I’m a veteran volunteer have spent a year or more donating my time to various conservation and development projects around the world. But there’s also a wealth of literature that has dissected volunteer motivation in order to understand why volunteers participate, and why some keep coming back, year after year.
In New Zealand volunteers actively control weeds and animal pest species; develop inventories of species (think of bird atlases); fund-raise for environmental projects; write submissions to local government on environmental matters, and help to raise awareness about the species and landscapes that desperately need protecting. It’s obvious that understanding volunteer motivation is critical for project coordinators and partners – especially now with greater expectations that volunteers will pick up work that cash-strapped agencies can no longer do. It’s also key to designing programmes that are sensitive to volunteers’ needs. From a funder’s perspective, a committed body of long-term volunteers is evidence of a well-run programme (and money well spent!).
Browsing the extensive literature on volunteer motivation for environmental activities, I’ve come up with four main categories. Some of the main references I’ve used are listed at the end of the blog.
At its most fundamental, volunteering provides an opportunity for self-reflection, a place to cultivate peace of mind, and an environment in which to enhance a sense of self-worth. A pragmatic reason is to learn, with new knowledge and experience potentially enhancing employing options – a strong motive among younger volunteers.
Volunteering reduces the isolation often felt by elderly and rural inhabitants by providing a focal point for activities and social interactions. For others, volunteering is simply a chance to have some fun with like-minded folk.
For some, it’s a need to help the environment in a hands-on way – much more so than just ‘sending a cheque to a national environmental organization’ (Ryan et al. 2001). A pragmatic motivation may be to restore an ecosystem service (e.g., flood control) or bring back a food source to harvestable levels. Others are motivated by a sense of responsibility toward nature in the face of ongoing threats to the environment. Just doing something physical, or simply getting outside shows the need to balance urban life with a different type of activity altogether from the usual daily experience.
A deeper, ecopsychological view is that human beings are intimately connected to the environment. Motivations may be fuelled by deep-seated emotions that include feelings of guilt for not being more proactive and an indignation at environmental harm caused by others (Stevens 2010). Ownership of a specific place (in a spiritual, cultural or emotional sense) is also a powerful driver for volunteerism.
Factors influencing volunteer motivation
However, factors influencing volunteer motivation are complex, interdependent and can change over time. A volunteer may join a project to fulfill a personal need, but how well a project is organised and whether they feel their work to be worthwhile will shape their decision to stay for the long-term… or not. While we can develop categories of motivation, it’s important to recognise that each population and project differs on many levels. For example, Deutsch et al (2009), found that income, education and geographical location played a strong role in the motivation to monitor in a water quality programme in Alabama, USA. In contrast, a study of three environmental stewardship programmes in Michigan, USA, found no relationship between participants’ ages, the distance to the site, time availability or the specific activity and the commitment, frequency or duration of volunteers’ participation (Ryan et al. 2001). Age and ethnicity too can strongly influence motivation with elderly volunteers motivated to ‘pay back’ to society. Cultural and religious notions of volunteerism may emphasize duty, rather than altruism or personal gain.
Despite the large body of literature on volunteerism, there’s a gap when it comes to motivations for participating in citizen science projects… but I’ll leave that for someone else to tackle!
Bramston P, Pretty G, Zammit C 2011. Assessing environmental stewardship motivation. Environment and Behavior 43(6): 776-788.
Bushway LJ, Dickinson JL, Stedman RC, Wagenet LP, Weinstein DA 2011. Benefits, motivations, and barriers related to environmental volunteerism for older adults: developing a research agenda. The International Journal of Aging and Human Development 72(3): 189-206.
Clary EG, Snyder M 1999. The motivations to volunteer: Theoretical and practical considerations. Current Directions in Psychological Science 8(5): 156-159.
Gooch M 2004. Volunteering in catchment management groups: Empowering the volunteer. Australian Geographer 35(2): 193-208.
Krasny ME, Crestol SR, Tidball KG, Stedman RC 2014. New York City’s oyster gardeners: Memories and meanings as motivations for volunteer environmental stewardship. Landscape and Urban Planning 132: 16-25.
Office for the Community and Voluntary Sector 2007. Mahi Aroha: Maori Perspectives on Volunteering and Cultural Obligations. Wellington, New Zealand, Ministry of Social Development, Office for the Community and Voluntary Sector.
Ryan RL, Kaplan R, Grese RE 2001. Predicting volunteer commitment in environmental stewardship programs. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 44(5): 629-658.
Stevens P 2010. Embedment in the environment: A new paradigm for well-being? Perspectives in Public Health 130 (6): 265-269.