephone, accessed via a web browser
  • manipulated data for import in Microsoft Excel
  • communicated with the project team through Zoom, Slack and by email



  • Microsoft 365 Subscription (for Excel): $6.99/month per volunteer (our volunteers had their own subscriptions, so we did not incur this cost)
  • Zoom Pro: £119.90/year
  • Slack: Free – We stayed on the free tier as this was sufficient for our needs (but messages do hide after 90 days)
  • Persephone database: This is a custom database, developed by Plant Heritage and an admin team of Collection Holders. There are fixed costs to us associated with the development and maintenance of this system, but it remains within our control and therefore free to the end user.
  • Vimeo: we created help videos and hosted them on our free vimeo account, then shared these on our website.


5. Project Stages

1. Creation of support materials
The Conservation Manager and Persephone Team produced picture and video guides to using the database.

2. Staff recruitment and training
We recruited a Digital Volunteer Officer and got them trained up in using the Persephone database.

3. Creation of volunteer documentation and amendment of policies
We produced a new volunteer handbook, role description & agreement, online safety guidance, and amended our safeguarding policies.

4. Volunteer recruitment and training
We recruited our volunteers, asked them to fill in a starter survey, did inductions and trained them in using the database.

5. Digital Volunteer management
We checked their progress every couple of weeks depending on how quickly they worked, moderating their input, and giving top-up training when needed.

6. Evaluation and development of Guidance and Policy
We are consolidating what we learned via the project in a new volunteering policy, for staff guidance in supporting future volunteering.


6. Key learnings

Taster sessions

With hindsight, we may have benefitted from running taster sessions to allow volunteers to have a go with the database before they were brought on board.  We did interview our volunteers, but taster sessions could have helped to clearly demonstrate what the role involved and may have reduced attrition.

Breaking it down

Our volunteering role involved multiple steps and required a lot of training and commitment.  The scale of the task may have been overwhelming for some volunteers.  We may have had higher take-up had we broken the roles down into smaller, quickly learned tasks (i.e. uploading photos, running name checks).

Matching motivations

Volunteers help for many reasons (e.g. personal development, goodwill).  We needed volunteers to develop specialist skills, with time investment in training and “learning by doing”.  This wasn’t for everyone, those seeking experience for their CV (i.e. in working with conservation records, understanding plant names) gained a lot through this volunteering.


7. Key challenges

Time investment

Volunteers needed to skill up in using our custom database and processing data in Excel.  They also required some understanding of plant names and how to research them.  We invested significant time into training volunteers up, but not all the trained volunteers went on to fulfil their given tasks.

Volunteer management

The fully remote nature of our opportunity posed some challenges.  We relied on volunteers tracking and submitting their own hours: this didn’t always happen!  It was difficult to support or get feedback from volunteers that stopped responding to emails.  We’d recommend taking down a contact phone number when you recruit.

Need for supervision

Our plant records are very varied.  It was impossible to create a “one-size-fits-all” guide covering everything a volunteer might encounter.  The Digital Volunteer Officer needed to offer continued support to help unpick issues and answer queries.  Without this support we likely would have lost volunteers through frustration.


8. Useful links

Please share any links to primary digital outputs published through your project. E.g. Websites, podcasts, maps, wikipedia articles, resources.


More help here

Red topped mushroom in woodland

Recruit and manage digital volunteers to deliver data analysis projects

Plantlife International is a wild plant and fungi conservation charity. It’s four-year project Building Resilience in South West Woodlands (2018-2022) raised awareness of Atlantic woodlands across Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, as well as undertaking important management works to ensure the conservation of these habitats. As part of this project hundreds of 360-degree (fisheye) photographs were taken across several project sites. Digital volunteers were recruited to undertake the data analysis work in order for these photographs to be analysed.  This resource shares Plantlife’s journey in recruiting and managing these volunteers and their data work.


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Published: 2023

Creative Commons Licence Except where noted and excluding company and organisation logos this work is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) Licence

Please attribute as: "Working with specialist conservation records on a custom database (2023) by Plant Heritage supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0


More help here

Digital Heritage Hub is managed by Arts Marketing Association (AMA) in partnership with The Heritage Digital Consortium and The University of Leeds. It has received Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and National Lottery funding, distributed by The Heritage Fund as part of their Digital Skills for Heritage initiative. Digital Heritage Hub is free and answers small to medium sized heritage organisations most pressing and frequently asked digital questions.

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