(CVA. 2021. Sea to Source Volunteers, Sydney)

Volunteer

Section
4. Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment
Page
4.4

Alongside working for the environment, there are few greater ways one can contribute than volunteering for the environment.

One of the largest environmental volunteering projects I know of is The Atlas of Australian Birds. It was started in the 1970s to gather comprehensive, comparable, Australia-wide data on the continent’s bird life, which seems relatively straightforward until you realise that Australia had a population then of only around 13 million and covers an area of 7.68 million km2, and much of it is almost inaccessible desert! There was no way this could be done without a huge volunteer effort, and this is just what occurred. The first atlas was completed in the field in 1982 and published in 19841 and involved “3000 atlassers completing 90,000 survey sheets producing 2.7 million records (sightings) of 716 bird species”(ibid). As if this wasn’t enough, the second atlas ran from 1998-20022 and involved “7,000 atlassers completing 279,000 surveys, producing 4.7 million records of 772 bird species” (ibid); no mean feat! As well as contributing invaluable data on species presence and locations, the second atlas also mapped habitat and wetlands and established a wonderful baseline to discern change for later studies. The data collected has already been used to inform numerous conservation programs, including yearly ‘State of the Birds’ reports, action plans for Australian birds, and individual species recovery plans. Much of this work serves as a flagship for wider habitat conservation and restoration in Australia.

(Newcombe, J. 2014. Birdbander Wally Klau with Red-capped Robin. Weekend Notes)

 

 

 

Environmental volunteering is even more diverse and diffuse than environmental work making generalisations difficult, but we have some background studies to help us. Volunteering Australia, Australia’s volunteering peak body, regularly compiles statistics on participation rates, activities, etc. Their key findings3 are:

How many?

Formal volunteering, across Australia, it is estimated that nearly 6 million (5.897 million) people volunteer through an organisation annually. This is almost one third (29.5%) of people aged 15 years and over.”

Why?

Overwhelmingly, it is “Personal satisfaction/To do something worthwhile”, 66.9% of respondents answered.

How?

Despite their being some very good programs and even apps to match volunteers with activities, by far the greatest way people became involved was through personal contacts: “The main reason people first became involved in volunteering is that they knew someone who was involved or that they were asked.”

Sectors of volunteer participation?

What interests us here is participation in environmental activities and we can see that overall this is a relatively small ‘part of the pie’ comprising just some 6% of participants behind six other sectors, e.g. ‘Sport’ (39%), or ‘Education and Training’ (22%).

Sectors of volunteer interest?

This is very interesting: despite there being only around 6% of the total volunteer pool participating in environmental activities (7th highest overall), it is the third-highest sector of interest for volunteers4.

I think this mismatch can be explained by three things:

(i) Just as with environmental work, this is a small field, much smaller than the general public realises, and therefore there are relatively few organisations, with limited resources, to offer volunteer opportunities;

(Volunteering Australia. 20164. Sectors of Volunteer Interest.)

(ii) Environment volunteer activities are often fairly complex and technical and require specialist equipment (e.g. ‘cutting and painting’ woody weeds with herbicide), making their accessibility limited by volunteer skill level; and

(iii) Environment volunteer activities are often geographically distant and therefore difficult for volunteers to reach and require time, planning and resources to do so.

Trend?

“The rate of volunteering through an organisation has declined over time: for people aged 18 years and over; from 36.2% in 2010 to 28.8% in 2019. The decline is most evident for women, whose rate decreased from 38.1% in 2010 to 28.1% in 2019. Volunteers contributed 596.2 million hours to the community in 2019. This is a 20% decrease in the total number of volunteering hours from 2014 (743.3 million hours).” This is a genuine concern and is – I think – a worldwide trend. I suspect the decline in participation is due to the demands of the ‘Growth God’ (see Section 3) leaving people less and less free time as they are driven to work longer, and linked to this, greater individualism and isolation promulgated by the new world belief system (see Section 3 also) that constantly asserts that there is nothing but the self, so by definition, nothing to volunteer for.

Little research has been carried out specifically on environmental volunteers, but my friend and colleague Mike Weston (Mike and I were colleagues at Birds Australia running the volunteer program the ‘Threatened Bird Network’ which matched survey and conservation actions for threatened birds with volunteer skills and availability) wrote a most interesting paper5 on environmental volunteer activity in Australia, see – Volunteers in bird conservation: Insights from the Australian Threatened Bird Network – Weston – 2003 – Ecological Management & Restoration – Wiley Online Library . His findings were that:

  • “Most [volunteers] were employed or studying and were members of conservation or natural history groups;
  • “The main reason for volunteering was an interest in conservation;
  • “They preferred outdoor projects on highly threatened species and where organizers set clear goals, provided feedback and supervised in a friendly and helpful manner;
  • “Volunteers made a major contribution to recovery efforts, with $3.4 million being directed to 32 recovery efforts in the period 1996−2000;
  • “Most activities involved surveying and searching;
  • “Volunteers travelled considerable distances, yet only a few projects provided financial support.”
(Together for Wildlife. 2018. Professional – volunteer partnerships at their best: Department of Environment [Vic] and Zoos Victoria staff and Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater have worked effectively for decades to bring this Critically Endangered species back from the brink)

I have been showing my bird-bias again here – apologies – but, of course, there are all sorts of volunteer activities within the environmental sphere, from essential, but less glamorous, office work and admin, to water sampling and advocacy (e.g. ‘Waterwatch’ – Waterwatch Portal, or ‘Riverkeepers’ – https://yarrariver.org.au/ ), as well as a number of NGOs either dedicated to volunteering, or with specific volunteer sections and activities. For example:

The Friends Network is comprised largely of those linked to parks and natural areas. There is a directory of groups and contacts, news and events.

 

Landcare, via the Victorian Landcare Gateway, has a list of groups and activities on private and public land, as well as news and training updates and a very handy search map for your locality – example for SW Victoria reproduced here.

Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA) describes their work as: “A national organisation working with communities to rebalance nature for a stronger, more resilient future. We combine evidence-based practices and people power to make real and lasting change at scale.”

They have a wide range of projects, from greening urban areas to addressing the heat-island effect, to bushfire recovery, to nest-box manufacture. They also have development, training and support networks for existing or aspiring leaders, such as the Future Stewards program and Nature Ambassadors.

Hopefully, similar networks and opportunities exist in your area, or can be developed.

(CVA . 2021. Sea to Source Volunteers, Sydney)

 

1 Blakers, M., et.al. 1984. The Atlas of Australian Birds. MUP, Carlton, Australia.

2 Barrett, G., et.al. 2003. The New Atlas of Australian Birds. RAOU, Melbourne, Australia.

3 Volunteering Australia. 2021. Key Volunteering Statistics. Canberra, Australia.

4 Price Waterhouse Coopers/Volunteering Australia. 2016. State of Volunteering in Australia 2016.

5 Weston, M. et.al. 2003. Volunteers in Bird Conservation: Insights from the Australian Threatened Bird Network. Ecological Management and Restoration, Vol. 4, no. 3.

Explore Other Work, Volunteer, Act for the Environment

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