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How To Make Your Tree Planting Event Successful For Volunteers
May 3, 2016

Men and women workers shoveling compost material (Courtesy of Greenpop)
Volunteers at Greenpop’s Zambia Festival of Action 2015 prepare compost for tree planting. (Courtesy of Greenpop)

If you have accepted the Earth Day challenge to help plant 7.8 billion trees by 2020, thank you! But you may have questions like ‘How do I start?’ or ‘What do I need?’ Fortunately, Misha Teasdale and Lauren O’Donnell, the South African founders of Greenpop, and some of your fellow YALI Network members are able to help with some tips and things to consider as you plan your event for volunteers.

Greenpop learned from their 81-year-old director of Trees in Zambia that the first questions you should ask yourself are “what, where and why.”

  • Is your ultimate goal to provide shade, fertilizer, a future harvest, reforestation or something else? The answer helps inform where you want to plant and what type of trees.
  • If personal or private land is unavailable, try municipal locations like schools, hospitals or prisons. The most important consideration is to find a place where people are willing to take responsibility to look after the trees and provide them with water and security after they have been planted.
  • As an example, YALI Network member and Green Champion Umar Gambo Adamu worked with a local Nigerian NGO and found a newly built secondary school that needed both shade and beautification.
  • You may be able to get free trees from your local government, especially when they have their own tree-planting events because they may have extras from their project or from the municipal nursery. You can also try local growers for free or discounted trees. Umar said he surveyed his local market before deciding upon a local botanic garden that would also provide him with grass and flowers to plant among his trees.
  • Try to get trees that have already grown past the seedling stage, since they will be much stronger and will have a better chance of survival.

Make it fun and you will have no problem finding volunteers. You can initially reach out to friends, family and local organizations to help. Network member and Green Champion Petronilla Odhiambo said his project has attracted both church members and school members by offering side activities, free drinks and dancing. Bring musicians to entertain while people are working. Greenpop’s founders have used their projects not only to appeal to those looking for something tangible to do about climate change, but also to people who have never seen townships or met communities near the planting sites, helping to bridge traditional social divisions as part of their environmental activities.

For the work itself, “start small,” advises Greenpop, “especially if you are new at this.” When Teasdale and O’Donnell first began, they had a project with 1,000 trees in mind. The first day, they managed to plant only five, and finally reached their goal after a month of work. Now, with much more experience both planting and mobilizing volunteers, they are very efficient. Their current record is 7,000 trees in one day, with the help of 400 people. But here are some things they learned along the way:

  • Your work will be affected by factors such as the weather, the quality of the soil and how well you have organized your volunteer force in advance.
  • Hot and sunny weather is always exhausting. Make sure you have a refreshment station in the shade, with plenty of water and sunblock for volunteers, and ask them to bring a good hat and a pair of gloves. If this will be an all-day project, bring food for them as well.
  • Make sure your tools and trees are already on-site so the volunteers can get straight to work rather than have to wait around for them to arrive.
  • Hard soil may require pickaxes to break up. Other recommended tools are spades/shovels, wheelbarrows, buckets for water, rice or burlap sacks to hold compost, pitchforks and rakes. Keep track of your tools — they are expensive!
  • Bring ropes and stakes or some other means of supporting and protecting the trees after they are planted.
  • You will want to mark the area you plant as a separate space. You can use rocks or even reuse trash and gather it into piles to help set the area apart.
  • Organize your volunteers in advance. Some can be digging while others are bringing compost and others are planting the trees. It is more efficient than having everyone try to do all the tasks. Group leaders can ensure a standardized approach and quality control that will help make the area more attractive once you have finished.

Lastly, before everyone leaves, make sure your volunteers know how important their work is. “People need to understand the local and global value of what they did so they feel valuable,” said Greenpop’s O’Donnell. “People want to help, but they need to know what they are doing.”

Good luck and keep us posted with your work!