NPS Fundamentals Essentials: Volunteers


Whether you are a new employee or interested in employment with the National Park Service, understanding how the organization functions is vital to your success. Are all parks the same? How is the work divided? How are the sites managed? What do the different divisions do?

Known as “Essentials,” these topics provide insight into how the National Park Service manages the entire system of parks and programs to accomplish its mission.  Reading through each topic gives an overview at the most basic level with opportunities to link to more in-depth, specific information.


Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve…. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.  -Martin Luther King, Jr.

Volunteering is an American tradition that has made an immeasurable contribution to communities, organizations, and individuals throughout the country. The National Park Service Volunteers-In-Parks (VIP) are very important people!

Today, the National Park System, under the Department of the Interior, consists of over 400 individual units covering more than 83 million acres in all 50 States, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, Saipan, and the Virgin Islands. The agency has over 20,000 employees and 257,000 volunteers. According to the 2012 servicewide VIP report, these volunteers gave 6,784, 971 hours or enabled the NPS to accomplish the work of an additional 3,262 Full Time Equivalents (FTE) or full time employees. These volunteers give one of their most precious resources, their time! Volunteers are integral to the mission of the service. Every National Park Service (NPS) employee has the ability to work with volunteers and volunteers are part of how the NPS does business.

The Volunteer-In-Parks Program

Every year, thousands of individuals help the NPS preserve, manage, and interpret our American heritage through the Volunteers-In-Parks Program. The primary purpose of the VIP Program is to provide a vehicle through which the NPS can accept and utilize voluntary help and services from the public in such a way that is mutually beneficial to the NPS and the volunteer.

Before the Volunteers-In-Parks Program was created, there was a great interest in serving the park system, but volunteers were required to waive liability for any injuries caused by volunteer activities. Since it was hard for volunteers to donate their services under these circumstances, a bill was developed that authorized the Secretary of the Interior to recruit and accept volunteers, provide for incidental expenses, and consider volunteers as federal employees in the case of work injury compensation, tort claims, and liability. The Volunteers-In-Parks Program was officially created when this bill passed and was enacted into law as Public Law 91-357 on July 29, 1970.

Since the inception of the NPS volunteer program in 1970, hundreds of thousands of VIPs have contributed to the goals and missions of the National Park System.

Volunteer staffing information booth  VIP staffing interpretive booth, Lassen Volcanic NP

Who Can Volunteer?

Almost anyone can volunteer with the NPS. A VIP is anyone who performs work for the NPS for which he or she receives no pay from the NPS. It does not matter if the person is receiving pay, work credit, academic credit, or other types of compensation from sources outside of the NPS; if the NPS is not paying that person directly for the work he or she is doing, he or she is considered a VIP.

What Motivates People to Volunteer With the NPS?

Volunteers have many different motivations for working with the National Park Service. They may want to work and live in unique settings, preserve this country’s natural and cultural legacy, gain work experience and learn new skills, give back to their community, meet new people, and make new friends or have any number of other reasons for becoming a volunteer. It is important to talk with volunteers about what they want to get out of their experience. This will enable both the NPS and the volunteer to maximize their return on investment.

Several volunteers tend to a garden  VIPs tending to a garden, Morristown NHS

What Can Volunteers Do?

Volunteers can work in any and all parts of a park, office, or program. All levels and types of skills can be used, and almost any type of work can be performed as long as it is work that:

  • Would not otherwise get done during a particular fiscal year because of funding or personnel limitations; or
  • Enables paid employees to accomplish work that would not otherwise get done during a particular fiscal year because of funding or personnel limitations; and
  • Does not result in the displacement of any paid employees.

Volunteer Opportunities

The Volunteers-In-Parks program recruits volunteers of all ages and abilities, either as individuals or members of groups. Volunteers perform a variety of tasks and serve anywhere from one day to many years.

Volunteer Rights and Responsibilities

The philosophy of the VIP Program is to treat volunteers with the attention, support, direction, and recognition paid employees receive. Volunteers have the right to be treated like paid employees and receive a meaningful experience. They are given real responsibility in the area they volunteer and are accountable for meeting park expectations and work standards.

Ethical Behavior

It is important for all volunteers to abide by certain ethical standards, some of which are outlined below. These guidelines will give you a basic framework for your everyday ethics questions.

Volunteer Safety

NPS has safety standards for all employees and volunteers. Safety training and equipment will be provided to volunteers depending on their duties and responsibilities. A volunteer must never be required to perform any type of work for which he or she is not qualified, has not been adequately trained, does not feel comfortable doing, or does not willingly agree to. A volunteer may not be put in life-threating situations or carry a firearm in the course of his/her duties.

Several people transport an injuried person in Arches National Park  VIP assisting rangers with rescue, Arches NP

 Liability and Volunteer Protection

Liability agreements protect not only the volunteer, but park resources as well. The NPS takes the safety and well-being of volunteers very seriously. If an accident happens while a person is volunteering, the incident reported immediately. Although the NPS strives to provide the safest environment for employees, visitors and volunteers, emergency situations and accidents still occur. If a person is injured while volunteering, he or she will receive the same protection as NPS employees under the Federal Employees Compensation Act and the Federal Tort Claims Act, as long as he or she has signed the Volunteer Services Agreement Form.

International Volunteers

Every year, more than one hundred individuals from all over the world volunteer in America’s national parks. The International Volunteers-in-Parks Program (IVIP) benefits both the individual volunteer and the NPS: the volunteer receives training and experience and the NPS gains a fresh perspective on park management and assistance in carrying out the service’s mission.

The NPS accepts qualified people from around the world that are interested in helping the NPS with its mission and who want to live and work as volunteers in one of America’s national parks. The NPS generally selects candidates who have the educational and professional backgrounds to benefit from the training and who have the best potential to share their experiences with colleagues and scholars when they return to their home countries.

Due to the requirements that our international volunteers must meet, the International Volunteer-In-Parks program is managed and monitored by the NPS Office of International Affairs.

Issues and Challenges for the Future

Today volunteering in the NPS is making great strides to make parks more relevant to the communities they serve, bringing stories, resources, and opportunities to new audiences. As budgets tighten and workloads increase for the employees of the NPS, it is important to recognize the value that volunteers bring to our organization. It takes time, effort, and planning to manage volunteers and it is important to remember the two-way benefits between VIPs and the NPS. Continued advocacy for the value of volunteer service in the NPS is vital to our mission and our organization.

Additional Resources

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  3. As a functional work leader I work closely with a lot of youth volunteer crews. This article further serves to reinforce the value of and need for our volunteers. Good help may be hard to find however our volunteers are A class help indeed!


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  5. Left wrong review previously, thought I was on the Buisness operations page… Volunteers are a a part of a Park’s bloodline. The history and multiple connections the volunteers bring with them allow the staff a chance to reflect on our Parks through others eyes, the VIPS are just that.

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  10. Volunteers are essential to the NPS, our sister agencies, and the community. Don’t let your park underutilize the opportunities to make connections with your communities and establish good volunteer programs that will be fun and fulfilling. Reach out to the local schools, non-profit agencies, and for-profit agencies like the Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, and others. Bringing in the right volunteers can often lead to more extraordinary things, such as financial donations to your friends’ groups or the park directly.


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