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Staff, Volunteers, Consultants

How to determine the roles for staff, volunteers and consultants in developing your GIS.

Once you decide to establish GIS capacity, you have some critical choices to make about whether to staff inside or look outside for consulting.

Options for Getting GIS Capacity

  • Staff:  Having a staffer on board who can use GIS effectively is a highly desirable situation. Generally, regular half-time use of GIS is needed to maintain skills and efficiency. Aside from basic skills, the key aspect of GIS staffing is continuity - a commitment of at least a year is key.  LEARN MORE about where to look for GIS staff..
  • Volunteers:  Many land trusts have skilled and motivated volunteers available to help with GIS, or learners who can come up to speed quickly. Volunteers can be a huge asset, offsetting staff costs for land trusts seeking to devote maximum resources to land protection. There are pitfalls with volunteers, however: they may not always be available and their circumstances can change over time. They may also need supervision by someone who understands how best to organize GIS projects and data, though some volunteers are expert in these areas.
  • Consultants:  Finding a skilled and available GIS consultant can be very helpful to either a staff or a volunteer based GIS approach. You get the benefit of great skill and efficiency, though this often comes at a cost (though many consultants will offer services at reduced rates for non-profits). A very useful approach is to use a consultant in combination with staff or volunteers - the consultant can do more specialized work or provide good overall direction to the others.
  • Non-profit consultants (like those who sponsor this web site!) are very helpful partners with any land trust, as they understand the non-profit culture and probably have at least some direct experience with land trusts.

Strategies for Applying the Options

Most land trusts follow one of these approaches when deciding about how to establish GIS:

  • Start inside:  A staff member or volunteer gets excited about GIS, and either knows the technology to begin with or pushes themselves to learn it.  There are often a lot of bumps in this road, due to the learning curve with GIS and finding data in your area (hint – before you start, check on whether parcel boundaries are available to you, as this makes it much easier if they are)
  • Start outside, add to inside:   Use a consultant to help design and build your GIS system, defining your needs more clearly, assembling data, creating initial projects for property maps and for overall maps, and creating good map templates.  Then, the consultant can help train a staff member of volunteer, turning it completely over to them – or remaining as an ongoing resource, helping with troubleshooting and doing major projects as needed.
  • Go outside – stay outside:  Use a consultant to create and maintain your entire GIS system.  If the consultant has worked with land trusts previously, they will have a good sense of what you need.  If they haven’t, it may take a while for them to understand your needs clearly -- most consultants who do commercial work for forestry companies, land developers, governments, etc. take some time to get used to smaller non-profit groups.  This relationship can be done on retainer (where you pay a set amount per month, even if you don’t use it all), on fee-for-service (you pay for what you use) or on contract (the consultant gives you a set price for your project).
  • Take over outside work:   Hiring a staffer to take over from a consultant can be a workable approach, if you determine that you have both needs and resources to use that staff capacity frequently enough.  If the consultant is expecting this, the transition can be fairly smooth – if they are not, asking them to give you all of the information used in your projects can be very challenging.  In any case, transferring GIS from one location to another can be time consuming (and therefore costly) – it is best to design for this at the outset.

Principles for Deciding Among Strategies

  • If you’re likely to produce fewer than three maps per week or the equivalent use of your GIS, it may be much better to use an outside consultant, as that level of activity may not keep up your in-house staff's GIS skills.
  • Once you decide to use GIS with in-house staff or volunteers, it's very important that they organize projects (GIS project files and related project-specific information) and data in separate directory structures, and that every GIS project is carefully documented.  LEARN MORE about managing your projects and data...
  • Finding consultants in your local area is ideal, but electronic communication can also allow effective long distance relationships  (NOTE: LandTrustGIS.org may have a database of GIS consultants in the future.)  LEARN MORE about non-profit GIS consultants who can help you...

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