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CH 5: Prepare for Volunteers

A volunteer is a person or group of persons who donate their time and talent to work with Forest Service staff on agency projects and who receive no salary or wages from the Forest Service for their voluntary service. Once you understand what your data needs and protocols are, you will know what the skill set and requirements of your volunteers will be.

Volunteer position descriptions

Develop volunteer position descriptions that are thorough and honest about what the monitoring program will entail. Do not advertise a program as “no experience necessary” if there are not sufficient training opportunities offered by the unit or partners.

  • Purpose – Include the unit, state, regional impact, and what part of the mission the program supports.
  • Duties and Responsibilities – Explain the nuts and bolts of what is required to fulfill the program needs.
  • Department – List the department and staff member(s) that will be the main contact for the volunteer and where the monitoring site could be (maybe within a general range).
  • Location – State where the activities will take place and where the volunteers will go to be trained.
  • Qualifications – State the minimum requirements and expectations to complete the tasks including if training in specialized equipment or software is necessary or provided.
  • Time Commitment – List the time commitment in the protocols such as number of days, hours per day, and number of surveys. Include weekday, weekend, and evenings as they apply. State if a multi-year commitment is required or preferred. Tip: shifts longer than 4-5 hours are not popular with volunteers.
  • Training – List the minimum training that the unit will provide and any ongoing or off-site training required or recommended. This should include any estimated costs that the volunteer will incur. 
  • Working Conditions/Physical Effort – Give volunteers a good vision of the likely conditions. Consider including injurious/poisonous plants, possible animal encounters, and seasonal weather conditions.
  • Benefits – List some fun experiences or benefits volunteers can count on such as knowledge, skills, invitations to volunteer gatherings, awards, health benefits, etc.
  • Related Opportunities – If the volunteer likes this opportunity, they might like more responsibilities within this role or an additional program.


Volunteer recruitment strategy

Your outreach may depend on how many volunteers are needed and what special interests or skills you are looking for. Do you need to cast a broad net or target specialty groups? Listed below are ways to reach and recruit potential volunteers.

  • Partners – Past citizen science projects have had success in recruiting volunteers through partner organizations with strong volunteer bases or through working with local teachers and schools. One example is Adventure Scientists, an organization that recruits highly skilled volunteers (such as mountaineers) to collect conservation data for partners like the Forest Service.
  • Volunteer Groups – Collaborate with other Forest Service staff such as Volunteers & Service, Conservation Education, etc. Your local partnership coordinator will be able to identify local partner and volunteer groups to work with.
  • K-12 Classrooms – Talk to teachers and principals to collaborate with classrooms focused on STEM topics or hands-on activities for students.
  • Events – Engage diverse audiences through community organizations and large “walk-in” events, such as town events and career fairs.
  • is an online portal for government agencies, including the Forest Service, to list volunteer opportunities and connect with interested volunteers. Contact for access to list your volunteer opportunity.
  • Online Media – Use social media, blogs, and videos. The Forest Service has accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and blog posts on the Forest Service blog and Citizen Science blog. Individual National Forests also have accounts on Facebook and Twitter. Use the social media accounts of the Forests your project is based in to get the word out to interested parties.
  • Printed Media – In a survey by The Nature Conservancy, it was reported that the #1 reason someone started volunteering is because they have physically been to that place. This calls for a targeted effort to turn visitors into volunteers. Post paper fliers on message boards in popular locations on the unit, e.g., visitor centers, supervisor’s office, campgrounds, and trailheads.


Volunteer agreements & forms

Volunteer services are covered in Forest Service Manual (FSM) 1800: Volunteers and Service. Volunteers typically enroll using the Official Form 301a (Volunteer Service Agreement), but some are recruited by partners (and are therefore not Forest Service volunteers) so may instead be reflected on a Grants & Agreements form. The suite of volunteer forms and documents are available on the Volunteers Share Point Site, which is internal to the Forest Service (click on Volunteer Program Forms and download the zip file). Listed below are links to some of those documents.

  • Volunteer Service Agreement (301a) – All volunteers must complete a Volunteer Service Agreement (301a), which allows the Forest Service to legally accept volunteer service. A Group Sign-up (301b) can be used for large “walk-in” citizen science events in place of 301a. Both 301a and 301b agreements include full liability coverage for the volunteer (tort liability and workers compensation coverage), and should to be sent to the Albuquerque Service Center for reimbursement claims. Volunteers under age 18 must have their form signed by a parent or guardian. The content can be amended at any time by consent of both parties if volunteer duties change. No match is required, and volunteers or volunteer partners may be reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses. If volunteers will be riding in Forest Service government vehicles, they will need to sign a ride-along form – check with your local or regional volunteer coordinator to find out more.
  • Volunteer Application – This application helps public land officials and potential volunteers determine if there are volunteer opportunities that are a good match for their skills and interests. All volunteers are required to complete a volunteer agreement once they have committed to a specific volunteer activity.
  • Photo Release – If you are to take or use photos of volunteers, they must complete a photo release before you can use those photos in promotional materials, websites, or any in any way.


Volunteer training

Before any field work begins, schedule a training session to make sure volunteers understand the protocol, safety concerns, how the data they collect will be used, and the project as a whole. A volunteer list would serve to announce trainings or gatherings.

Introduce volunteers to the project and each other

The more connected the new volunteer feels at the beginning, the higher the retention rate. Introduce volunteers to each other, the site’s history and mission, and the big picture and purpose of the program, along with any data/trends documented so far.

Describe the level of knowledge necessary

The quality of your data depends on the volunteers’ knowledge of the protocol and commitment to following it correctly. Ensure volunteers understand the protocol well enough to contribute quality and usable data. If your protocol is relatively complex, you could arrange for a separate training session before the day they are scheduled to volunteer. If you cannot provide sufficient training, be clear and explicit while recruiting volunteers about what they will already need to know. If the project is simple and has team leaders on site with volunteers already well-versed in the protocol, a set of instructions at the beginning of the field day will suffice.

Data usage & ownership

The Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2017 requires that "As part of the consent process, the Federal science agency shall notify all participants (i) of the expected uses of the data compiled through the project; (ii) if the Federal science agency will retain ownership of such data; (iii) if and how the data and results from the project would be made available for public or third party use; and (iv) if participants are authorized to publish such data."


Make sure to include safety measures while training volunteers. Reference Job Hazard Analysis so volunteers understand any relevant safety risks. Immediately after an accident or near miss, Forest Service employees shall notify the appropriate authorities in the manner specified in FSH 6709.11. All Worker Compensation claims go through the Albuquerque Service Center.

Training session tips

  • Get them used to the environment – An on-site, field orientation is the best choice especially for new volunteers. It doesn’t have to be at the exact site of your project, but a good representation.
  • Provide additional training – Give volunteers the option of furthering their knowledge of the training material with online resources, webinars, books, and local presentations.
  • Let volunteers learn from each other – It may to useful to have new volunteers join seasoned volunteers for the first couple of dates or the full season, versus starting new volunteers on their own site right away. If a volunteer feels too intimidated as beginner, they are more likely to drop out of a project. You might consider requiring all experienced volunteers to announce their first monitoring dates and allow the newer volunteers to join. This makes it a fair and shared responsibility to help newcomers. This also gives the newcomers several options for dates and a diversity of sites to train on.
  • Use photography and video – Encourage volunteers to take photos of themselves and things that represent the program so they can be used in presentations or success story articles. Ask specifically for photographs showing faces and actions in order to get the most usable photos. Videos should be creative, and also appropriate – make sure participants know the expectations for video content including using the proper protective equipment.

Develop a field manual or an online training video

It is helpful to develop a written field manual/protocol to make sure that everyone is clear on the information to be collected and the way in which it should be collected. Use as many visual aids as possible to help volunteers for example, plant identification guides and step-by-step visual instructions for using measuring instruments. Training videos are also helpful so volunteers can reference them throughout the project.


Disengage or reassign

Retain volunteers by having a monthly check-in meeting of volunteers with Forest Service staff, and distribute a quarterly e-newsletter. Inform your email list of volunteer positions and events. Develop social media networks where volunteers can talk to one another and learn about how their data is being used for land management or furthering science. (See Chapter 7 - Share Your Results).

Address volunteer burn out, change in physical condition, or availability.

  • If a volunteer’s availability decreases but they want to continue monitoring their site, decide if partial data is still useful.
  • Are there ways a volunteer can still help on a different schedule or in an office environment?

If replacements need to be recruited, encourage the former volunteer to go out for at least one survey or season to train a new volunteer.


Reward volunteers & partners

Make sure volunteers and partners see the end result of their efforts by inviting them to a presentation or allowing them a space to present their findings themselves. Thank them for their work at the presentation and send them copies of any publications resulting from their efforts. Listed below are awards you can use to recognize the efforts of volunteers and partners.

  • President’s Volunteer Service Award – Recognizes U.S. citizens and lawfully admitted permanent residents who achieve the required number of volunteer service hours over a 12 month time period or cumulative hours over the course of a lifetime.
  • Volunteers & Service Annual Awards Program – Recognizes partners, volunteers, and staff for their contributions in five categories: Citizen Stewardship & Partnerships, Cultural Diversity, Enduring Service, Leadership, and Restoration. Includes letters from Chief with awards.
  • Chief’s Honor Award – This is the highest honor in the Forest Service and recognizes agency employees who find innovative ways to perform work according to our national priorities and strategic plan.
  • Rise to the Future – recognizes outstanding individual and group achievements by natural resource professionals in the Forest Service, as well as our partners in the fisheries, hydrology, soil, and air programs.

Other reward ideas:

  • Interagency Volunteer Pass – Covers federal public lands site fees for 12 months
  • 1,000 Hour Certificate – One-time recognition signed by Chief
  • Volunteers & Service Appreciation Certificate – FS unit can sign
  • Potluck/picnic ceremony – Hold a gathering the day of the event or end of the “season”; buy a cake
  • Share their stories: Write a blog post or send out an email (use photo releases)


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