The long and short of #citsci #volunteering

Image taken by the Historic Rivers Chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists. Sourced from

Over the last few months, I’ve been working on a research project for a national charity on volunteer incentives, in other words, encouraging volunteers to contribute for the longer-term and rewarding those that do. So why do some volunteers stay on while others quickly move onto other opportunities? To answer this question, I took a broader look around incentives, and started with volunteer motivations.

Often, it seems a large part of why people volunteer stems from their altruism (rather than directly benefitting e.g., work or study). Although altruism can be a strong driver, opportunities to be in nature, for enhancing social contact, building skills and knowledge are also powerful (see further reading list). These can be rewards in themselves but what actually keeps people donating their time, energy, intellect, petrol and skills? Incentives connect to a complex range of variables that lie between volunteers and the programmes they support.

In the business world, there are generally 3 types of incentive. Incentives schemes commonly combine facets of each – good food for thought for designers of citizen science programmes:

  1. Material or economic: tangible rewards are often monetary
  2. Social: intangible rewards by association including sociability, status, identification
  3. Purposive or moral: intangible rewards related to the goals of the organization.

Recognition and acknowledgement

Over a zoom call, Michelle Prysby, Director of the Virginia Master Naturalist Program (est. 2005) described how a simple reward – a certification pin (uniquely designed each year) is provided to volunteers for numbers of hours contributed annually to the program. Owing to the pandemic, pins weren’t given out this year in some of the VMN district-based ‘chapters.’ She explained how disappointed some volunteers were, highlighting the value attributed to a reward that can be displayed, and also how strongly this reward system is embedded in the program. On another zoom fact-finding mission, Mark Hoyer (Florida LakeWATCH Director), described how their citizen science water quality monitoring program also rewarded volunteers with gifts or emblems: LakeWATCH branded baseball caps are given to volunteers after a year’s service and pins at yrs 2 and 5. Recipients wear both with pride. A New Zealand example of tangible incentives is Marine Meter Squared ‘Mm2’ where younger participants (see box below) can receive awards through the Dept. of Conservation Kiwi Guardians and the Royal Society CREST programme .

An overview of the Marine Meter Squared programme incentives and motivations
Kiwi Guardians medal

In the NZ study, many of the lead volunteers were adamant about why they gave their time and why they didn’t expect (or in some cases even want) rewards. Their motivations and rewards for contributing to the citizen science are bundled together: they like contributing; being outdoors; the monitoring is an extension of what they already informally do; the data collected have a clear purpose, and the monitoring activities aren’t too onerous. Moreover, the programme is extremely well-organised and coordinators are on hand to help with technical and logistical issues.

Learning and skills-building

Learning and skills-building is a motivation while receiving recognition e.g., through certificates and letters of reference are incentives. It’s easy to assume this would appeal mostly to younger volunteers. However, VMN volunteers are typically retirees. Despite ‘giving’ being a strong motivator, ‘learning new things’ is stronger. This means volunteers drop off following completion of the 40 – 70-hr training course has occurred (see p.19 Virginia Master Naturalist Strategic Planning Report, 2015-2020). Findings in the NZ study showed that although joining a skills training pathway was a strong incentive, there was little interest overall in stepping into a volunteer leadership role or passing skills on to other volunteers. It’s clear that there’s lots more to tease out about the links between learning opportunities and volunteer retention…   

Stay… or go?

Some volunteers stay beyond having their personal motivations fulfilled and rewards for their contributions given. They stay on to see initiatives they volunteer for grow, mature, waver and adapt to new circumstances. I admire these volunteers for their generosity, tenacity and desire to keep learning, even when conditions are challenging. But for those of us that are restless by nature, it may simply be boil down to a search for the richness of experience that different physical contexts can provide.  

Further reading

Geoghegan, H., Dyke, A., Pateman, R., West, S., Everett, G., & Framework, U. K. E. O. (2016). Understanding motivations for citizen science. Swindon, UK: UK Environmental Observation Framework. Retrieved from

Hoyer, M V, Bigham, D. L., Bachmann, R. W., & Canfield Jr., D. E. (2014). Florida LAKEWATCH: Citizen scientists protecting Florida’s aquatic systems. Florida Scientist, 77(4), 184–197.

Larese-Casanova, M., & Prysby, M. (2018). Engaging people in nature stewardship through Master Naturalist programs. Human–Wildlife Interactions12(2), 11.

Levitt, S., & Dubner, S. J. (2005). Freakonomics. William Morrow and Co.

Wright, D. R., Underhill, L. G., Keene, M., & Knight, A. T. (2015). Understanding the Motivations and Satisfactions of Volunteers to Improve the Effectiveness of Citizen Science Programs. Society and Natural Resources, 28(9), 1013–1029.

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