Volunteers are the lifeblood of any nonprofit organization. The Balboa Park Conservancy is no different. In fact, until the late 1980s, the organization that operated the House of Hospitality building (and eventually merged with the Conservancy*) had very few paid staff members. The House of Hospitality saw constant use from 1915, when it was built as a temporary structure, until it was reconstructed in the late 1990s. The successful maintenance of one of the most beloved and well-used facilities in Balboa Park for so many decades can certainly be attributed to its hard-working staff, but also to the careful stewardship of a cadre of dedicated volunteer boards.
The most visible example of invaluable, unpaid service within the Conservancy is seen on the front lines of the Balboa Park Visitors Center, established by the Junior League of San Diego in the 1940s. Since that time, including during the building’s reconstruction, thousands of Visitors Center volunteers have greeted and answered the questions of millions of visitors from around the world, introducing them to the cultural and recreational wonders of Balboa Park. Last year alone, they served more than 500,000 visitors, with a volunteer corps of 66 individuals donating more than $200,000 worth of volunteer time.
In 2013, the Conservancy began merging with Balboa Park Central, expanding the Balboa Park Conservancy’s mandate as the city’s private partner in developing and accomplishing major park projects. With an estimated backlog of $350 million in unfunded park needs, we had a huge task in front of us and needed to broaden and expand our volunteer base, as well as professional staff, to help identify significant sources of funding, advocate for park needs in the community and with government officials, manage our own park projects as they came online, and collaborate with Park and Recreation staff and other park organizations on their projects.
A few years ago, a Points of Light national Service Enterprise Initiative, which combines best practices in volunteer support and management with tailored training and consulting, was introduced to San Diego. Conservancy board member Connie Matsui learned about the program and helped secure a grant to participate. The Conservancy then seized the opportunity to send a small and highly collaborative group of staff and volunteers, along with other nonprofit leadership teams, for in-depth training in spring 2016. According to Connie, that experience was “thought provoking and enlightening, encompassing both longer-term strategy and operational priorities.”
As a result, a group of board members, with Visitors Center staff and volunteers, formed a Volunteer Engagement Task Force to see how we might better recruit, train, manage, and reward our volunteers. Board member Glenn Rossman took on the role of chairperson after attending the Service Enterprise training. He is ideally suited for the role.
“Balboa Park is the reason I’m living in San Diego. I’m from Indiana. My first wife and I began coming here during the winter months. In 2001, Elsie and I were looking for a way to contribute to San Diego and began volunteering at the Visitors Center. She really loved it; it made her feel San Diego was home.”
Sadly, Elsie passed away just a few years later. Glenn stayed in San Diego, continued to volunteer, and helped fund a remodel of the Visitors Center in her honor. He has since reconnected with and married his high school sweetheart, Lynne. Both are ardent supporters of the Balboa Park Conservancy’s work.
Glenn had previous experience on three boards in Indiana. He was an original Conservancy board member, coming over from Balboa Park Central’s board with the merger. Besides chairing the Volunteer Engagement Task Force, Glenn serves on the Executive, Finance, and Governance Committees, and has recently trained to become a Visitors Center Shift Lead and Tour Guide.
He explained why the Conservancy and the Service Enterprise program are such a good fit. “We’re looking to volunteers to extend and fulfill our mission. It’s about what we can do to help our Conservancy help our park. The Service Enterprise program is all about how to engage volunteers, making it part of our DNA to benefit the organization of the park, the community, and the world. Think of the leveraging effect!”
I personally serve on the task force and am astonished by what we have accomplished in just over a year. The first few months were all about setting up the basic tools for success. We obtained volunteer management software and began training the volunteers on how to use it, so we have a simpler way of scheduling and tracking their hours.
We also obtained iPads for our information desk volunteers, enabling them to have city-wide visitor information at their fingertips and to log in and out for their shifts. Improving communications and resources for volunteers has been a consistent topic of discussion in our meetings. A new Lead Volunteer and Mentor program also arose from our task force.
One new area of volunteer service we’re very excited about was launched in late spring and is well on its way to completion as we train guides to begin leading customized park tours. We’ve also begun identifying other areas in Balboa Park where volunteers would be very useful, the first stage of a Park Ambassador program currently being developed with the Park and Recreation staff.
All these activities took place while our very busy Visitors Center staff not only oversaw the information desk and retail operation, but also recruited and trained many new volunteers for December Nights, Fiesta Botanica, Food Truck Fridays, and tree plantings! We are currently discussing the logistics of interviewing, training, and monitoring as we recruit more volunteers to work in the park.
As we work intentionally and thoughtfully toward building our volunteer program and becoming officially certified as a Service Enterprise organization, we realize we still have a ways to go. But the process we are following has a great track record, which bodes well for the future.
“Earning Service Enterprise certification will provide the Conservancy with a validated formula for success as it seeks to expand volunteer services for the benefit of the entire park,” says Connie Matsui, vice chair of the Conservancy’s board. “The Conservancy and the Fleet Science Center are the first two Balboa Park organizations enrolled in SEI. As more organizations follow suit, we have the potential to constitute a ‘center of excellence’ in volunteer programming, leading to an even more consistent and compelling visitor experience throughout our beloved park.”
* In 2014, the Balboa Park Conservancy completed its merger with Balboa Park Central, formerly known as the House of Hospitality Association, originally the Balboa Auditorium Association, an organization founded in 1923 that took over management of the House of Hospitality shortly after the 1935-36 Exposition.
Pam Crooks is a member of the Balboa Park Conservancy Board of Trustees and the former Deputy Executive Director, Public Operations at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center (1978-98). A long-time board member of the Balboa Park Central/House of Hospitality Association, she is also a former member and chair of the Balboa Park Trust—an advisory committee at The San Diego Foundation. Crooks has written and published numerous books and articles on Balboa Park, including two editions of a comprehensive guidebook, Discover Balboa Park, and two walking guides to Balboa Park.