All too often I hear sad tales of volunteers feeling undervalued and not gaining much from their experience so I was thrilled when Gary Webb, head of landscapes and gardens at the great Compton Verney, offered to write a piece on the importance of volunteers at the garden, and how they are truly appreciated and included in the ongoing work in the gardens.
Compton Verney is a very diverse and creative venue that operates as an art gallery and museum, and my role as Head of Landscape and Gardens is to lead the team who not only care for the grounds, but who champion it, enrich it and more. It is of course a large landscape, and you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a large team who care for it; in fact there is presently only three staff members, only two having permanent established posts.
With much of the machinery and ‘kit’ that you’d expect to find at a venue of this sort, that small staff group can be really effective. The focus however has to be on key points like site cleanliness, safety and general presentation - getting creative with such a venue can be extremely time consuming and demands time that sometimes just isn’t available.
The secret weapon therefore is the team of volunteers that have accumulated over the last nine years or so; they turn up week in, week out throughout much of the year to invest their valuable time in support of Compton Verney. It is a small volunteer team by some standards, but it allows us to retain a personal approach with flexibility for all concerned.
As you can imagine, harnessing the volunteer effort requires a degree of input, but the gain is a significantly boosted output from the team as a whole. As an example, in the last few years we have added and maintained an allotment or potager garden; a labyrinth; bee hives; we actively maintain a bird hide; are building moth and bird records; and have turned out demonstrations for a range of event days plus walks and talks. All of this has been achieved through the time, energy and enthusiasm given by our grounds volunteers.
Becoming part of the grounds team, for a volunteer, could be seen to segregate someone from the main property team, so all of the following points are important: travel expenses, discounts and access to exhibitions, and invites to staff meetings and social gatherings – the team Christmas gatherings are legendary!
Within the grounds team however, and after nearly twenty years of volunteer management experience in garden situations; I understand that it’s the personal touch that can make all the difference. Don’t get me wrong, in a very busy working situation I do drop the ball often, but I understand that it’s the time spent on talking to my team, on social gatherings, on creating a warm and friendly hub in the grounds tea room, and in being genuinely thankful for every little contribution; is the difference between a team that sticks together, and one that drifts apart
One of the many things that makes me genuinely smile is when I see a grounds volunteer on a none-work day, walking through the park. Not because they have come in to help in some activity, but because they are most often showing a guest the place they hold dear, the place where their contribution matters; they are sharing the love. It makes me proud to know that somehow, what we’re achieving above the practical activity of presenting an attractive and valuable landscape is the creation and nurturing of a community, and one I’m hugely proud to be a part of.
Head of Landscape & Gardens, Compton Verney