I need to break some news to you: It’s pretty much inevitable that core members of your park group will eventually move on. You already knew this, right? So why are we all so determined to avoid thinking and planning for the end of a volunteer’s engagement, right from day one? 

Diane Dalkin, President of Calgary’s Friends of Reader Rock Garden Society (FoRRGS) has made a point of planning for the next volunteer board President, long before she’s ready to step away from her role with the non-profit volunteer advisory group.

Diane shared her candid advice on succession planning.

Keep the end top of mind:

From day one, Diane operated under the principle that her time at FoRRGS is finite. She openly discussed this with the Board of Directors and has used it as a guiding principle in her role.

Diane admits that this approach fundamentally changed how her group operates. Built-in succession planning pushed her team to be deliberate about codifying practices and documenting historical information. For example, FoRRGS had a long-standing verbal agreement with the City of Calgary whereby the City provides the group with free access to space and marketing materials and in return, FoRRGS leads educational programs on the site and helps raise funds for the park.

Soon after starting, Diane requested that this verbal agreement be formalized with the City and suggested an annual Letter of Understanding with the City, to ensure that future members of the group and City staff could understand and benefit from the mutual agreement, regardless of staffing changes.

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Historical Photo from Reader Rock Garden

Create multiple entry points for new members:

Diane believes that leadership potential can come from anywhere in the organization and that welcoming new people is key to succession planning. That’s why she implemented strategies that made it easier for people to join Friends of Reader Rock Garden Society. Here’s her advice:

  • Reduce barriers: Diane and her group changed the member structure to allow people to join the Friends of Reader Rock Garden Society without joining the board. This way, new members can ease into the organization, contributing time and talent in small, convenient increments and learn the ropes. This also helped new members fall in love with the purpose of the group, before making the time commitment required of board members. Diane says this strategy has helped attract several new people to the group and has become a gateway to deeper engagement.
  • Build the brand: FoRRGS has a great story to share about this historical garden park – Diane realized this early on and helped get that story into important marketing platforms like their website.  Recognizing that technology is such an important vehicle for today’s communication strategy (i.e. social media), Diane made it a priority to find tech-savvy members to create their website and social media content. Diane believes that the group’s strong online presence featuring the park’s legacy, history, plant life, news and events is essential to attracting a broad range of new audiences.  
  • Go beyond the usual suspects: In the past, the group was predominantly made up of history buffs. Diane and the FORRGS team recognized that there was an opportunity to attract different park users to the group. Diane and her team enlisted plant enthusiasts, educators, photographers, bird-watchers and people who just had a love of the park to become more engaged. Today, the team is comprised of Master Gardeners, retired teachers, engineers, geologists, yoga instructors, artists, communication professionals, financial advisors, and students, to mention but a few. The diversity of the group keeps ideas interesting and helps generate programs that appeal to a wide range of park users.

Build institutional knowledge:

Diane has put practices in place to ensure that important information exists in more than one person’s institutional memory.  For example, team members are encouraged to work in pairs, with a focus on information sharing. This way one member mentors the other in a particular skill. And, if one person can no longer commit to the volunteer group, someone else is prepared to step in and keep projects moving forward.  

“It is always important to periodically review, reaffirm and revise strategies for plans to work – adaptability is key”, she says.

Of course, no one likes to think of endings. But, by building the end into the beginning of your volunteer role, you can make sure that the final chapter is a happy, successful one, for everyone. 

You can learn more tips on volunteering in our recent volunteer recruitment blog.

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