Read the Last Chapter First: 3 Ways to Build Succession Planning into your Park Group

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.


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:

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.


Volunteerism: strengthening the backbone of your park group

Community Park Groups need a strong, core group of volunteers. The challenge is that attracting and retaining volunteers can feel like an endless and arduous task.

I interviewed Doug Bennet from The Friends of Sorauren Park to find out how his park group has been so successful at finding and keeping volunteers. Doug has been part of Friends of Sorauren Park from the beginning. The well-established group hosts a variety events such as gardening, movie nights, the adopt-a-park-tree program, and much more.

Here are some of Doug’s tips for groups who are looking to attract and keep volunteers engaged in community park groups regardless of your size or capacity.


Make time to focus on volunteer recruitment

Finding volunteers takes time and intentionality. Doug believes that the key to his group’s continued success is having a strong and diverse core of active volunteers. With 11 core volunteers, they have enough human power to host a variety of events and activities, which in turn, attracts new volunteers and diverse park users.

However, early on, Doug and Friends of Sorauren Park realized that volunteer recruitment was continually landing at the bottom of their agenda, making it easy to ignore They altered their approach to volunteer recruitment by dedicating entire meetings to the topic and deciding the key steps they would take to engage more volunteers. The strategy helped get volunteerism on their radar and keep it there.  

Focus on a few events that attract many

If your group does not have the capacity and human power to host several events, Doug suggests focusing your efforts on a couple of key, popular events. If your event is well marketed and executed, it will attract a lot of people. This way you can use events to attract people interested in joining your team.

When you host events, be sure to collect e-mail address via a sign-up sheet so you can keep community members up to date on your activities. Finding new team members does not happen overnight, but the more people that know about your group and stay in the loop, your projects, and your needs, the more likely it is that they will eventually  want to join the team.


Ensure volunteer roles offer varying time commitments

At the beginning, it can seem overwhelming for a new volunteer to join a committee that meets regularly. Early on, people are often more willing to take on a very specific volunteer task like maintaining a social media account or planning a cleanup event.

For example, when Doug Bennet stepped down from the Chair position at Friends of Sorauren Park, he was followed by Joël Campbell. It’s worth noting that Joël had run the group’s adopt-a-park-tree program for several years before taking on the Chair role. Joël had already built a relationship with Friends of Sorauren Park, which made it easier for him to take on a leadership role.

Make it easy for people to join your team

Picture this, someone just attended your Clean up event and loved it. They know about your group but don’t really know how to volunteer with you. How could your group leverage this momentum and make it easy for people to connect with you? Here are some options Doug shared that have helped his group keep communication lines open.


A genuine thank you goes a long way

Once you have your team of volunteers, don’t forget to acknowledge and thank everyone for their efforts. Volunteers care about the positive impact they are having in their community, so make sure you thank them and show them how their efforts are contributing to the bigger picture.

Friends of Sorauren Park acknowledges volunteers in big and small ways. On the large-scale side, they had a sign posted in the park thanking volunteers. They’ve also partnered with a sponsor to host an appreciation event that brought volunteers and supporters together.

Depending on the size of your group recognition might look different. However,  the key is to be genuine, focus on the impact, and have some fun.

Thanks to Doug at Friends of Sorauren Park for great insights that come from years successful work with volunteers.

Remember, once you have people interested in volunteering, make sure you have a way to welcome them into the team, assess their skills and interests, and decide how you can work together. Don’t feel like you have to do everything at once. Take some time to see how these tips apply to your community park group and choose one or two next steps you can take to have more people join your team.

For more resources on volunteer engagement visit Volunteer Toronto, Grassroots Growth. If you have specific questions about challenges, feel free to reach out to me at and 416-583-5776.


People of Parks: Angie Buado

In this special series, Park People explores the people who make up the Park Friends movement. Each month, we ask one person dedicated to city parks to share what makes them tick. This month, we talk to Angie Buado, a founding member and current coordinator of Friends of Earl Bales Park.

How Did your Involvement with Parks Begin?

Earl Bales Park was like a second home when I moved to Toronto.  I would ride my bike here and I rest, read a book or join a barbeque. It was free and close to home. It’s where I spent my downtime.  

My church community at Filipino Seventh-day Adventist, takes on community service projects. In 2012, together with 2 other Filipino groups, our church group joined Clean Toronto Together to pick up litter in the neighbourhood. Over 100 people, from kids to seniors, came to that first cleanup.

We wanted to find out how to get more involved in the park, so we contacted Mandana Attarzadeh, Community Worker at Action for Neighbourhood Change at Unison Health and Community Services. She connected us with Park People who actively works to create Friends of Park groups in underserved neighbourhoods (as part of their Sparking Change initiative). We’ve been working in Earl Bales ever since.

What Makes Parks Better?

People make parks better. Earl Bales Park has great amenities like an amphitheatre, bike trails and a ski hill. But there are people living in apartment buildings, community housing, seniors and so many different cultural groups who could be coming here. We want them all to enjoy the park.

What’s Your Dream for this Park?

I love sports: volleyball, tennis, basketball. My dream is for this park to have more sports facilities–courts and fields. There’s so much space we could use for sports! It would draw more people into the park and build more connections in the community.

Also, I want the amphitheatre to host events every day of the week. On July 31, we have a free Multicultural Celebration with music, dance and art. This summer there’s music and theatre.But, I want this to be like Mel Lastman square: a hot spot for concerts, movies, music and theatre.


What’s Been Your Biggest Triumph?

I’m proud that Earl Bales Park is a flagship site for Clean Toronto Together. Every year, more people help clean the park.

To me, that says they see Earl Bales as a place that’s important enough to care for. I’m most moved when I see kids cleaning the park and taking responsibility for and ownership of their park.

It’s grown so much since that first clean up 5 years ago.

What’s the Craziest Thing That’s Ever Happened?

Volunteering with Friends of Earl Bales Park has led to so many surprising opportunities. When the City recognised Friends of Earl Bales at a City Council meeting, I was invited to speak in front of City Council. That was a big deal.

Then, I was chosen to be a panelist at Civic Action’s Better City Bootcamp and I presented to politicians, business leaders, community leaders–even Olympians.

I didn’t imagine this volunteer position would lead to so many amazing (and scary) experiences. You just never know.

What Advice Would You Give?

We’ve always had the philosophy: Anyone who wants to join Friends of Earl Bales Park can join. We’ve partnered with Park People, the Earl Bales community centre, Unison, The City Councillor James Pasternak, religious groups, cultural groups. These partnerships have helped bring new ideas, funding and promotion to the park, which in the end, brings more people.

Below: Watch Angie talk about Earl Bales’ approach to partnerships in this video, made as part of our 2014 Parks Summit.


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