By Michelle Kitney, Chief Executive of Volunteering New Zealand

While I was at the Volunteering Australia Conference 2023 on 13-14 February, Post-Tropical Cyclone Gabrielle was wreaking havoc across the motu.

One session at the conference stood out as particularly relevant. It was on environmental volunteerism and it explored the critical role that volunteers play in conservation and addressing environmental challenges.

The presentation covered research and practical strategies for volunteer leaders and co-ordinators active in the environmental sector. Presenters included Fiona Tucker, Robyn Gulliver a researcher and Katie Ronald from Bush Heritage Australia.

Activism organisations, and their volunteers typically seeks to change something, eg behaviours or laws, and often achieve this through various types of advocacy. Despite their importance, little is known about the factors that motivate individuals to engage in different environmental volunteer activities.

Research on working with environmental volunteers and leaders

Robyn Gulliver presented research she had collaborated on in regards to activism organisations with a focus on environmentalism, and surfaced key findings from each provided an overview of three relevant studies that fed into her research. Her presentation offered findings and takeaways for working with environmental volunteers and environmental volunteers leaders.

The research found that volunteers play critical roles in leading the activities of environmental organisations seeking to address the environmental crisis.

Drawing on an extended Theory of Planned Behaviour model, this study surveyed 259 experienced environmental volunteers who had participated in a range of environmental volunteer “leadership” and “participation” (i.e., non-leadership) behaviours to identify factors associated with these behaviours.

Findings indicate that higher self-efficacy beliefs about specific leadership tasks, and higher past participation in participation behaviours, were significant predictors of engaging in more leadership behaviors. Higher self-efficacy and stronger identification as an environmental volunteer also predicted increased participation behaviours, as well as a younger age.

Qualitative analysis of open-ended responses highlighted the importance of organisational factors such as training opportunities and receiving support and appreciation from the group in building leaders’ self-efficacy.

Finding Study 1 Reviewed how many environmental activist groups were operating across Australia.

Her research found that:

  • There were activist environmental groups all over the country, with a total of 3000 groups across Australia
  • Many of these organisations operated without formal structure, with many groups only found on social media
  • Some remained hidden, and most were not engaging in illegal actions.
  • Most, if not almost all, are led by volunteers.

Finding Study 2 – Survey of environmental volunteers

A survey of 195+ environment volunteers focusssed on finding out what predicts environmental volunteer behaviours. Findings that surfaced include that:

  • For participation – identification as environmental volunteers
  • For leadership, belief they are capable of leadership behaviours (leadership self-efficacy)

It also explored what attracts new volunteers and sustained volunteer leaders, including:

  • Social benefits – being listened to, supportive team, feeling valued and sense of belonging
  • Specific traits and behaviours of volunteer leaders were important to the volunteers.

In regards to what resources volunteer leaders needed the most, it found that these factors made a difference:

  • A positive social context
  • Volunteers with initiative and autonomy
  • More time (if they personally had time to give).

Environmental activism can often be hard to show achievements, and often the results are not as expected. The research explored how environmental activist leaders overcome failure. These were the tactics that worked:

  • Re-evaluate success in a different category
  • Emphasise individual benefits of activities to participants
  • Changing tactics.

Key takeaways to Identifying, supporting and retaining environmental volunteers and leaders:

  • Convey a shared identity
  • Use inclusive language
  • Include imagery conveying diversity
  • Build in welcoming procedures/individual relationship building
  • Define/support different roles suitable for different interests
  • Communicate a variety of tactics
  • Prioritise welcoming teams and opportunities for success.