A Milestone in Making Change

By Joe Jayjack on March 27, 2023 in Blog

Volunteers pull garlic mustard at Heritage Valley in Allamakee County.

Volunteers pull invasive garlic mustard from Heritage Valley near Waukon. 

Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation has been made stronger by volunteers since the organization was founded in 1979. Board members that volunteer their time and expertise to help direct and carry out INHF’s mission. Volunteers in the office that help to keep us organized and running smoothly. And, of course, volunteers on the land — those that hack at honeysuckle, pick prairie seed and tidy up trails.

They have all been integral to helping INHF protect and restore Iowa’s land, water and wildlife. But for years, volunteer opportunities were sporadic, and INHF supporters were asking for ways they could do more. INHF also wanted a way to meet new people eager to give time and talent to conservation, regardless of whether they could provide financial support.

Timeline of INHF's volunteer programOne gift created a sea change in how INHF could engage with volunteers and accomplish more together. Geitel Winakor’s bequest (read more about her gift on page 22) allowed INHF to hire its first volunteer coordinator, Mary Runkel, in 2013. INHF’s choice to use part of Dr. Winakor’s unrestricted gift to launch a volunteer program continues to bring innovation and many new faces to our work.

Melanie Schmidt has been in the volunteer coordinator role since 2017, helping new volunteers find their niche and organizing events where volunteers can help care for land. And it is amazing to see how the program has grown since that first year, when we held 7 organized events.

In 2022, INHF held 40 volunteer events across the state, engaging 904 volunteers that put in more than 2,700 hours of work.

“I am always blown away by how much a group of committed, dedicated and passionate volunteers can accomplish together. It never feels like work and it’s the best part of my job when I get to get my hands dirty right alongside folks who care deeply about Iowa’s land, water and wildlife,” Schmidt said.

Beyond connecting people with nature and accomplishing more land stewardship, INHF has expanded how it can work with volunteers to raise its capacity everywhere. In 2018, INHF was certified as a Service Enterprise by Points of Light, which recognizes nonprofits committed to effectively delivering on their missions by strategically engaging volunteer time and talent. INHF has benefited from volunteers in advocacy, communications and trail-mapping, to name a few areas, and is always analyzing how best to raise its capacity while creating meaningful experiences for volunteers.

The organization has also trained and trusted volunteers to work on INHF properties on their own time through its Land Ambassador program. In 2022, INHF had 25 Land Ambassadors caring for 10 properties, helping staff give the land in these special places the care it deserves.

“The volunteer program shows INHF’s values at work. People choose to volunteer with INHF because they feel it worthy of their free time,” said Conservation Programs Coordinator Emily Martin. “I so appreciate the work volunteers do. But even more, I enjoy connecting with people in a way that is meaningful for both of us.”

With the recent addition of land stewardship directors in the Loess Hills and eastern Iowa, INHF has been able to hold more volunteer events and engage more people in our work. This year, INHF plans to hold more than 40 events across the state, working on woodlands, prairies and trails that benefit Iowa’s wildlife and people.