In this post, Associate Editor Peter Bridgewater discusses volunteering for nature and an article he handled by Anita Diaz and colleagues ‘Diversifying environmental volunteers by engaging with online communities‘ – out now.

Pond restoration in Park Copse.  © Copyright Clive Perrin and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

An interesting paper on environmental volunteering and the connection with online ways and means to attract volunteers has just been published in People and Nature.  The study, authored by a team from the Bournemouth University, is a very good read, and strongly recommended.  Bournemouth University operates the Nature Volunteers website with a wide range of conservation organisations as partners, from the National Trust, RSPB to wildlife trusts.  This paper really does connect people and nature, in terms of getting “up-close-and-personal”. 

My own introduction to nature conservation volunteering was as a teenager on a project by the (then) “Nature Conservancy” (not to be confused with the more recent The Nature Conservancy).  I had anticipated a weekend of plant spotting and birdwatching in an area close to the Dorset heaths.  But on arrival we were told that our weekend’s work was clearing out a silted-up pond so birds would again make use of it – a rude awakening, but one I thoroughly enjoyed.  It was good physical exertion, even among the mosquitoes, and for me a valuable lesson; that conservation is about action, not simply leaving things alone.

So, it was interesting to read in this paper that the Nature Volunteers online community particularly wanted projects which involved action and activity. The authors report they expected that “as one of the perceived benefits of participating in environmental projects is proclaimed to be increased fitness from physical activity, particularly for older volunteers” this seems particularly important in the context of the growth and promotion of citizen science. While there is a cohort of people seriously interested in being citizen (volunteer) scientists there is possibly a larger group who simply want to be constructively active in and for nature.  And being active does not detract from the now well-documented work on the mental health benefits that are derived from simply being in nature.

The results of the Bournemouth study, which used Facebook and Google analytical techniques and information, also showed that volunteers were less focussed on social interactions from volunteering, and more interested in acquiring new skills.  A, perhaps unsurprising, finding is that projects that involved up-close-and-personal interactions with wildlife were preferred to those involving social contact with our own species.  And, a really important finding, is that volunteers for nature projects wanted projects that showed improvements in the fabric of nature after their efforts.  It seems that while there are people interested in building up data on wildlife distribution, phenology, ecology and taxonomy, the greater satisfaction comes from completing exercise like my pond clearance weekend.  And, as that memory is still with me (even shaped my ambition to be a Nature Conservancy warden, a target I have not yet achieved!) these moments of contact with nature in all its complexity are evidently both physically and mentally satisfying.

Where the paper gets interesting is the authors comparison between what people really indicate they enjoy and prefer, as this is at variance with many of the studies in the literature.  Although the preference for projects that allow interaction with wildlife feature strongly, it seems there is also a keenness for projects where social interaction allows the development or honing of new skills.  And there is an age difference here, with younger folk seeking different kinds of opportunities to be involved with nature than older cohorts.   Accordingly, the authors do expose that projects offered by conservation organisations may not be attracting the right pool of people, and that a different focus could enlarge the pool of volunteers.  Specifically, they suggest “there is a pool of young people attracted to environmental volunteering projects whose interests are different to those of current volunteers. If conservation organisations can develop projects that meet these interests, they can engage larger and more diverse communities in nature volunteering.” 

This is an important finding for our NGO conservation organisations, and even the statutory conservation agencies, who in times of squeezed funding may be able to use the web to entrap and contact a large cohort of young, as well as middle-age and senior volunteers, to help deliver their increasingly vital programmes. 

Maybe it’s time for a Tinder/Grindr app for nature?