It’s said that you get what you pay for — but there are times when you can get a lot for very little. With too much work and too few staff members, many athletic field managers, particularly at schools, parks and recreation facilities, must rely on volunteer labor for at least some of the required field maintenance tasks. Sometimes it’s an annual field work day, in other cases it’s user groups that regularly manage the fields and prepare them for games. Whatever the arrangement, while the work is free, it does come with a cost — it takes much planning, preparation and the right approach to take advantage of volunteer labor.

Be organized, provide oversight

Mike McDonald is the turf manager at the University of Minnesota and also helps to coordinate an annual community service project through the Minnesota Park and Sports Turf Managers Association (MPSTMA) that utilizes both professional and nonprofessional volunteer labor. A field is selected from a group of applicants and the MPSTMA organizes some of its members and vendors to supply the expertise and materials for a field renovation day.

“Whatever field is chosen, we ask that their organization — whether it’s a ball team or parents — to help us out,” McDonald explains.

He says the first key to a successful day is to have a plan in place before the volunteers arrive in order to avoid chaos. McDonald assigns each sports turf manager a different area to supervise, whether it’s irrigation, base paths or edging or the mound. “That way, when people start showing up I can send them right over to one of those areas,” he explains. “When they’re volunteering, people don’t like just standing around.”

This approach not only helps from an organizational standpoint, but McDonald says that experience has shown it’s best to have at least one professional sports turf manager out on the field with each group of volunteers. “That way the sports turf manager can direct all the people as to how to execute the job,” he adds. Many volunteers come with little or no experience in field maintenance, or even general landscaping knowledge. Still, “it doesn’t take long to train someone, even if they don’t know anything about landscaping…. Everyone knows if we’re laying sod, the green side goes up!” jokes McDonald.

Some other strategies help make the volunteer day a success, he adds. Only those with experience are put in roles where equipment operation might be needed, for example. Those that are stronger and fitter are assigned tasks where more manual labor is involved. And, generally speaking, volunteers aren’t tasked with jobs that require a lot of technical expertise. “Shoveling and leveling is one thing, but when it comes to measuring, that’s where the sports turf managers come in,” says McDonald. “You want to make sure bases and home plate get installed in the right places.”

McDonald cautions those against organizing a volunteer day not to bite off too much. It’s probably not possible to laser level, regrade and resod an entire field in a single day, for example. While the work is hard, McDonald says that volunteer days are usually also fun. “There’s a lot of camaraderie out there. It’s unbelievable how appreciative they are, and they’re more than happy to help do whatever they can. Even if it’s just putting together a lunch for all the workers,” he says.

On that note, the consensus is that a little food can go a long way to keeping volunteers motivated and productive.

Be proactive, keep it simple

Rebecca Auchter, grounds maintenance manager with Cranberry Township in Pennsylvania, has to rely heavily on volunteer labor from user groups to help maintain sports fields.

“Public parks need to use volunteers because we’re not funded the same way that professional sports fields are,” she observes.

When there’s so many fields to maintain getting so much use (the township has 12 ballfields alone, each hosting at least 200 events per year), there’s no way to get the work done without volunteers. And even if they’re not fully trained or knowledgeable, the reality is that at times, Auchter needs to put the care of the fields in their hands. “You have to delegate it to them, and then let it happen,” Auchter states.

While it’s a necessity, that doesn’t always mean it’s successful, she adds. Managing volunteer labor is a topic that’s frequently discussed among sports turf managers, Auchter says, and it’s no secret that it can be frustrating and stressful for those in the industry. Volunteers “are usually extremely nice people who are extremely well intentioned,” she says. But they’re also usually inexperienced.

Sometimes, the goal in working with volunteers isn’t so much to improve field conditions as it is to prevent serious damage from being done to the field, says Auchter. That requires taking a proactive approach, she emphasizes: “You can do nothing, and then complain about it [when problems occur on a field] …. Or you can take a proactive approach and at least try to tell the volunteers what you want.”

To try to keep the train on the tracks, Auchter created a field maintenance manual for volunteers working on Cranberry Township fields to follow (CranberryTownship. org/DocumentCenter/Home/View/16789). It covers topics such as “determining field playability,” “addition of field drying agents,” “water removal techniques for grass fields,” “field lining techniques” and more. “It’s a general, generic guide,” she explains. “It’s very low-tech, but that’s who your audience is when you’re working with volunteers. There are wonderful field maintenance manuals out there; the Sports Turf Managers Association has some very deluxe manuals. But that’s not going to do anything for my volunteers — I need them to understand the basics, and hopefully they don’t go beyond there.”

Working with volunteers

Milada Weaver is in charge of the volunteer program at Arlington County Parks and Recreation in Virginia. There, an “Adopt a Park” initiative has been expanded to include an “Adopt a Field” program. “A lot of the volunteers in that are regular users of the field they are adopting,” she explains. “They keep those fields maintained throughout the season.” Weaver says the county’s field supervisor came up with the idea and the response has been strong. Because the volunteers are typically field users, they have an incentive to do their best when it comes to maintenance and she reports that the program has worked very well for all involved.

Each person who volunteers to adopt a field is asked to help out at least quarterly, but Weaver says that most volunteers come at least weekly or bi-weekly. Arlington County does require volunteers to fill out an application. “We just need to know who they are and what their plans are. And they have to meet with the field supervisor, because we don’t want people thinking, ‘Hey, this is my field, I can do whatever I want!’ They have to be walked through what they can and can’t do on each field,” explains Weaver. Volunteers are also asked to submit reports to the field supervisor each time they work so that the park staff knows what is being done to each field.

Jerry Pugh oversees a community volunteer program for the City of Boise (Idaho) Parks and Recreation. Mostly this takes the form of large-group service projects. “If our sports field manager says, ‘Hey, this baseball field could use a little help,’ then we’ll match a volunteer group to help with that,” says Pugh. The response among volunteers, at least in that area, is very strong, he reports: “Boise is just amazing with people wanting to get out and do stuff, so I’m in the fortunate position that I often have to turn people away because we just don’t have the capacity for them all.”

Keeping an eye on volunteer numbers, in this case making sure the numbers are manageable, is important for any successful volunteer project, says Pugh: “If volunteers come in and feel like they’re not doing something productive, or you don’t have enough work to keep people busy, they’re going to feel like they’ve wasted their time.”

He says the projects for volunteers in the Boise parks tend to be things that anyone of almost any age or skill set can do, like painting or spreading mulch. “We focus on things that require just a light tailgate training the day of the project,” explains Pugh. Trying to do something too technical risks the prospect of the training taking as long as the project itself, he notes. “We try to make the volunteer process easy, there’s just a simple waiver that they have to sign, and we provide all the materials,” says Pugh. Saturday mornings have proven to be good time to get volunteers in, Pugh adds, “and we try to keep it to about four hours or less; people have busy lives and most don’t want to spend eight or nine hours here. We try to keep it short and sweet.”

One thing Pugh says field managers want to avoid when it comes to volunteers is menial work. “The stuff they’re doing can be somewhat labor intensive, but you want to make it as rewarding as possible,” he says. “Make it a project where, when they’re done, they’re going to see a substantive result. If it’s just a menial task, it’s hard to get volunteers excited. But if they come in and work hard for three or four hours and they can step back and see how much nicer things look, that makes the experience better.”