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Increase the Effectiveness of Your Volunteer Program with a Software Database

High-tech software. These are two, four letter words that can strike fear into some people. It initially sounds so complicated. All that information to be entered… so many tables. Once you’ve entered the data, how do you get it out so that it makes sense?

If you administer a volunteer program, you know how tedious and time consuming it is to track all the information involved in the program. Besides gathering volunteer hours, there is basic information to collect on who your volunteers are and what type of work – and work schedule – they are interested in having with your organization. And once they start volunteering, how do you track what type of work your volunteers are doing, and when they are doing it?

These days, most computers come with a basic spreadsheet program. This program can help you to organize your volunteer data, projects, statistics, and priority lists into columns and rows – tables – that can be sorted at your command.

Most spreadsheet programs will even perform mathematical functions for you. Want to sum all your volunteer project hours? A spreadsheet can do it. Want to sort your volunteers by last name and project name? Can do. Want to put in color charts and graphs that illustrate your program’s accomplishments? Your spreadsheet program can create them.

What does it take to create a spreadsheet? Before you begin, have an idea of what topics you will need to have included, and how you would like them organized into rows and columns. If you’re just getting started with a spreadsheet, use the program’s tutorial and help areas to begin. Most programs also have on-line help available at their websites.

You may already be using a spreadsheet, and it may be working well for you. But what if you are tracking hundreds of volunteers doing a multitude of tasks in a variety of settings, and at different times? What if you would like to put your volunteer application into digital storage so you can retrieve it at well, by any topic you wish? You may want to consider using a database program instead.

If you’re looking for more versatility and the ability to create in-depth reports, consider using a database. If you have a basic understanding of computer programs, you can use the database that came with your computer to create a simple program. For creating reports – called “queries” – you will need to either have a higher level of computer literacy, or recruit a volunteer with the experience to help you. The program tutorial and help areas can start you off on the right foot.

What will a database do for you? More than just tracking records, a database can sort, merge, and compile whatever information you put into it, creating comprehensive reports based on your needs. There are several commercial software database programs that may be right for your needs. Check around on the Internet and if you see something that might work for you and ask for a demo disk.

If your needs and your program are more complex than an off-the-shelf database program can deliver, you may need a customized program. In this case, you have two options. Pay a company to create one for you, or recruit a skilled volunteer to work with you and deliver what you need. If you want to go with a private company, look at your options for getting the work done on a budget. Will they do it gratis as a promo? Can you get a grant to pay for the work?

If you have a technology-savvy pool of volunteers available in your area, you may try to recruit for one- or two- to help create this program. Before you begin your search for the perfect tech volunteer, make sure you have done your homework. Have a written a detailed plan of what you wish your database program to accomplish and how you would like it to perform. The more information you can provide a volunteer or a professional, the better the product you will end up with for your volunteer program.

There are advantages for using either approach. A commercial company will ask the right questions because of their experience, and make sure you are satisfied with the product. You will also be provided with a user manual. A tech volunteer will work with you as needed, and continue to work with you to tweak the bugs out of this tailor-made program. Got a question? Call up your volunteer and ask.

If you want a user manual, make sure to make that clear to the volunteer before you start. Another helpful item to have on hand is a copy of the program code, or computer language that tells the program how to organize and report your information. If you don’t make this point clear, you may end up getting the dreaded “debug” error message with no way to know what the correct code should be for the program.

Whatever your tech-proficiency level, a spreadsheet or database program can greatly increase the efficiency and effectiveness of your volunteer program.

About the Contributor: Kristy Wumkes

FORT COLLINS, Colo.– U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell announced Kristy Wumkes, Partnership Coordinator for the Canyon Lakes Ranger District of the Roosevelt National Forest, as the Forest Service 2012 Volunteer Coordinator of the Year.

With more than 900 annual volunteers on the Canyon Lakes Ranger District, Wumkes’s extraordinary outreach and commitment has directly expanded the Forest Service volunteer program over the last 17 years. Her innovative efforts resulted in 51,636 volunteer hours donated to the district, valued at over $1.1 million, in 2012. These 51,636 hours are approximately 1.8% of the 2.8 million aggregate volunteer hours for the agency nationwide last year.

Wumkes’s focus on community needs and interests gave rise to the development of new partnerships such as the Diamond Peaks Mountain Bike Patrol and Poudre River Rangers, and greatly expanded existing programs such as Adopt-A-Trail, Cameron Pass Nordic Rangers, and Deadman Fire Tower Volunteers. She manages a variety of long term partner-programs such as Diamond Peaks National Ski Patrol, Northern Colorado Mounted Patrol,  Overland Mountain Bike Club, Wildland Restoration Volunteers, and the Redfeather and Arrowhead Visitors Centers, to name a few.

“I love working with our volunteers, their passionate enthusiasm for public lands stewardship is contagious,” says Wumkes. “The Forest Service owes a debt of gratitude to our volunteers because without them so much would be left undone. Trail volunteers maintain 40% of the district’s 360 miles of trails, patrol volunteers contact over 8,000 people in the backcountry each year, and our remote visitor centers would be closed without volunteer summer hosts.”

Forest Service volunteers play a vital role in not only providing the public with recreation and safety information, but also with forest restoration efforts, wildlife habitat improvements, trail repairs and maintenance, invasive plant species management, fence and kiosk building, and data collection.

Last year, during the 2012 National Public Lands Day, Canyon Lakes Ranger District volunteers were essential in forest restoration activities. If the public is interested in planting trees for our future forests, then National Public Lands Day is the place to be on Sept. 28, 2013. The Canyon Lakes Ranger District is currently planning the event to include more tree and shrub planting at Bellaire Lake Campground.

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