On #Volunteering: the human face, heart and hands of #conservation

The theme of this year’s National Volunteer Week is ‘Whiria te Tangata’ – weaving the people together. Photo: Jon Sullivan_Flikr CC

National Volunteer Week #NVW2019 is just around the corner (June 16 – 22) and draws attention to the vital work carried out by volunteers. My own work in conservation and citizen science is firmly situated at the public science interface, and the broader social context has always fascinated me. Without volunteers’ labour, skills and experience, we don’t have a hope for stopping or even slowing the ongoing decline of our biodiversity. Volunteers also provide data as citizen scientists by surveying and monitoring individual species (native and exotic), changes in habitat condition and the efficacy of restoration management interventions. Without science-based evidence, it’s just best guesses.  

Volunteering is a valuable service. Quantifying the dollar value of voluntary work on a per hour basis is one way of doing this. Writing funding proposals, in-kind time needs to be quantified. It can add up fast: volunteering in NZ across all sectors in 2014 (at minimum wage) amounted to an estimated $968 million. However, dollar values don’t provide ecological evidence of ‘return on investment’. A recent Department of Conservation e-newsletter estimated c.1,500 workdays were contributed by volunteers over 2015/2016. That’s impressive, but what was achieved for biodiversity? We’ll never really know.

These 1500 workdays should be considered against the 1000+ restoration focused groups in NZ and rise and rise of community-led predator/pest free initiatives. We lack data that shows conservation volunteer numbers, hours contributed and the relationship to conservation outcomes at a regional and national scale. These figures are needed so that community conservation can be better supported in the longer-term and community contributions to shaping biodiversity outcomes can be understood.

One of many community websites that highlights an impressive array of outputs. Screen grab from Keep NZ Beautiful http://www.knzb.org.nz

Why volunteer?

A quick skim across the literature on environmental volunteerism yields pretty consistent patterns. A recent study by retired academic and now, active volunteer Jean Fleming (n=270), reiterates international findings: volunteers want acknowledgement for the work they do and their skills. They give their time because they want to help the environment as well as themselves – volunteers draw strength from being with a group of like-minded people. In the literature, these are variously termed ‘instrumental’ i.e. carrying out activities to achieve tangible outcomes and ‘expressive’, which encompasses the need for belonging and sharing (Mannarini & Fedi 2009). Jean writes:

…If organisations want to improve the experience of their environmental volunteers, the first step is to acknowledge the experience and expertise of those who volunteer

@Metiria_Turei from the Green Party sends out a thanks to volunteers via twitter for National Volunteering Week in 2016

The changing face of volunteering

An interesting finding of Jean’s study, was that 70% of the volunteers who responded, also carried out other voluntary activity. For many, it’s woven into their (increasingly busy) lives. Skills building for younger volunteers is vital – they have careers to build and as volunteering increases experience and credibility, so do their chances in the marketplace. Sustaining volunteers in the long-term is challenging. Providing meaningful tasks, effective management, a flexible schedule, new roles for volunteers to grow into along with on-going acknowledgement are just a handful of factors determining whether a volunteer stays or goes. From the State of Volunteering NZ, 2017:

Younger people seem to prefer volunteering for a specific task or project and then moving on 

One-off environmental volunteering has gained prominence with corporates providing staff days out – often to help with mass plantings or beach clean ups. Now there’s micro-volunteering which describes ‘convenient bite-sized, on-demand, no commitment actions that benefit a worthy cause’. Online tools have made it possible to donate time in different ways (i.e. you don’t need to pick up a spade) but may also open opportunities for those who wouldn’t usually volunteer or are not able to.

The new Te Taiao gallery the national museum, Te Papa, has a strong focus on collaboration through volunteering for the environment

Helping volunteers to volunteer

Community groups often advertise for volunteers through open calls on their own websites or through cross-sector sites like Seek Volunteer. There are other portals too, listed on the Volunteer NZ website. However, to help connect environmental groups and volunteers and vice versa, DOC and Auckland Council have partnered to purpose-build a portal. It’s a work in progress and if well designed and advertised, could form a model for other regions.

From acknowledgement to credit

Receiving an award in recognition of your volunteerism at a formal ceremony (or at a local BBQ) is one form of acknowledgement. Employers value voluntary work experience on account of the practical and social skills it provides. It also demonstrates the employee is motivated. In the US, voluntary work is a stepping-stone for entry to some universities, with credits awarded for relevant activities undertaken. This has yet to gain prominence in New Zealand.

In the mean time, many, many volunteers, young and old will simply continue their work, quietly… and largely unacknowledged.

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