LARNet; The Cyber Journal of Applied Leisure and Recreation Research 
Assessing a Conceptual Framework for Managing Volunteers Within Trail Organizations

(July 2007)
Benoni Amsden, Ph.D.
Dennis Propst, Ph.D.
Contact information:
Benoni Amsden
Department of Rural Sociology
111 Armsby Building
Penn State University
University Park, PA 16802

Long distance hiking trails are subject to the pressures of both human visitors and management conflicts. Resource conservation, volunteer management, and ecological concerns are only a few of the topics occupying the organizations that manage these trails. With a work force made up mainly of volunteers, these groups adopt as their mission both the maintenance of many miles of trail, and the protection of the recreation opportunities those trails provide. Our qualitative, case study approach examined one of these trail management organizations, assessing the extent to which it has adopted and implemented best practices for managing its volunteer workforce. Using this organization as a template, we also explored if and how best practices can be used to measure the effectiveness of the volunteer programs on which these types of organizations so heavily rely. Our findings revealed that best practices, when implemented, 1) result in a stronger volunteer workforce, and 2) are important ingredients in an effectiveness model designed specifically for trail management organizations. Understanding and implementing best practices for volunteer management is of growing importance in an era of shrinking budgets and heightened accountability.

Throughout the United States, long distance hiking trails are subject to the pressures of both human visitors and management conflicts (Appalachian Mountain Club, 2003). Each year, nearly four million individuals hike some portion of the 2,160 mile Appalachian Trail, while almost 2,300 hikers have tramped the entire length of Vermont’s 270-mile Long Trail (Appalachian Trail Club, 2005; Green Mountain Club, 2005). As a result, the oversight and maintenance of these trails has become an example of a resource issue affecting a broad range of interests. Landscape conservation, volunteer management, and ecological concerns are only a few of the topics that occupy organizations such as the North Country Trail Association, the Green Mountain Club, and the Appalachian Trail Conference. Often working in tandem with federal agencies such as the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service, these non-profit groups adopt as their mission both the maintenance of many miles of trail, and the protection of the recreation opportunities those trails provide.

One cornerstone of successful non-profit trail groups is a strong and loyal volunteer workforce. Research in contexts outside of outdoor recreation management has shown that successful volunteer programs operate around a carefully planned and implemented set of best practices (Brudney, 1999). What is needed, however, is a greater understanding of how non-profit trail groups manage their essential core of volunteers.

The study reported herein has two purposes. The first purpose is to examine the extent to which a large, recreational trail management organization is adopting and implementing established best practices for managing its volunteer workforce. The second is to reveal if and how these best practices can be used to help such an organization measure the effectiveness of its volunteer program.

Volunteers and their management
In 2004, nearly 65 million American adults participated in some form of volunteering (U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, 2005). During the course of the year, these volunteers performed an average of slightly more that 52 hours of service, with a total estimated value of $239 billion ( Independent Sector, 2005; U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, 2005). As budgets shrink and services decline, this valuable work is of increasing importance to those who manage recreation resources.

For example, the organizations that oversee recreational hiking trails rely heavily on their volunteer workforce (Hardy, Larose, & Rose, 2003). In 2001, the 31 groups which work together to maintain the Appalachian Trail under the oversight of the Appalachian Trail Conference enjoyed the services of over 5,000 volunteers, who contributed almost 187,000 hours (Appalachian Trail Conference, 2005). These volunteers participated in important activities such as trail oversight and maintenance, shelter adoption, boundary monitoring, and even performed office-based administrative work (Hardy et al., 2003).

The literature surrounding volunteering and public participation has provided a multitude of definitions. Propst, Jackson, and McDonough (2004) suggest that researchers tend to focus on certain definitions based on their disciplinary training. For example, researchers who focus on public participation are grounded in “participatory democracy, civic engagement, social capital, international development and other theoretical frameworks common in political science and sociology”, while those who study volunteering “rely on theories from psychology” (Propst et al., 2004, p.405).

Definitions of volunteering and public participation vary in terms of the extent to which citizens actually seek out opportunities to donate their time and energy. While volunteering typically provides services that are “professionally initiated and defined”, citizen participation tends to be more of a “voluntary activity that is individually initiated and defined” (Propst et al., 2004, p.405).

Because their work is so important, volunteers are being delegated a wide range of responsibilities(Cuskelly, Hoye, & Auld, 2006; Grossman & Furano, 1999; Stebbins & Graham, 2004). These responsibilities can be arrayed along a spectrum to reflect the degree of volunteer power over decision-making (Propst et al., 2005). The low-power end of the spectrum includes passive volunteer behaviors often directed by others (McDonough & Wheeler, 1998; Propst et al., 2004). The high-power end of the spectrum, on the other hand, involves some level of shared authority in policy making, planning or management, where a volunteer assumes some influence over organizational objectives and outcomes (McDonough & Wheeler, 1998; Propst et al., 2004).

Best practices

The rise in volunteerism has shepherded research activity in such realms as perceptions of fairness (Smith & McDonough, 2001), volunteering as serious leisure (Arai & Pedlar, 1997; Stebbins, 1992), volunteering as a function of place attachment (Payton, Fulton, & Anderson, 2005) and volunteer motivations, expectations, and psychological benefits (Farmer & Fedor, 1999; Grese, Kaplan, Ryan, & Buxton, 2000; Jackson, 2003; Liao-Troth, 2001; Propst et al., 2004; Schroeder, 2000). As one result, the values, experiences, and expectations of volunteers are beginning to be incorporated into the management strategies of recreation organizations (Schroeder, 2000).

For instance, academic research and practitioner literature addressing volunteer management (Barnett, 2002; Bradner, 1993; Campion Devney, 1992; Clarke & McCool, 1996; Forsyth, 1999; Govekar & Govekar, 2002; Gratton & Ghoshal, 2003; Lee & Catagnus, 1999; Pharoah, 1997; Silverberg, 2004) conclude that the most successful volunteer programs operate around a planned, established set of best practices (Brudney, 1999; Ellis, 1996; McCurley & Lynch, 1996; Wilson, 1978). Receiving consistent support throughout the literature on successful volunteer management are best practices that:


1) Commit to a volunteer program: It is important for organizations to have in place a structure that supports the oversight of the volunteer workforce (Ellis, 1996).

2) Provide written policies to govern the program: “The[se] policies will allow the manager of volunteers to develop a consistent pattern of volunteer involvement, and will provide assistance in dealing with problem situations” (McCurley & Lynch, 1996, p.104).

3) Create job descriptions: “The job description defines the role, relationships, responsibilities, obligations, content, power, and privileges of a volunteer position” (Heidrich, 1990, p.73). Job descriptions can also be used for recruiting purposes (Brudney, 1999).

4) Provide support activities for volunteers: These activities should consist not only of orienting the volunteer to the organization’s methods and structures, but should demonstrate the willingness on the part of the manager to provide logistical support to volunteers (Brudney, 1999; Ellis, 1996; McCurley & Lynch, 1996).

5) Empower volunteers: Empowerment is the process of invigorating volunteers by empowering them through teaching, training, and experience so that they can work independently, manage other volunteers, or engage in decision making (Brudney, 1999; Ellis, 1996).

6) Evaluate work performed: Evaluating volunteers consists of keeping records of the type and amount of work performed, observing whether or not work performance is in line with stated goals, providing praise for a job well done or remediation of a poor job (Brudney, 1999).


Applications of volunteer research

Volunteer management has been previously researched in many different contexts. For example, Wilson and Pimm (1996) studied personnel management in both the corporate and non-profit sectors, focusing specifically on volunteer motivation, benefits, and management strategies. Their research found that the majority of volunteer workforces are poorly managed due to the lack of organizational adherence to conventional business management methods (Wilson and Pimm, 1996).

Other research has evaluated effective volunteer practices within broader contexts such as education, finding that while volunteers may be given greater responsibility, their effectiveness depends on an infrastructure built around selection, training, communication and support (Grossman & Furano, 1999).
One outcome of these research findings has been the development of professional management tools such as the Volunteer Functions Inventory. The VFI is designed to measure volunteer motivations in six distinct psychological areas:values, understanding, career, social, esteem, and protective (Clary, Snyder, & Ridge, 1992). Each area is assigned a score based upon the volunteer’s responses to a survey. Assessment of these scores helps volunteer managers optimize three areas of volunteer management: recruitment, placement, and retention (Clary et al., 1992, p.23)
In summary, research surrounding volunteers and their management has shown that strategic volunteer management results in beneficial outcomes, which, in turn, serve as indicators of organizational effectiveness in managing volunteers. Tools such as best practices or the VFI are all situation-specific and address the volunteer experience in a piecemeal fashion. Lacking is a more systematic and holistic approach to measuring effectiveness that can be applied to a variety of volunteer management situations and organizations. 

Conceptual Framework

Any implementation of volunteer management strategies requires both a determination of how well the volunteer program will work, and the impact of management changes on overall effectiveness. Could a model correlating employee management and organizational performance in a business environment be useful and appropriate for measuring volunteer management in a non-profit, natural-resource based recreation environment? We propose a holistic measurement of effectiveness by adapting an existing evaluation framework (Ramlall 2003) that has been designed to assess the effectiveness of human resource management strategies. Specifically, Ramlall (2003) notes a strong correlation between management of paid employees and the overall performance of the organization. It seems logical, then, to assume that this correlation will also apply to the management of volunteers and the performance of the non-profit organization.

Ramlall’s (2003) framework is organized into human resource activities (HR management clusters) and their associated outcomes. This framework can be applied to the management of volunteers by assigning each of the six volunteer management best practices from the literature - described above - to a relevant Human Resource (HR) management cluster in Table 1, and assessing the associated outcomes. For example, the best practice involving the creation of job descriptions can most appropriately be linked to the management cluster “acquisition of employees”, because the outcomes are relevant to both volunteer and employee management. Furthermore, the outcomes associated with successful acquisition of employees – short period of time to hire, effective contribution of new hires, adequate number of qualified applicants – are appropriate when applied to the recruitment of volunteers. Hence, adequate volunteer job descriptions can result in the successful acquisition of an effective volunteer workforce.

To craft an even better fit, however, between Ramlall’s model and the other best practices, some modifications to his framework are necessary. Each of the seven management clusters and their associated outcomes must be modified to transition the model from a corporate, business standpoint to a non-profit, volunteer, trail management perspective. This transition can be accomplished by removing outcomes that do not apply to volunteers, such as those associated with hiring, customer service, and financial remuneration. Consistent with the volunteer literature (Brudney, 1999; Ellis, 1996; McCurley & Lynch, 1996) , terminology was chosen to better reflect the volunteer context that we are trying to assess. The resulting modifications of Ramlall’s framework are displayed in Table 1:

Table 1: Modification of Ramlall’s Effectiveness Model with Modified Outcomes Based on the Volunteer Management Literature

Management Cluster
Original Human Resource Outcome
Modified Volunteer Outcome

1. Strategic Planning
a) Analysis, decisions, and actions needed to create and sustain competitive advantage
a) Analysis, decisions, and actions needed to create and sustain a functional volunteer program

2. Acquisition of Employees
a) Effective contribution of new employees to business strategy implementation, b) Planning process, advertising, and recruitment sources support business strategy, c) Interviews effective in selecting right candidates
a) “Effective contribution” of new volunteers, b) “planning process, advertising, and recruitment sources” should fit the organization’s management strategy 

3. Training & Development
a) Positive change in attitude of participants, b) Increased expertise in areas applicable to job, c) Opportunities to practice newly acquired skills on the job, d) Support from peers, supervisors, and others in using knowledge gained 
a) Increased expertise in areas applicable to job, b) opportunities to practice newly acquired skills on the job, c) support from peers, supervisors, and others in using knowledge gained

4. Organizational Change & Development
a) Higher levels of productivity, quality of products and services, b) Positive change in responsiveness in meeting customer needs, c) Culture reflects organization and supports business strategy, d) Fluid organization structures
a) Higher levels of productivity, b) quality of work performed, c) fluid organizational structures 

5. Performance Management
a) Each position and task supports strategic business objectives, b) Effective process for maximizing performance
a) Each volunteer “position and task supports strategic objectives, b) effective process for maximizing performance

6. Reward System
a) Reward system motivates increased performance, b) Incentives provided to achieve individual and organizational behaviors aligned with business strategies and investments
a) reward system motivates increased performance

7. Organization Behavior & Theory
a) Employee behaviors reflect desired organizational culture and alignment with business strategy
a) Behaviors reflect desired organizational culture and alignment with organizational strategy
Research questions
It has been suggested that non-profit, trail management organizations rely heavily on their volunteer workforce (Hardy, Larose, & Rose, 2003). Furthermore, formal implementation of theoretical best practices for volunteer management has yet to be considered in the context of these non-profit trail organizations. The modified Ramlall framework (Table 1) could fill this gap by creating a model designed to measure the effectiveness of volunteer programs using best practices as a resource for trail managers. Therefore, this research attempts to answer the following questions:

1) What is the extent to which a non-profit trail management organization has adopted and implemented best practices for managing volunteers?
2) Is the suggested modification to Ramlall’s model relevant to this trail organization in terms of its ability to assess the effectiveness of its volunteer program?

Although trail organizations such as the one in this study typically rely more heavily upon volunteers than their federal counterparts such as the National Park Service or U.S. Forest Service, the lessons learned will be of use to managers and coordinators of volunteers throughout the public and private sectors, in addition to profit and non-profit organizations. 


Since the extent to which the best practices outlined in the research literature may be interpreted differently by different individuals, a traditional quantitative methodology consisting of a survey, for example, may overlook important categorical distinctions (Henderson, 2006). In comparison, qualitative interview data better illuminate the way trail organizations manage volunteers, and the relationships between management strategies and theoretical best practices. Therefore, the methodology for this project consisted of in-depth interviews and event observation in a case study context. The case study approach entails the investigation, development, and analysis of a social unit within the context of a specific case (Creswell, 1998; Mitchell, 1983). Inferences from the case material are based not upon numerical representativeness, but rather upon analytical validity (Mitchell, 1983). Thorough case studies within a social unit take place over time through detailed, in-depth data collection involving multiple sources of information rich in context (Creswell, 1998).

Our case study was conducted within a non-profit trail-management organization, located in the upper Midwest, during the spring of 2004. From hereon, the organization (i.e., the social unit for this study) will be referred to as the Midwest Trail Society (MTS – a pseudonym), and the trail which they maintain will be referred to as the Midwest Trail. The trail runs through seven states, covering roughly 4,000 miles. The MTS is organized with a national office of eight staff members, with regional chapters located throughout the seven states. These chapters are run by individuals (volunteers themselves) who are tasked with a variety of responsibilities including event coordination, fundraising, landowner relations, advertising, and management of other volunteers. These volunteer managers were the subjects of the interviews. The MTS was a good fit for this project because they are a local (and easily accessed) agency representative of other non-profit trail management organizations (i.e., the Green Mountain Club or the Appalachian Trail Conference).

Fourteen interview participants were identified using a purposeful sampling technique. This strategy entails deliberately selecting settings, persons, or events for the important information they can provide (Maxwell, 1998; Patton, 1990). For this study, identification of the participants took place during discussions with the Director of Trail Management within the Midwest Trails Society. In order to develop a more complete understanding of the regional nature of the various chapters within the Midwest Trails Society, it was decided to contact at least one individual from each of the seven states through which the Midwest Trail runs. Ten interviews were conducted, with four participants abstaining because of time constraints.

The discussions were semi-structured. While free to explore tangents and other angles which came about during the course of the discussion, the discussions focused on a central set of questions. These starting questions revolved around the participant’s background with the organization, the volunteer management framework they were familiar with (if any), their philosophies regarding volunteers, and examples of volunteer events which they had overseen. The discussions lasted between 40 minutes and two hours and, with participant consent, were tape recorded and transcribed.

To observe examples of volunteer management in action, one researcher attended and participated in four volunteer events organized by the local chapter of the Midwest Trails Society. These events encompassed spring-time trail construction and maintenance of portions of the Midwest Trail, and were advertised on the chapter’s web site. Participation was open to any and all interested individuals. Researcher observations were recorded as field notes, which allowed the researcher to both corroborate observations, made during analysis of the interviews, and determine if the volunteer events were conducted in a manner consistent with what the managers were describing.

To analyze the data, the process of categorical aggregation was applied to the interview transcripts and field notes from the volunteer events. Specifically, categorical aggregation was achieved by the assignment of a code to facilitate the analysis and review of data. This coding allowed the researcher to determine whether or not responses and observations contained any elements which could relate to the theoretical ‘best practices’. Responses dealing specifically with a best practice were assigned a best practice code (BP1 to BP7), while other themes were assigned different codes depending on the nature of the response. Responses could also be assigned a combination of codes. For example, after an interview participant stated “I can’t give anybody orders here” in response to a question regarding volunteer management strategies, the response was coded “BP4”, in reference to the best practice relating to the support function of a manager. Additionally, a code of “Philosophy” was assigned, as the response indicates some measure of the manager’s personal philosophy regarding volunteer management.

Each interview transcript received two reviews. The first review was performed independently by one researcher, with the second being an evaluation of the first by the other researcher. Coding changes or discrepancies identified in the second review were discussed until agreement was reached before incorporating the data into the final analysis.

In order to carry out this final thematic analysis, an ethnographic approach was employed to identify major themes. The themes were identified by their tendency to emerge from discussion responses, as evidenced by the coding process. The use of computer software for analysis was avoided, as the object of the interviews was to observe underlying themes and ideas regarding volunteer management, rather than draw conclusions regarding the surface meaning of the words themselves (Dutcher et al., 2004).

The information gathered from the interview questions was also used to determine if the modifications to Ramlall’s framework made sense. This was accomplished by evaluating the extent to which the best practices help achieve the modified outcomes in the context of the MTS. Specifically, the researchers employed a typological analysis to establish the relationship of each ‘best practice’ from the volunteer management literature to a human resource management cluster within the new framework (Table 1). If the best practice could be assigned to a management cluster, it was deemed a useful measurement of effectiveness.

The categorical judgments relating a best practice to a management cluster resulted from “convergence and recurring regularities” (Henderson, 2006, p. 146) between the data and the outcomes identified in the revised model. In other words, if it was revealed during the interviews that the creation of, say, job descriptions helped volunteers make an “effective contribution” to the organization’s management strategy, then the best practice of job descriptions was considered an indicator of the modified outcome. To continue the example, the best practice of job descriptions would then be considered to fit the framework as an appropriate measure of effectiveness.

Results and Discussion
For the purposes of clarity, a visual representation of the decision-making hierarchy of the MTS is useful (Figure 1). Throughout this section, the various levels of the organization will be referred to as Paid Staff, Volunteer Managers, or Volunteers.
Figure 1: Organizational Structure of the Midwest Trail Society

Figure 1
A closer look at the individuals who populate the organization reveals a wide variety of experiences and history. The Paid Staff, not surprisingly, had more previous educational and work experience with environmental education, management, and land use than the Volunteer Managers. Specifically, Paid Staff reported prior experience in land use planning, land acquisition, volunteer and partnership support, real estate appraisal, and strategic planning. The opportunity to apply this experience in a professional setting led them to work for the MTS.

Volunteer Managers, on the other hand, reported previous experience in a much broader segment of the workforce, including the military, tourism, and corporate business environments. Many of them reported finding themselves in their current position as Volunteer Managers somewhat by accident, beginning with a basic love for hiking and the outdoors, and evolving into a gradual acceptance of greater levels of responsibility. While not quantitatively measured, observation and discussion revealed that most Volunteer Managers were over forty years of age and possessed a college education.

To what extent has the organization implemented best practices?

This question was answered using semi-structured, qualitative interviews and analysis to investigate the volunteer management strategies of the Midwest Trail Society. Based upon analysis of these interviews and accompanying participant observation, each of the six best practices identified in the literature was categorized as either ‘implemented’, or ‘not implemented’ (Table 2):

Table 2: Summary of Implementation of Best Practices

Not Implemented 

1) Commitment to volunteer program
3) Job descriptions
2) Written policies

4) Support from manager to volunteer

5) Empowerment

6) Evaluation and reward

The evidence supporting our finding that best practices 1,2,4,5, and 6 have been implemented by the MTS is fairly straightforward. For instance, the implementation of best practice #1, detailing institutional commitment to the volunteer program, was revealed in the interviews with the Volunteer Managers:

“I’ve never had a problem getting help when I’ve called MTS headquarters down to Lowell.”

“Yes we’ve had guidelines and support, brochures and that kind of stuff.”
There was universal agreement that the MTS provides support in terms of event materials, answering questions, and other forms of general support. Since the data revealed a structure of governance within the MTS that flows from a board of directors, down to Paid Staff and Volunteer Managers, it is evident that this ‘best practice’ was implemented intentionally.

Additionally, the idea that volunteers need to be developed through training and teaching (best practice #5) was a strong and clear theme throughout the interviews. It was evident throughout the data that the managers take this task very seriously:“I think that the volunteers are the, you know, the number one commodity that any of these organizations have and that the volunteers really need to be nurtured and you know, kind of brought along. You got to kind of gauge people and see, you know, what their willingness to be involved is and, you know, you don’t want to overwhelm people and if you ask too much at the wrong time, you’ll scare them off.”

Throughout the MTS, it is evident that the Volunteer Managers are aware of the importance of nurturing volunteers, and the steps they take to ensure empowerment were clear and evident. Furthermore, participant observation in trail events revealed that volunteers do indeed become better workers as a result of this empowerment.

As the only best practice found not to be implemented by the MTS, the creation of job descriptions (best practice #3) deserves a closer look. The job description “defines the role, relationships, responsibilities, obligations, content, power, and privileges of a volunteer position” (Heidrich, 1990, p.79).

Job descriptions can also be used for recruiting purposes (Brudney, 1999). However, recruiting is a challenge for the MTS. In the words of one Volunteer Manager:

“It is something that I think we don’t do a good enough job, frankly, of attracting willing workers. That’s one of the things we’d like to improve. I don’t think the MTS does much better.”

This problem can be traced to extent to which the MTS provides job descriptions to help potential volunteers understand the nature and scope of the work required. At the chapter level, evidence of comprehensive job descriptions was inconsistent. A job description is comprehensive when it specifically describes the nature of the position, the scope of work required, and encourages the volunteer to get in touch with a chapter representative to find out more. Table 3 provides examples of two types of job descriptions found in one chapter’s informational pamphlet:

Table 3: Sample Job Descriptions


Work Hikes: light brush cutting, trail tread repairs, installing markers and signs

Trail Steward: "adopt" your very own trail section to love and maintain!

This inconsistency was discovered throughout most of the chapters. Interviews with Volunteer Managers who coordinated volunteer events and activities revealed that in most cases, when people expressed an interest in participating, the leader of the event would simply “lay it out for them” and let people decide for themselves which tasks to participate in.

It should be noted, however, that this practice does not necessarily produce poor results in terms of accomplished work. Volunteer Managers felt that oftentimes, people were more interested in a day outside and less interested in what was required of them. Therefore, they could afford to provide informal job descriptions.

“Whoever shows up at a work party, they give a safety lecture at the beginning and a person that’s never been there before, they usually tag him on to somebody that’s more experienced and say, you know, stay with him today and he’ll tell you what to do. Learn by doing.”

Furthermore, participant observation revealed that people who arrived at volunteer events did not seem to be discouraged by the ambiguity surrounding what was to be done. It was observed that people gladly participated in any task which was asked as long as it was in line with their physical capabilities.

The various chapters of Midwest Trail Society do not have in place a consistent framework for providing comprehensive job descriptions. This lack of implementation does not seem to be intentional, however. The Director of Trail Management described why the MTS has avoided job descriptions:

“The number of job descriptions has been purposely kept to a minimum and that reason being, most of the people that volunteer with Midwest Trail Society do a multiplicity of tasks. So while you may be the state board liaison, you may also be the chief stamp licker.”

Ultimately, the lack of comprehensive job descriptions is appropriate for the MTS. Therefore, even though it is not implemented, this best practice should remain in our model because it reflects a major difference between volunteering and paid employment. This suggests that the modification of Ramlall’s framework should incorporate differences between paid and unpaid workers by, for example, reducing the importance of job descriptions and increasing the importance of ensuring volunteer satisfaction with their day on the trail.

Are the modifications to Ramlall’s model relevant in terms of effectiveness? 

As noted earlier, each of Ramlall’s seven human resource management clusters and their outcomes can be modified to transition the model from a corporate, business standpoint to a non-profit, volunteer, trail management perspective (Table 1). To determine the relevance of such modifications, each best practice from the volunteer management literature was compared to a human resource management cluster within the modified framework. If the best practice could be assigned to a management cluster, it demonstrated that the practice helped achieve the modified outcomes. If this relationship could not be determined, then the modifications were deemed irrelevant.

Best Practice One: The best practice of securing commitment to a volunteer program from higher levels helped achieve the outcomes associated with the Strategic Planning (#1) and Organizational Behavior and Theory (#7) clusters in the adapted model (Table 1). Specifically, securing commitment from higher levels of the organization is in tune with a strategic planning outcome that necessitates “analys[e]s, decisions, and actions needed to create and sustain” a functional volunteer program (Ramlall, 2003, p.61).

In terms of the MTS, the data revealed that support and commitment from the Paid Staff in Lowell helps Volunteer Managers ensure that their programs will be consistent with established organizational cultures and strategies. A good example of how this support enhances the strategic planning initiatives of the organization involves the development of a workshop to assist Volunteer Managers with land issues:

“We are tailoring a workshop. It is going to be called, Land and Trails Workshop. In that workshop, the first in a series, it is going to take place in New York, then move down to Pennsylvania, then come to western Michigan and we’ll go around the seven states, like a road show. It will be kind of onsite two-day training and when they walk out of there, they will be fully trained on the various aspects of land negotiations and conservation easements and all of that kind of fun real estate stuff and legal stuff and they will also walk out of there with a handbook at the end of the training and a badge.” 

Best Practice Two: The best practice of having formal, written procedures to govern the operation of a volunteer program helped achieve the outcomes associated with the Strategic Planning (#1) and Performance Management (#5) clusters within the adapted model (Table 1). Written policies and procedures are one example of the “integration in all areas of the organization” that is a trademark of successful strategic planning (Ramlall, 2003, p.61). Additionally, written policies and procedures available to a manager can aid performance management by facilitating the development of processes which maximizing performance (Ramlall, 2003).

The interviews further suggest that written procedures will enhance planning and management within the organization, because they can create consistency among chapters in regards to volunteer management policy. For example, the MTS provides Volunteer Managers with a publication to ensure consistent fundraising practices, regardless of the experience of the volunteer:

“We have additional resources that are available through the Lowell headquarters and the thing that comes to mind right now was a publication that we circulated and put out that was called, you know, Easy Money. And this was 101 ways, so-to-speak, of how to raise funds and how to organize people to raise funds at the chapter level. And it is generic in that it is something that could be given to the lowliest of brand new volunteers. It could also be given to one of our more sophisticated presidents or treasurers and at the same time, is not exclusive to a chapter, but rather could be used by a state council to do pretty much the same thing.” 

If every chapter is familiar and comfortable with the formal procedures, the resulting consistency can foster long-term strategic planning and ensure that the work being carried out supports the mission of the MTS.

Best Practice Three: The best practice of creating comprehensive job descriptions was an important element in achieving the outcomes associated with the Acquisition of Employees (#2) cluster (Table 1). Job descriptions which clearly lay out the responsibilities of the volunteer position will ensure not only the volunteer’s happiness, but will also contribute to reduced volunteer turnover, a larger pool of volunteers, and higher levels of performance from those volunteers (Ramlall, 2003).

In the case of the MTS, however, it was not worthwhile to implement job descriptions beyond those already in place for short-term projects and work trips. Many managers indicated that volunteers “just want to spend a day on the trail” and “don’t really care what they do” and are already familiar with the type of work that is performed during a project or work outing. When new volunteers arrive who are unfamiliar with the nature of the work, the managers felt any confusion could be overcome by spending time with the volunteer or closely observing their work. Participant observation revealed that the volunteers shared this sentiment, as first-time volunteers were observed to be willing to tackle any necessary task, as long as it was consistent with their physical abilities.

Best Practice Four: The best practice of providing support to volunteers achieves the outcomes associated with the Training and Development (#3), Organizational Change and Development (#4), and Organizational Behavior and Theory (#7) clusters in the modified model (Table 1). Support, in this case, can consist of an orientation to the organizational culture, or logistical support such as directions to events.

Providing support to volunteers is a perfect example of a Training and Development approach involving “support from peers, supervisors and others”, which may affect the attitude of participants (Ramlall, 2003, p.61). In terms of Organizational Change and Development, the support provided by managers can ensure the enhanced productivity and quality that the organization seeks (Ramlall, 2003). Finally, support from manager to volunteer can help the organization achieve consistency in terms of culture and strategy, which is the primary outcome of the Organizational Behavior and Theory cluster (Ramlall, 2003).

In terms of the MTS, this best practice is a useful tool because not only are chapter managers the primary means of keeping the volunteer program functioning, but also their support enhances worker productivity along the trail. In addition, the support of managers maintains the organization. As one manager stated, “it is surprising how much you can accomplish that way with retaining membership and getting people interested.”

Best Practice Five: The best practice of empowering volunteers through teaching and training achieves the outcomes associated with the Training and Development (#3) cluster (Table 1) (Ramlall, 2003). The process of nurturing volunteers will contribute to a “positive change in attitude”, “increased expertise”, and enhanced “opportunities to practice newly acquired skills on the job” (Ramlall, 2003, p.61).

In the case of the MTS, this best practice is essential, since, as several managers stated, “without volunteers there is no trail”. Assuring that volunteers are empowered through education and training improves not only the performance of the individual, but the processes of trail maintenance and the health of the organization as well (Ramlall, 2003).

On the other hand, Volunteer Managers were concerned with a significant pitfall inherent to empowering volunteers:

“It’s called the 80/20 rule. 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work. In any organization you tend to find that a small number of people, the cadre does most of the work, the planning and the execution.”

In addition to the care that must be taken to ensure that a select few are not being saddled with a disproportionate share of the work, managers need to be aware of changing volunteer expectations that result from empowerment. Psychological contracts, which are “informal, unwritten, mutually independent sets of expectations” (Propst et al., 2004, p.397) between volunteers and organizations, are often violated as managers are not always aware of volunteer expectations (Propst & Bentley, 2000).

Best Practice Six: The best practice of implementing a system of observation, evaluation, and praise was determined to achieve the outcomes within the Reward System (#6) and Performance Management (#5) clusters (Table 1). Having in place a reward system for volunteers is the primary method for “motivat[ing] increased performance” (Ramlall, 2003, p.61). Furthermore, observation and evaluation can be an “effective process for maximizing performance” (Ramlall, 2003, p.61). It should be noted that in in in in this context, evaluation refers to the evaluation of the work performed by the volunteer and not a global evaluation of the overall volunteer program, which would use a different metric such as the number of hours worked or the miles of trail built by volunteers.

For the MTS, the reasons for having a system in place to reward volunteers is obvious, since, as one manager stated, “none of it would be possible without the volunteers.”It is important to note, however, that care must be taken during the evaluation process because the feedback sometimes “carries connotations of ‘being judged’ and seems to question the volunteer’s ‘gift’ or donation of time” (Brudney, 1999, p239). The managers are aware of this, however. As one noted, “Obviously, you don’t go out and beat ‘em over the head. You are not going to have too many people if you do that.” Additionally, there is some question regarding how much reward volunteers are actually looking for in cases where the volunteers consider their work to be a civic duty (Propst, et al., 2004).

The synergy between the goals of the MTS, and the outcomes of the adapted model, initially revealed that the modifications were appropriate. Analysis of the data gathered through interviews and participant observation demonstrated that the MTS has purposefully implemented management strategies specifically designed to maximize the impact of its volunteer workforce, and that those strategies achieved outcomes similar to those in the modified model (Table 1). Thus, assessing the outcomes of the modified model in Table 1 is an appropriate way to measure effectiveness. Had the data shown that the management strategies of the MTS focused on non-volunteer areas, such as employee relations, government regulations, or customer service, the modifications to Ramlall’s model would not have been appropriate.


Many of the organizations involved with the management of recreation trails would not exist without the work of volunteers. Therefore, having some sort of carefully considered framework in place to see that their work is efficiently and effectively managed is crucial. This analysis has shown that best practices can serve as that framework. First, implementation of best practices can help a trail management organization better manage its volunteer workforces. The Midwest Trail Society, through the work of dedicated individuals at the chapter and national level, has adopted and implemented five of the six best practices for managing volunteers as recommended in the literature. It was clear through interviews with enthusiastic managers and observation of smoothly-run volunteer events that the use of these best practices is helping the MTS achieve its mission – the maintenance and protection of the Midwest Trail.

Additionally, the role of best practices can be broadened to include their use as tools to achieve effectiveness outcomes. This research has shown that an existing model designed to measure the effectiveness of human resource management in a business context can be modified to measure the effectiveness of volunteer management in a non-profit context. Specifically, Ramlall’s management clusters and their associated outcomes were modified to transition his model from a business-based standpoint to a non-profit, volunteer, trail management perspective. These modifications included the removal of outcomes associated with hiring, customer service, and financial remuneration and instead adapting? terminology to better reflect the volunteer function. Since the best practices outlined by the literature helped achieve the outcomes of each modified cluster, the modification to Ramlall’s model was appropriate (Table 4).
Table 4: Relationship of Best Practices to Ramlall’s Management Clusters
Management Cluster
Modified Volunteer Outcome
Volunteer Best Practice

1. Strategic Planning
a) Analysis, decisions, and actions needed to create and sustain a functional volunteer program
1) Commit to volunteer program 2) Provide written policies to govern the program

2. Acquisition of Employees
a) “Effective contribution” of new volunteers, b) “Planning process, advertising, and recruitment sources” should fit the organization’s management strategy 
3) Create job descriptions

3. Training & Development
a) Increased expertise in areas applicable to job, b) Opportunities to practice newly acquired skills on the job, c) Support from peers, supervisors, and others in using knowledge gained
4) Provide support activities 5) Empowerment

4. Organizational Change & Development
a) Higher levels of productivity, b) quality of work performed, c) fluid organizational structures 
4) Provide support activities

5. Performance Management
a) Each volunteer “position and task supports strategic objectives, b) Effective process for maximizing performance
2) Provide written policies to govern the program

6. Reward System
a) Reward system motivates increased performance
6) Evaluation of work performed

7. Organization Behavior & Theory
a) Behaviors reflect desired organizational culture and alignment with organizational strategy
1) Commit to volunteer program 4) Provide support activities 6) Evaluation of work performed

The fact that this modified model aligned so well with the MTS effectiveness strategies indicates that it may also be appropriate for other recreation organizations that rely on substantial volunteer input. 

The data revealed that the MTS had not implemented the best practice involving job descriptions. While a lack of specific job descriptions may pose problems (in terms of efficiency or legality) for other types of volunteer organizations, the MTS had organization-specific reasons why job descriptions were not put into practice. This indicates that managers of volunteers in organizations like the MTS should hand-craft any implementation of best practices to fit their specific situation. They can accomplish this through formalization and periodic evaluation of policy within a larger framework designed to measure the effectiveness of the volunteer program. For example, the MTS is continually evaluating the status of its volunteer workforce, using software tools such as Donor Soft to catalogue activity and measure trends, giving it the power to adjust volunteer management strategies accordingly.This research does not intend to present the literature-driven theoretical best practices as all-inclusive. For example, organizations could consider alternative best practices such as the solicitation of feedback from volunteers, or the construction of a formal budget to manage the volunteer program (Brudney, 1999). Furthermore, the act of ensuring communication between different levels of the organization could be a best practice, along with understanding the motivations of the volunteers themselves. Managers who are tasked with caring for a volunteer workforce should be encouraged to seek out new ideas, test new concepts, and develop their own best practices. Each organization is faced with its own specific situation and its own set of challenges, and only through continued experimentation and research can the concept of best practices be applied to as many different situations as possible.

Additional research in this area should increase the focus on small, non-profit trail management organizations. These groups accomplish much with very little, and the stories, backgrounds, and histories of their members are fascinating. The recreation, natural resource and nonprofit management professions have much to learn from these dynamic organizations.

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