The Value of Volunteering and Applying Project Management Skills to Give Back

Analiese Kennedy
This year I really wanted to do something different to challenge myself and utilize the skills I have learned as a professional project manager for a community project.

For the past two years I have spent time studying for and earning the Project Management Institute's (PMI) Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. I am thankful that Faithful+Gould fully supports this certification and believes in the value of professional project management skills. With more than 15 years of project management experience, I have worked on large scale ($100 million) Department of Defense healthcare and research facilities Initial Outfitting and Transition (IO&T) projects. I am also a Certified Healthcare and Safety Professional and have worked as an occupational, safety and health consultant to private and government industry customers.

At first I had a lot of big ideas on how I could challenge myself, but then I realized that to be successful I should start off on a smaller scale and learn a few lessons. Since I enjoy gardening in my off time, I thought it might be worthwhile to share my knowledge and skills for growing gardens with my son's school. It was from this idea that the Carrol Creek Montessori School (CCMS) Garden Club and Outdoor Learning Garden was created.

The only way to realize this vision was to develop a detailed plan, receive stakeholder buy-in and execute.

The vision was to create an outdoor learning environment so that the children would be able to learn how to "know, sow, grow and eat" their own food, as well as gain a connection and respect with the environment. This involved holding meetings, which were held at least twice a month, after school, to teach/learn different lessons about how gardening is connected to science, history, writing, critical thinking and yes, even maths! In addition to education, the garden club planned, designed, built, maintained and sustained a new school garden. To date the children have learned about the importance of garden journals, rain barrel and water collection, composting and garden health/safety.

Stakeholder Buy-In

I didn't want to merely "start" something, my goal was to build and sustain a full outdoor learning garden program that would be used by the school for as long as it wanted to continue the program. I wanted to plan something that would become a cornerstone of its teaching platform. The only way to realize this vision was to develop a detailed plan, receive stakeholder buy-in and execute.

The challenge, to begin with, was not only writing down my proposal, but finding a way to communicate my ideas in a way that would make sense to my primary stakeholder, the school principal. We had to overcome another challenge up front, a lack of budget, so we would have to find a way to secure funds through donations and sponsorships. Once I received the primary stakeholder buy-in, I asked for recommendations of teachers that I could partner with in order to make the effort successful.

In my professional work experience, having a key member of the impacted organization partner with the project manager helps to ensure that project goals (and methods for reaching the goals) matches up with the organizational mission and vision. This stakeholder partnership assures open communication, which equals overall project success. An elementary level teacher (with former garden club experience at a previous school) enthusiastically volunteered to help spearhead the club.

Starting the Project

I began this project like any other, by developing a project plan. A project plan helps to identify the key activities that need to be accomplished, as well as tasks, timelines, resources and estimates for the project. From our project planning, we determined that in order to build our garden and start the vegetable plants before the end of the school year, we would need to secure outside donors, recruit volunteers, start the seeds, and gain student buy-in. We knew that the students would be our next line of stakeholders, after the principal, if we wanted this to be successful for the future. Often when you start a project, you don't know all the stakeholders, so you have to be flexible and open to understanding more about your project as you move through the planning stages.

Often when you start a project, you don't know all the stakeholders, so you have to be flexible and open to understanding more about your project as you move through the planning stages.

My stakeholder/partner immediately drafted an email and garden club application to send out to all the upper elementary parents. I developed a schedule of club meetings and a curriculum that we would teach along with materials for each meeting.

Finally, we were off and running! Garden Club Vision: To create a sustainable garden and learning environment to pass on to future students at CCMS…to educate and share with the broader CCMS community.

Design and Build

We met with the Garden Club students to design the garden layout and parameters. We had them assist us with developing the resource list, materials and cost estimates. The students assisted us with brainstorming ideas for sponsors. I wrote a sponsorship letter that included our "needs" and scheduled meetings with managers from each of the garden supply stores that the children provided. We were able to secure sponsorships from two local stores and one national store that provided all of the building materials needed to complete the garden project. We planned, scheduled and executed a "Family Garden Day" to cut materials, assemble garden boxes and fill them with soil for planting. Afterwards, the students were able to plant their seedlings, and eventually watch them grow and chart the growth progress in their journals!

Project Close-Out

At the end of each project I always conduct an After Action Review (AAR) in order to assess what went well and what didn't work well with the plan. The garden club was no different. I scheduled an AAR and had the students write down what they thought went best, what didn't work very well and what we could have done better, all of this was documented in our lessons learned. I explained to the children that these lessons were very valuable to future club members. They would be able to refer back to lessons learned and potentially avoid mistakes that we made, thus saving them time and money.

PMP Volunteering Collage

Project Challenges

Working with children can be very challenging, as they are minimally focused. As a parent, I knew I had to be creative in my approach to teaching. Just like any stakeholder, you have to bring the subject matter to their level of understanding. As you can imagine, composting was a fun topic to discuss! I got them involved in the learning/teaching process.

After my second PowerPoint presentation, the students asked me if they could present the information. At first I thought they were bored with me and I wasn't communicating well. Then I thought that I should control how the information was presented so that they could learn better but, then I realized that this is their club and if they want to stand up and present to their peers then more power to them. I really respect that they had the motivation to take ownership of the material and to present information that they did not know anything about. And guess what, they still remember all the information they presented and talk about creating their own presentations for next year!

Application for Project Managers

So, what's the payoff for all of this volunteer time? Ironically enough, I know that I learned as much (or more) from this project experience than the children. I also learned that teachers come in all shapes and sizes and that even children can be teachers if we open our minds and realize that opportunities to interact with each other are opportunities to learn.

I feel like I have gained much from my volunteering experience, I have:

  • Gained more patience 
  • Learned the value of flexibility 
  • Learned the importance of listening to my stakeholders (no matter how small or inexperienced) 
  • Learned to adapt my plans to changing needs 
  • Learned to say no when I need to and most importantly, understanding when to say no and when to go with the flow and let the learning happen

Project Future

Now that we have our garden and our club, we are thinking about expanding this program to integrate food preparation and sharing our club vision with our community. We may look at donating produce to the local food banks; helping our less fortunate school families with healthy, fresh produce; hosting fundraising plant sales to help the school; or maybe visiting with our older community members to share our love of gardening.

Value

Overall, I have volunteered approximately 70 hours to this project since November of 2015. I was able to submit 20 hours to PMI as part of my on-going continuing education requirement to maintain my PMP credential. The students have learned the value of planning, documenting and communicating, as well as a love for gardening that they can utilize for the rest of their lives.

The lessons I have learned from volunteering my time could not be gained from a seminar or other continuing education program. They are lessons that I will surely bring to the table as added value to current and future Faithful+Gould projects and will carry with me for a lifetime. The opportunities to volunteer and add value are everywhere. Find your passion, open your eyes and your heart and put those hard earned project management skills to work in your own community. The payoff is priceless!