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Encouraging support through incentives
In most volunteer organizations, a small group of individuals contribute most of the effort, relative to the number of people who benefit. The Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy is no exception, and over the years we've pondered ways of encouraging more folks to get involved. We've made pleas on the web site, on ChallengeTalk, and at our annual meetings, but received little response.
In 2009 we tried an incentive approach, the Volunteers Start First program. We'd been getting requests, mainly from runners, to be able to start the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge ahead of the hikers. But the Challenge has no single start time, so this meant letting anyone who declared themselves to be a runner to cut in front of the starting queue. This didn't seem fair, and Volunteers Start First was a way to incent anyone, including fast hikers, to earn the right to start first by volunteering at least four hours. The program has been fairly successful, resulting in several dozen volunteers showing up for trail work projects since its inception.
Clearly, incentives work. But the primary constraint we faced when considering other incentive programs was managing the recordkeeping required to fairly and accurately track the activity. The VSF program was small enough it could be managed by hand with existing resources. Anything more popular, however, would need more.
We've needed a new system for registering for the Challenge in order to more equitably allocate the limited spots available. No matter what we considered, technology would need to be applied for it to be manageable. A straightforward lottery system would be the simplest, but a strictly random selection process could exclude people who've contributed significantly to the organization. Could we do better?
The term karma means action or deed, the cumulative effect of which determines your destiny. On March 1, we'll open a new web site which allows you to view and manage your contribution to the Conservancy in four distinct areas: volunteer hours, event participation, donations, and membership. You earn karma in each area, the sum total of which influences your position when allocating spots for events like the Challenge. Here's how karma is earned:
Beginning in 2012, every hour you volunteer at a Conservancy event earns you 150 karma. If you volunteer for six hours on a trail work project this spring, you'll earn 900 karma.
For every paid Conservancy event you've participated in (including the Challenge back to the beginning), you earn 250 karma. If you participated in the Homestead Challenge twice and the UltraChallenge Relay once, you'll have 750 karma.
Every dollar donated to the Conservancy since January 1, 2012 earns you 10 karma. Donate $20, earn 200 karma.
Every Conservancy membership-dollar earns you 10 karma. Join or renew at the $50 level and you'll earn 500 karma.
We've done our best to clean up our data so we can accurately identify your participation in past events and current membership level. Data for past volunteer activity and donations were not available, which is why those areas begin this year.
Event participation, donations, and membership are automatically tracked and recorded by the system or a Conservancy volunteer. Volunteer hour reporting, however, is up to you. After you've volunteered at an event or project, you'll need to log on to the web site and submit your hours. Once the event supervisor or project leader approves it, you'll earn karma.
Karma has two characteristics to keep in mind. First, karma never expires. Once earned, it's yours. Second, karma can be gifted. If you've earned lots of karma and want to give it to a friend to help them get a spot in the Challenge, you can do that on the web site. Once you gift karma, it cannot be revoked. The only way to retrieve it is to have the recipient gift it back to you.
We believe the Karma Initiative is an objective way of determining the contribution an individual has made toward achieving the goals of the Conservancy. That's important because it's an essential element of the new Challenge registration system. Read about it here.
Saturday, November 19, 2011
Fourteen adults and 10 youngsters volunteered their time to help address some drainage issues on the Harmony Trail. It was a satisfying group project. The erosion problem, caused by water diversion upstream, is corrected. Now it all flows properly into pipes established when the contractor did the fine surface in the summer. This work was in Pine Twp, on the northern half of the one-mile route. Further erosion work is needed to the south in McCandless.
RCTC president Todd Chamber’s neighbors brought their pick-up to transport stone and gravel from the supply at the Route 910 end. Everyone had a hand in the loading, unloading, or ditching. It was good to see the neighbors who use the trail most, and know they are glad to participate.
Mark Eyerman, who has mostly done work on sections of the Rachel Carson Trail, was especially pleased to see the kids and their moms there. One volunteer teaches phys. ed in Hampton. She brought her two younger daughters, plus four of their friends. They all took part in loading the truck with gravel for the repairs. They also had a great time when we showed them the stream crossing over into the Brooktree office park, where tracts are deeded for the trail connection up to their sidewalks. This Harmony/Brooktree route is used for the Annual Winter Hike that Mark leads the first Sunday in February.
It's good people had their chance to see a way to cross the brook. Ones who have ‘played in the brook’ are likely to want to be there again. It is just .6 mile from there up and over Route 19 to reach the western edge of North Park. Then a half-mile of wide trail leads up to the soccer fields. Beyond them, across McKinney Road, a mile of scout-built trails join the Braille Trail and Latodami on Brown Road.
The Winter Hike goes on from there via the North Ridge trail to the Beaver Shelter, north of the dam on Babcock Blvd. The outing totals about 6 miles.
These connections with North Park give the Harmony Trail even more value, especially for neighbors who live west of Route 19.
A record turnout on a beautiful day
Seventy three runners and seven relay teams competed in the seventh annual Baker Trail UltraChallenge 50-mile run on the north section of the trail on Saturday. See the Split Times page for the results!
A fine day for a hike
Split times for the 2011 Rachel Carson Trail Challenge are now available here.
The background and reasoning behind the process
For the first eleven years of the Rachel Carson Trail Challenge, the event never filled up. Initially, there was an informal cap of 200 participants, mostly based on an intuition that this number is what our landowners would tolerate. But that was exceeded way back in 2000, by just a bit, and by just a bit more every year since. Sometime around 2007, as we flirted with 600, we started hearing complaints from participants about the crowds. And the congestion. Instead of landowners, it was participants who were expressing their displeasure.
In 2008 we formally established the cap at 600, and it took until early June for the last spot to be taken. Although some who hadn't yet registered were surprised and dismayed, everyone who showed up to wait on standby for the no-show spots was able to participate. That same year we reintroduced the Homestead Challenge, which added another 200 people to the trail. Although it started later and at a different place, we heard more complaints about congestion, plus new complaints about the added people, and about unseemly behavior of others trying to negotiate their way through the crowds. We had found our true limit.
In 2009, with the 600 cap in place, we saw a repeat of 2008, except the last spot was sold sooner - at the end of May.
In 2010, it accelerated. The last spot was sold at the end of April. This shut out many people, forcing us to offer refunds to make space available. But that was a considerable administrative burden, and we determined to try something different.
In planning for 2011, we could readily foresee what would happen: we'd sell the last spot no later than the end of March and probably even sooner than that.
The Rachel Carson Trail Challenge is a non-competitive endurance hike. It's not a race. We've never offered finish awards, and the closest we come is to list the results by finish time. This feature is a large part of its appeal, especially to people who are new to physical activity.
One of the goals of our group is to get more people involved in physical activity, and one reason we stage training hikes in the spring is to introduce the trail to people who've never been on it. Many have told us they appreciated the experience and the people they met, and decided to push themselves by setting a stretch goal of finishing the Challenge.
The problem we faced is these training hikes don't start until mid April, and even if someone decided to register after the first hike, it would be too late. Our solution is to distribute the 600 registrations over five months, giving everyone an equal opportunity to participate. Regrettably, this strategy caused demand to spike, and the accelerating pace of filling spots is repeating itself in microcosm each month. In February, the 200 available spots were sold in 90 minutes. In March, it took six minutes to sell the next 100. This has caused much angst, and is not what we wanted or intended.
One theme we've heard repeatedly is the unfairness of raising the fee each month. Since registrations are not refundable, we felt it fair to offer a lower price to people who commit sooner. The problem is this contributed to the demand spike, and upset many who were willing and able to commit sooner but couldn't. We fully understand and are therefore rescinding further price increases. All remaining online spots will be made available at the current price of $70.
Three things to keep in mind. One, we are a small group of dedicated volunteers with regular jobs. Putting on this event is a lot of work, but we all want the trail to continue, and enjoy seeing the positive impact of both the trail and the event. Two, we are ruthlessly egalitarian; no one receives special treatment. Members of our committee use the same registration process as everyone else. Three, this event is our fundraiser. All of the money raised goes directly toward fulfillment of our mission.
We welcome constructive feedback on how we can improve, and we'd appreciate more administrative-level volunteers. Regardless, we'll review all the suggestions we receive and endeavor to introduce a better system next year. There are many issues and concerns to consider, but know that given high demand and limited supply, there's simply no way around the fact that some people who want to participate will be excluded.
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