Over the past month, thanks to Conservation Volunteers Australia Illawarra and the Hawkesbury-Nepean Catchment Management Authority, I’ve been able to pilot a workshop for volunteer group leaders that aims to answer the eternal question: What does it take to grow our group?

It’s called “The Art of Passion Mashing”. Essentially, it trials some new ways of doing innovation-for-the-rest-of-us.

Passion Mashin’ came out of a short workshop I gave at the 2011 Coastal Volunteers Forum in Wollongong. The result must have been inspiring because the two agencies separately asked me to develop a full day version to help reinvigorate and inspire their Landcare and bushcare groups.

Four pilot workshops were held in August 2011. Responses from participants were nothing less than fantastic. Words like “inspiring”, “invigorating”, “enthusiastic”, “confident” appeared again and again in the evaluations. The workshop clearly met a heart-felt need.

The basic idea is simple: increasing the membership of volunteer groups can’t just be about better mass marketing. In fact mass marketing has generally been found to be ineffective. Volunteers come because the activity is important and interesting and they stay because it’s enjoyable and satisfying, and communication along social networks is the key. Therefore a better approach is to reinvent what the group does so the activities are inherently more engaging, rewarding and buzz-worthy, and then refocus marketing on person-to-person communication.

One kind of reinvention is mashing unexpected passions, say “kayaking” and “bushcare”, to create a new concept and a new experience (there really is such a group on the Hawkesbury-Nepean, called “Willow Warriors”). Passion mashing generates original and buzz-worthy ideas which change the public story of what ‘caring is about.

Here are four examples that came out of the workshops:

Tea in the Trees: Landcare + making tea flavoured with native leaves.

Coffee Lovers Bushcare: finish with campfire and real coffee tasting.

Le Bushcare: speaking only French.

Buzzcare: Bushcare with a focus on native bee conservation.

A second kind of reinvention is “disruption”. Participants use a simple process to “disrupt” the conventional wisdom of Landcare/bushcare to incorporate a wide range of ideas, redesigning the volunteer experience to be more enjoyable and satisfying.

Here’s an illustration that combines ideas from a number of teams:

Title: Nature’s Helper’s Coffee Club

Enjoyment: We’ll have real espresso coffee and good chocolate during breaks.

Sites: We won’t just focus on “weed pits”: we’ll vary the site to choose healthier areas where we can be inspired by nature and make a rapid difference. Every few months we’ll spend a day working with a sister group. We’ll use Facebook to negotiate which site to visit. Occasionally we’ll organise impromptu flash mob clean-ups.

Approach: We’ll try direct seeding of some sites and consider using non-native species where useful. We’ll have a “watching brief” of sites where we observe nature doing the bushcare for us and only intervene where necessary.

Times: We’ll use daylight saving for evening sessions. We’ll be flexible and have a mix of weekday and weekend sessions.

Organisation: We’ll have a buddy system for every member. No committee but a rotating coordinator and a phone tree.

Membership: We’ll promote a special low-commitment “Nature’s Little Helpers” membership that asks all adults and children to remove selected weeds wherever they see them, on the street, in the park, in the yards etc. Awards for high kill rates (photos posted online) + invites to special events.

Dress: We’ll have special dress-up days e.g. Valentines Day, a Loudest Clothes Day.

The results of the workshops were many delightful, surprising, and, in some cases, staggering reinventions of the core ideas and practice of Landcare and bushcare.

So, is innovation-for-the-rest-of-us a viable pursuit? Absolutely.