by Leanna Joyner

Trail Club Success in Retention and Recruitment

Appalachian Trail maintaining clubs are engines of civic engagement along the eastern seaboard. Their work doesn’t begin and end with digging in the dirt; it extends to project planning and the ever-essential aspects of volunteer coordination, which involves sociology and human resource management. What exactly motivates volunteers to join a work trip, and how do club leaders encourage those new attendees to return?
I spoke with Trail Supervisors Paul Curtin with the Carolina Mountain Club (CMC) and Craig Dunn with the Cumberland Valley A.T. Club (CVATC), along with new CMC volunteer Megan Smith to learn more about their recent successes and experiences. Both CMC and CVATC reported above-average results for new participation in their work trips in 2019, and they describe the function of their success in these ways:

Offer Something to New Volunteers: Carolina Mountain Club launched the Remote Overnight Crew (ROC) in 2019. The innovative approach to meeting the needs of the Trail in distances farther from the trailhead meant that backpacking was a required component. Curtin said he found that at least several people were interested in learning to backpack, or test their gear, as to do trail maintenance. In the end, good work was achieved on the Trail and the club got to work with a different demographic than typically attends their weekday work crews. (There’s more about participation below.) To span the range of experiences, Curtin does send advanced information on what to pack, along with a questionnaire related to their experience.

Smith, 40, who is an experienced backpacker, attended the ROC as a way to meet new people, and came away with a deeper understanding and appreciation for the work. She says, “I hike a lot and I’ve taken for granted how much work goes into maintaining the trails.”

For CVATC, the club has started having coffee, bottled water, and snacks available to work trip participants. This gesture, thanks to contributions from businesses in the area, serves to both support new participants who may arrive unprepared, as well supporting the community-building aspects of refreshment breaks where people deepen their acquaintances.

Logistics Planning & Supervision: Curtin and Dunn both stress the value of advanced planning for work trips, including advanced scouting and defined scope of work. Dunn says, “I try to plan each work day’s tasks in order to present participants with goals that can reasonably be accomplished in the time available, so that the trip is considered to have been successfully completed…to reinforce the participants’ sense of accomplishment.”

Curtin says for the Remote Overnight Crew events he aims to have a third of the trip participants be knowledgeable club volunteers who can teach and mentor new participants. Dunn takes a similar approach. He says “it’s important to make it a priority for experienced members to interact with [new participants], in order to make them feel welcome plus explain what we are doing and why.”

Expanded Invitations: Curtin found great success posting the weekend ROC events to ATC’s volunteer events listing and through the local REI store’s community calendar. Dunn said that his club also relayed invitations through a local sportswear retailer’s newsletter, in addition to increased social media by the club and specific outreach to a day-hiking Meet-up group in the area. For Smith’s part, she found the CMC listing through REI for her first outing with the ROC.

Follow-Up: Smith said that the second time she attended a CMC ROC event it was because Paul sent an email to past participants inviting them to return and giving them a first-shot at available slots. Dunn takes a similar approach by sending individual thank you emails within a couple days after the event to personally thank new participants for joining the work day.

Scheduling: For Smith, she said that she had known about CMC for a long time. “I learned that there are a lot of retired people who have a lot of free days to work with the club, and those work trips are on weekdays when I’m not available. This trip was timed in a way that I could go,” said Smith, a teacher. “It fit my schedule, so that was a big deal.”

Curtin said that the ROC weekend-trips have drawn people from Florida, Arizona, Texas, and from distances across North Carolina. They have also had young participants accompanied by a parent. “Because people don’t have to worry about taking time off work, every time we’ve had kids out. We don’t generally get to work with young people much or women so much on our general work crews, so it’s great to have them come out,” he said.

Dunn agrees that scheduling is a large part of CVATC success, too. Work events are scheduled for Saturdays in the morning, for just about 4 hours. He explains, “This still leaves participants with much of the weekend still free.” He credits the many road crossings through their Trail section that makes access to work areas fairly quick and easy.

More hands produce more impact. For CMC it has meant repairing sloughing sidehill at and installing water erosion devices in these hard-to-reach locations. For CVATC, it has meant a 50% increase in linear feet of rock-lined turnpike construction and drainage ditches over the previous year.