The history of protecting our water resources is a history indelibly linked with the efforts of volunteers. Citizens have played a crucial role in environmental conservation, serving as self-regulators, watchdogs and stewards to resources that would otherwise go unprotected. Often groups arise from men and women passionate about and involved in their local communities. These citizen-led efforts, often made entirely of volunteers, have been some of the most influential in protecting our lakes, streams and wetlands.
It is the characteristics of the volunteers themselves that generate success for volunteer- led groups. While it might be easier to attribute success solely to the number of volunteers an organization is able to field, the reality is that groups can sometimes be just as successful with a few passionate, tenacious and positive- thinking individuals.
Every day at Freshwater Future we are mindful of and thankful for the important role of volunteers in protecting our precious water resources. As we enter our 14th year of providing services to citizens and having funded nearly 600 projects, we want to share some of the characteristics that successful volunteer led efforts have shared.
Among any committed group of volunteers working to protect our water resources you will find passion—passion for fishing, hunting or bird watching, a passion to protect the natural beauty of our lakes and rivers, or a passion to fight invasive species. Even one individual with this type of personal connection to the issues can champion the cause of the group to the public, a role that is very helpful for the group as a whole. Does your group have one or several individuals passionate about your issue? How do you use that passion?
Tenacity is one of the characteristics commonly found in successful volunteer groups. This ability to commit both themselves and their time to a cause helps a group stay focused and strong throughout the duration of their campaign.
Ensuring that volunteers are able to maintain a positive attitude about the issues is a crucial aspect of success. Often that means seeing potential obstacles as opportunities. Sometimes we don’t achieve our goal and that is when a positive attitude is critical—to keep working on the project or to accept we did our best in participating in decision-making.
Lastly, the ability to make use of the various strengths within your volunteer core is a crucial aspect of success. Nowhere is this more apparent than for organizations operating at a local level—a group of volunteers that see the lake, river or wetland as a crucial part of their community are more effective than any provincial, state or federal entity. Volunteer groups often look to staffed organizations to “take on” their projects. However, when it comes to protecting the environment, professional staff isn’t a requirement. Local, volunteer-led groups are often more successful due to the particular skills, reputation and passion in that community— something that can be harnessed to benefit your effort.
Highway J. Citizens Group in southeastern Wisconsin exemplifies the type of tenacity and commitment required for a successful volunteer organization. Highway J. has been working for over 10 years to protect wetlands from a federal highway expansion. Over the years, they have had several successes from winning lawsuits to permits being denied for wetland fill. They have also experienced setbacks, such as some wetlands being destroyed and sections of the road being constructed. But they have persevered and with a positive attitude, not let the failures stop them from working on their mission to protect the wetlands in their community. Highway J. has utilized outside help from other larger organizations—but realized that it was their group that must take the leadership role to work on bringing common sense to the process of siting road expansion.