Volunteering for Volunteers: A Slow Evolution of Hosting Free Labor

Recently, I’ve been working with volunteers in two capacities. I oversee the daily, walk-in volunteer program at Caoba Farms, which is currently undergoing a massive organizational overhaul, an effort to make it more predictable and attentive. On the other end of the spectrum, I’m now working weekly as a volunteer for Garden of Hope, helping to physically implement a permaculture design that I’ve been voluntarily developing for the roughly one-acre space. Suffice it to say, it’s made me think a lot about volunteers.

I really began to reconsider things after an incident at Garden of Hope. Several volunteers had joined us on a Wednesday morning, and it had not gone as smoothly as one (I) would like. I became frustrated with people working inefficiently and not following instructions, and people had become frustrated with not knowing exactly what was going on. As I vented a little over lunch, my wife Emma pointed out to me that people simply didn’t understand what they were doing or why. I hadn’t explained it clearly. In my mind, I had.

It wasn’t my first time to have these sorts of feelings. I find myself, more and more often, sounding like a grumpy grandfather in utter disbelief at what people do and don’t do these days. Nevertheless, along with my lunch, I digested what Emma had said. Knowing that over the next couple months, particularly, I would be working side-by-side with lots of volunteers, I wanted to right the ship early on if possible. Now, nearly a month later, things seem to be going a little better.

When Volunteers Aren’t Needed (But Welcome): Caoba Farms

Volunteers Painting at Caoba
Volunteers Painting at Caoba

Caoba Farms has been an interesting place for me to work with volunteers because it is the first situation that I’ve been around where the output of the farm doesn’t at all rely on them. We have a local staff that handles all the ins and outs of growing the garden and caring for the animals. The volunteer program is more meant to be an opportunity for people to participate in what’s going on, to find a foothold in the sustainability movement.

Most volunteers come with high expectations. They hope to learn great secrets of gardening, but in reality, what most volunteers do is pull weeds and harvest seeds, tasks that aren’t particularly thought-provoking or as exhilarating as harvesting baskets of vegetables. In essence, the tasks that walk-in, afternoon volunteers who have no farming experience are best-suited to perform don’t provide the rewarding feeling they hope find, but our staff have farm duties to complete that don’t include teaching volunteers.

Noticing this dilemma, I’ve tried to develop more impactful roles for volunteers, with set hours and tasks, staff members more often overlook than perform. Now, our volunteer program tackles to-do items like painting, varnishing, repairing table legs, building from pallets, cleaning chicken coops, picking up trash, and the occasional garden tasks of weeding, harvesting seeds, and planting seedlings. It’s created an interesting mix of volunteers happy to perform things we need done versus the idealization of becoming a gardening expert.

People have appreciated more guidance, varied tasks, and communal efforts. From the volunteer standpoint, I would advise having a healthy attitude towards learning slowly by observation. Volunteering is not the same as hiring someone to teach you. You’ve come to help however that is needed. As for hosts, organization and appropriate tasks are crucial. You have not paid someone to do serious labor, say dig a swimming pool by hand (as I was once asked to do), but there needs to be some sense of purpose to engage people and have them leave feeling satisfied.

When Volunteers Are Sorely Needed: Garden of Hope

Day One @ Garden of Hope (Claire Henkel)
Day One @ Garden of Hope (Claire Henkel)

At Garden of Hope, the story couldn’t be more different. Frankly, the scope of what we are trying to accomplish before mid-March feels more ambitious by the day. The organization had nearly an acre of former coffee plantation donated to it, and we are tediously removing the densely planted coffee trees. The overall plan is to install of bio-diverse food forest, rotational raised beds, a forested chicken roost/yard, sensory herb garden, tropical wetlands production, a mandala kitchen garden, and three buildings: an open-air classroom, an open-air kitchen, and a bathroom/tool shed.

The first phase, set to be done by mid-March, includes clearing the coffee from the classroom/sensory garden space and the kitchen/mandala garden space. Hopefully, the beds in these areas will be created, plants planted (we’ve got seeds sown), and building areas marked off. Additionally, I hope to have a small chicken coop/compost bin put together out of repurposed pallets, the preexisting raised bed boxes transferred over from the previous location, and a sample slice of the tropical wetland and food forest in place to be replicated. At the moment, I’m spending Tuesdays working with volunteers on the site, and Emma and Claire (the project’s founder) Thursdays, the rest of their time being spent on administration stuff for the social business.

In this case, my hopes for volunteers wildly exceeded realistic expectations. I saw the rows of trees we had to remove and estimated everyone pulling the same number I do. I envisaged them stacking organic matter in a meaningful way, working through the area and leaving behind nearly completed garden beds and building sites as we went. And, this is where I failed to fill everyone in fully on what exactly we were doing and why we were doing it the way we were, all processes I spent ample mental time conceiving. Here, our volunteers came and there was blatant purpose to what we were doing, but the task seemed Herculean, unconquerable.

The Tuesday after Emma and I had talked, I took a few minutes to explain to everyone the design I’d been working on, the first goals we were trying to reach, and the method I’d come up with for doing it efficiently. I also just relaxed a little on my notion of what we’d get done. That day was smoother, as have been the two after it. The fact is that my approaches to each situation—Caoba and Garden of Hope—moved in opposite directions. At Garden of Hope, as hosts, we need everyone to see what can be, and we truly need volunteers to get the basics done.

When Volunteers Are at Their Best: The World Over

Volunteers at Garden of Hope (Claire Henkel)
Volunteers at Garden of Hope (Claire Henkel)

I’ve run several volunteer programs, both for an educational NGO and for various farms, and in doing so, I’ve learned that volunteers are vastly different in expectations and what can be expected of them. But, there are a few things that I’ve found to be fairly standard, and I believe finding ways to incorporate these guidelines into a volunteer program will produce the best results for both the volunteers and the hosts.

1. The work needs to be organized, and there needs to be an established reason behind it. Too often people offer volunteer opportunities with no actual plan for the volunteers who arrive. Give someone a task that they understand on a level deeper than how to do it, and they more often than not will be pleased by doing it.

2. The work needs to be achievable and reach completion. Looking at the ocean of coffee trees at Garden of Hope, it seems we’ll never get them all cleared, but when I cordon off an area, say what is going there, and offer it up for the day’s work, volunteers feel motivated to see the job through and good about getting there.

3. The work needs to be a learning opportunity. Working on simple things like cleaning or sanding or cutting at Caoba, I try to offer up the little tips I’ve discovered along the way: how to make an all-natural, all-purpose cleaner or ways to make cutting a piece of wood with a handsaw a bit more palatable.

4. The work needs to be varied, and the volunteers should be afforded the option of changing tasks when necessary. Monotony is not what volunteers are looking for, nor is it the best way to get the most out of people. Having two or three tasks with varying degrees of difficulty gives volunteers a means to reenergize.

5. The work needs to be communal. By and large, volunteers arrive, at both Caoba and Garden of Hope and all the other places I’ve worked, with the notion that they will be sharing the experience. When that isn’t there, most people find the experience lacking, and as hosts, it’s important to create an atmosphere where volunteers feel happy.

Obviously, having a wonderful wife or partner to point things out to you goes a long way as well. I’ve long loved the work-exchange/volunteer system and believe it to be a powerful tool from which we—volunteers and hosts—can benefit, and I have been on both sides of that. As long as we come to it with honest intentions, the potential is there for serious growth all around.

Garden of Hope Entrance (Claire Henkel)
Garden of Hope Entrance (Claire Henkel)

Feature Photo: Caoba Farms (Elena Bozzi)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. I’ve found that with helpers you always have enthusiasm and commitment but rarely have specific experience and often have no experience. That’s not surprising since helpers (WWOOF, Workaway, HelpX) are exchanging their labour for knowledge.

    If I have a tree in a pot that I want my helper to plant, I can say plant this in that spot there or I can give a detailed explanation of how to plant the tree where I wanted it planted. The former is almost guaranteed not to work and the latter, while seemingly sufficient, has a good probability of not working the way that you see planting the tree. I found that an almost foolproof approach was to say “I’ll plant one tree and you watch. Then you plant a tree, and I’ll watch.” If they got it, I’d say “Great. Go to it. I’ll check back with you in a while.” Usually there was a bit of tweaking but the results were just about always what I expected/needed to be done. We both got what we were looking for: I got the tree planted the way that I needed it to be planted and the helper learned how to plant trees in a particular way that had a high probability of the tree vigorously thriving.

  2. Peter Drucker, the management guru pointed out that managing knowledge workers is a very different process and if this fact is not recognised and acted upon, conflict stress and disfunction will follow.
    As Geoff has clearly demonstrated the same level of attention is needed both for managing volunteers and also being a volunteer. One thing that must never be forgotten with volunteers and volunteering is that they can withdraw at any time – the contract is a moral one not a legal one.
    Taking the time to think through your role and what is required of you in the situation is paramount to achieving why you are there.
    Humans invariably interact on many levels at the same time and a relationship needs to recognise this.
    Common ground as well as common understanding and common purpose are not automatic just because two people are in close proximity or seeing the same issue.
    I argue that the next great revolution for humans on this earth will occur in how humans interact and relate to each other, the glue that makes communities and societies and this is the core of how we interact and function as people. The old ways worked in hunter/gatherer environments of scarcity encouraging command/control systems and are not suitable any longer.

  3. I absolutely concur with what Peter Tompkinson said (in one of the replies here):
    “I argue that the next great revolution for humans on this earth will occur in how humans interact and relate to each other, the glue that makes communities and societies and this is the core of how we interact and function as people. The old ways worked in hunter/gatherer environments of scarcity encouraging command/control systems and are not suitable any longer.”
    Time to share & teach (& emphasise) these tools and technologies (as well).

  4. As a sustainability education center we here at Rancho Sol y Mar have always tried to provide a true reciprocal exchange with our volunteers rather than viewing them as cheap source of labor (my wife Holly is in the kitchen teaching a volunteer about cheese making as I write this). That said, there are big hidden costs to hosting that often tip the balance and make having volunteers much less productive or desirable than one might think. In the past we have hosted hundreds of volunteers, sometimes up to a dozen at a time. Now, after years of experience, we are down to hosting only one or two at any given time, and instead rely more on local labor for the core work that needs to get done. Some of the issues with hosting that we’ve experienced include broken & lost tools, animal gates left open, water left running, injuries and damage to due to carelessness, and loss of private space & time. Yet another issue we’ve faced over the years is the fact that many volunteers are simply looking for a free ride and can be quite manipulative and disruptive to the moral of our little community. At the same time, volunteers often provide an energy exchange essential to bringing a sense of life an vitality to a project. I agree with the article’s advice to provide as much detailed instruction and clear expectation setting as possible, however I also know the reality is that many volunteers simply won’t “get it” no matter what one does to try to make the path clear and easy to follow. In short, we’ve found the hosting experience can run the gamut from wonderful, to dreadful, almost no matter what we do to try to manage it. Bigger groups definitely lend themselves to more chaos and problems though. Ultimately, over the years, we’ve found the more negative experiences have taken their toll and tempered our enthusiasm, hence the reason we are currently down to hosting only one two volunteers at a time.

  5. People volunteer for different reasons, be it to meet and interact with others, put to use what they know and/or learn new skills. Each have their own reasons.
    It is only fair that the volunteers are receiving something to make them feel fulfilled. Taking a little time out, to explain and demonstrate what is required, for the task in hand; will ensure that the required results, will be achieved, to the satisfaction of all concerned. After all the eye is the window to the brain.
    When a person has reached a certain level of competency in a skill, then perhaps that person could be relied on to pass on that information and demonstrate to newcomers, while they are also themselves learning something new. Therefore they are building on what they know, going over it, passing it on.
    By providing food, knowledge experience and community it’s more of a two way thing.

  6. Thanks for the great tips! I do have a question however that I
    think you could probably answer. I was wondering, I have no
    experience but would like to start a web design company.

    What is the lowest number of employees I can start and their job descriptions?
    Any insight would be greatly appreciated!

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