Join or Form a Friends Group

There are a growing number of community-initiated and led groups that focus on their neighborhood parks and recreation centers. Called “Friends” groups, these organizations are involved in many facets of support and advocacy, including clean-up, gardening, planning, fundraising, habitat restoration, educational and recreational programming, and lobbying for improvements. “Friends” groups usually start because of a pressing need, but they often continue because the group realizes its power to effect change, catalyze community participation, and create sustainable solutions.

The SFRPD is excited to have such committed community assistance. When the public participates in the hard choices that must be made when spending its own tax dollars, the outcome is an enlightened, empowered, and supportive constituency. SFRPD staff will work with you from the beginning to ensure your “Friends” group is a success.

The Department currently works with approximately fifty “Friends” groups (See Appendix D of the Volunteer Service Handbook). Many have need for assistance at monthly work projects and community meetings. If there is already a group in existence, contact the group to discuss your interests in participation. If there is not a group, you might want to consider launching a new one.

  1. Coordinate with the Volunteer Program

The Volunteer Program is your first portal for information about creating a new “Friends” group. Discuss your vision for the organization with a Volunteer Coordinator. The Volunteer Program will work with stewards to develop the partnership between the community and Department. Sometimes, an agreement is created that clearly delineate and facilitate the group’s relationship to the park or recreation center, depending on the scope of the group’s activities.

  1. Solicit community input

Before moving forward with volunteer projects, it is important to understand the community’s needs, dreams and interests in relation to the park or recreation center. Soliciting community input is perhaps the most crucial step in the set-up process, and it requires time, patience and perseverance. You can assess community opinion through methods such as neighborhood forums and surveys.

If you choose to hold a neighborhood forum, here are some general guidelines for making the event successful:

    • Find a centrally located meeting room. Try schools, churches, banks, a neighbors house, police stations, and recreation centers. Book a two hour time slot, far enough in advance to get the word out.
    • Try several different forms of outreach. Create an informational flyer announcing your meeting. Post the flyer at corner stores, schools, community centers, laundromats, coffee shops, and anywhere people in your community gather. You can also advertise the forum in neighborhood newspapers, church bulletins, Craigslist, the SF Independent, etc. Remember to include a contact phone number and/or email address.
    • Ask local merchants to donate snacks and other items that will contribute to a relaxed gathering.
    • Invite the Recreation and Park Department staff, police officers or other City officials assigned to the park or recreation center.
    • Collect some materials ahead of time—a short history of your park, a brochure about the recreation programs, information about the native plant areas, a picture of broken equipment or drug dealing, or recent newspaper or magazine articles.
    • At the meeting, brainstorm concerns related to the park or recreation center. Establish ground rules for brainstorming, reminding people that ideas are welcome and active listening is foundation upon which healthy groups are constructed.
    • Ask someone to take notes. Sometimes it is helpful to record ideas on large sheets of paper.

If you choose to conduct a survey of community opinion instead of a meeting, it is important to not write closed-ended questions that do not allow people to express their unique viewpoints. Allow room for dissent, even opinions that contradict the desire/need for a “Friends” group altogether.

  1. Craft the Friends group

The next challenge is distilling the many voices into one. Coming to consensus about the focus of the organization is a difficult and time-consuming process, and may not even be possible under certain circumstances. You may find that the “Friends” group will best serve the community by acting on more than one issue. The Recreation and Park Department staff can help your group with prioritizing projects. It is also likely that your group will decide there are parallel action tracks: one to address immediate concerns, such as trash and litter in the park, and another to address long-term issues such as safety or programming changes. Long-term project planning will be discussed further in the section entitled “Consider tackling large/long-term projects.”

Once you have decided upon the focus(es), the nuts and bolts of the organization’s machinery must be assembled. “Friends” groups vary in their structures and approaches to working together, building collaborations, and solving problems. Some groups are very sophisticated and are equipped with bylaws, logos, decision-making processes, networks of collaborators, communication technology, conflict management strategies, non-profit statuses, fundraising track records and diverse membership. Other groups are comprised of one or two very dedicated members that lead the group’s activities. Therefore, there is no cookie cutter approach to building your stewardship group. Some components to consider including are:

    • name and logo
    • schedule of regular meetings
    • elected leadership
    • committees
    • regular communication, such as a newsletter
    • knowledge of legal matters
    • bank account
    • system for record keeping

John William Gardener (1912-2002) known as the “father of grassroots activism” recommends the following 10 ingredients for community building initiatives:

  1. Wholeness incorporating diversity—refers to the existence of healthy dissent combined with a commitment to the common good.
  2. A reasonable base of shared values.
  3. Effective internal communication—members value the integrity of each person.
  4. Participation—members feel confident that their needs will be considered.
  5. Affirmation—builds morale and confidence.
  6. Links beyond the community—maintaining open, constructive and extensive relationships with a larger community.
  7. Development of young people—help prepare young people for fostering a commitment to shared values and purposes.
  8. Forward view—Create ideas on how to develop in the future.
  9. Institutional arrangement for community maintenance—structure and control such as board of directors, bylaws, to maintain order without squelching individualism.
  10. Care, Trust and Teamwork.

The Volunteer Program is available for assistance and advice related to organization-building. It has examples of bylaws, logos, etc. should you want to peruse them.

  • Plan a work project

Plan your first work project at the park or recreation center. At least one month in advance (two months is even better!) of the desired date, contact the Volunteer Program to set-up a date, time, and work scope for the project. The general volunteer guidelines outlined in the previous section describe the project development process in more detail. The Department will help design the work scope, and provide tools, supplies, and a staff member to lead the volunteer activities. Determine what other things may be needed for the workday such as childcare, sign-in sheet, and food.

  • Outreach to the community

Most “Friends” groups need to recruit different types of volunteers—individuals for specific duties and groups of volunteers for large work projects. Individual volunteers with specific skills can create a neighborhood park newsletter, sketch a potential landscape design, inventory native plants, develop grant proposals, or set-up a web site.

Groups of volunteers can be recruited from many sources:

  • Schools and Universities
  • Bulletin boards at local coffeehouses, laundromats, and grocery stores
  • Neighborhood newspapers, newsletters, and church bulletins
  • Street fairs, festivals, and other local events
  • Corporations
  • Websites such as Volunteer Match, Onebrick, and the Volunteer Center

You can even use work projects as a great way to outreach to community members. Create a sign to display on the workday that informs passerbys the nature of your activities. (The Volunteer Program also has signs if you need one!) Ask them if they would enjoy joining the group for ten minutes or so.

People volunteer because they feel that their specific help is needed. Therefore as a leader of volunteers, let them know that what they are doing is needed and appreciated. A note, quick phone call, or invitation to have coffee will go further than most awards or certificates in making individual volunteers feel welcome.

  • Consider tackling large/long-term projects

After the “Friends” group has sponsored a few successful work projects and seen the positive changes local community members can make, there may be a desire to turn to larger projects. For example, the group might wish to advocate for better facilities or wish to create a new recreation program that would serve the community’s needs.

As bigger ideas begin to emerge, the “Friends” group can develop a proposal that explains the proposed project and justifies its need. Again, Department staff can help with the process—enlist their expertise! Finding the resources—money, people, expertise—can be challenging, but there are many organizations in San Francisco that are great assets to “Friends” groups. While the City allocates some funding for capital projects, the demand always exceeds the available supply of money. As a result, grant writing will undoubtedly be a part of the process when tackling large projects.

Sources to tap into include to reach broader goals include:

  • California Native Plant Society, Yerba Buena Chapter: Advocates for local nature issues and supports restoration
  • The Foundation Center: Provides extensive listing of potential funding sources and advice for grant
  • San Francisco Parks Trust: Offers grants, fiscal management and volunteer opportunities; provides park guides.
  • Neighborhood Parks Council: Networks park volunteers providing them with direction and support in organizing and advocacy, fundraising and public outreach, and
    planning special
  • San Francisco Beautiful: Awards funding for citizen-initiated
  • San Francisco Volunteer Center: Provides volunteer recruitment, technical assistance, and consulting services to organizations.
  • Stay in contact with the Volunteer Program

It is important to maintain open communication with the Volunteer Program. Although “Friends” have a voice in issues that involve their sponsored park/recreation center, they are still ultimately under the supervision of the Department. Also, the Volunteer Program will be more than willing to assist stewards with any logistical, administrative, informational, and outreach needs that arise.