How to Co-create with Permaculture Volunteers

Nina Kay
Thursday, 10th December 2020

Nina Kay shares six useful tips for working and co-creating with volunteers on a permaculture project.

We spent a number of years volunteering at an assortment of permaculture projects before Dan began managing a permaculture project himself in 2017, at Ta Paranui. Since managing the small-scale farm, he has had to run a project which has had contributions from over three-hundred volunteers and growing, from different walks of life and with a vast array of skills. For Dan, co-creating the permaculture project with volunteers has been by far the biggest challenge and the most rewarding. 

Dan’s keen interest in leadership and Jungian psychology impacts on the way he works with volunteers, with the overall intention of creating a project that he and the many volunteers can be proud of. Drawing from his experience as a permaculture project manager and from volunteering at over fifteen sites across the world, the list below are Dan’s top recommendations, to co-create with volunteers to establish your permaculture project. 

We hope that this can help those permaculturists who often struggle with hosting volunteers. Be it that they find they are giving more than receiving, are not able to connect with volunteers properly, struggle to express what it is they need and in the end feel like they should have just done it alone. 

Number 1: Co-create instead of manage 

If you are able to shift your mindset from leading and managing your permaculture project, to co-creating a project with others - the benefits can be boundless. This allows for more creativity to flow and offers new perspectives that may have not been realised before, if the project was only led by one or two people. Remember that you are hosting volunteers because you cannot do it all by yourself. Trust in yourself and in others, that your project will grow and go just where it needs to be. 

Number 2: Look after yourself

It benefits you, your project and the volunteers if you are not stressed and burnt out. Make sure you take time in your day to be alone to plan where it is you’d like to go with your project and make sure to allow yourself breaks between hosting groups of volunteers. Working with a host who is unsure of the tasks they are trying to achieve or are trying to achieve too many things at once, can be overwhelming for volunteers and often leads to volunteers feeling like no matter what their contribution, it was not valuable. Having time to reflect, and re-evaluate where your project is at every so often will give you the foresight for where you would like your project to go next. Which leads us onto the next point... 


Number 3: Share your vision 

If you are setting up a permaculture site, you have to have a design. What is permaculture without your design? Obviously the design will be changed and adapted over time but it is important for yourself and those coming through your site to have something to work with. The very first thing to introduce to your volunteers is the vision for the space and the project’s ultimate goals and objectives. Having a holistic design with maps, sector analysis and strategy is a great way to introduce what you are hoping to achieve and will allow volunteers the opportunity to understand where the work they will be carrying out will fit into the bigger picture. 

The vision (as well as design) does not have to be yours alone, and hopefully will be transformed over time while you are co-creating with your volunteers. So how do you do this? 

Number 4: Get to know your volunteers

The best place to start on your journey towards co-creating, is by getting to know your volunteers. Knowing what their interests and skills are as well as what they are uncomfortable doing or have no experience in, are a good foundation. When you have new volunteers come in, have a fun introduction session between everyone on site so that they can become familiar with each other. Getting to know each other opens up channels for communication. A daily technique Dan uses is a Morning Circle. The aim of the morning circle is to be fun, non-work related and always kicks off with a little game. After the game, each person has a turn to share something positive they are experiencing, followed by something they are finding challenging or negative and then something positive again. Morning circles generally last no more than 15 minutes (but can last much longer if there is a breakthrough in connection and communication), get everyone energised and connected with each other, and give the volunteers an opportunity to share and be listened to. It also provides the opportunity for volunteers to get to know you more, besides from your work on the project. After the morning circle is a great time to have a brief strategy meeting for what tasks each person will be carrying out that day.

A permablitz taking place in New Zealand

Number 5: Let go and share responsibility

From introductions and morning circles, it is likely you may now know your volunteers a little bit and are able to gauge which task individual volunteers will enjoy doing, to contribute to the overall project. Have a sit down all together, and discuss the current goals you are focusing on, and specific tasks which need to be carried out to obtain that goal. Remember to keep it as a discussion, instead of an instruction. Allow everyone to decide what mini-project they would like to manage and carry out, and then it is your turn to let it go and see where the volunteers will take the project. If each volunteer is managing a mini-project, it will give them added purpose and allow them to use their creativity and problem solving skills, which may not have happened if they were told exactly what to do. If the volunteers are a bit uncertain of the role they would like to do, have them identify their strengths and weaknesses, areas they feel comfortable working in and new roles they would like to try out. This will help narrow down the tasks which will be most suited to them. 

At Dan’s farm, they have a Project Book, which includes mini-projects which are happening on the farm, with project guides written by past volunteers. This is a great tool to use for new volunteers to see how projects were created and evolved over-time and allows them to identify gaps.

Number 6: Take time to teach 

Most often, volunteers who are coming to live and work at a permaculture project are coming to learn something and want to be inspired. The more you are able to teach what you know about permaculture, the more interested and inspired your volunteers will be. Giving full responsibility to the volunteers to manage their respective projects does not mean you will not be involved in the projects they are undertaking. It is more likely than not that they will be drawing from your expertise often, and that you will be co-creating something together. The importance in co-creating, is that there is dialogue and easy, open communication where you and the volunteers can learn from each other. 

To summarise

In essence, if you are hosting volunteers it is important to always keep it in the back of your mind that your project is as important to them, as it is to you. Do not stress if things are not happening as quickly as you would like them to; happy, creative and communicative volunteers are far better than volunteers that have their heads down, only carrying out what they are asked to do. 

Look after yourself, look after your volunteers and happy co-creating! 

Nina Kay and Dan de Klerk, from Nomadic Permaculture ([email protected] 

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