This is a ‘how to recruit, manage and support volunteers’ guide produced as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage’s Digital Volunteering programme.
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.
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.
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.
- 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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Please share any links to primary digital outputs published through your project. E.g. Websites, podcasts, maps, wikipedia articles, resources.
- Plant Guardians Online website
- Persephone user manual and help videos
- Persephone Plant Record Fields resource
- Introducing Persephone 2.0 (for Collection Holders)
- Online Safety Guidance (for remote volunteers)
- Digital Plant Conservation Volunteer starter survey
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