Volunteers clearing a ditch
I am going to spend one or two days a week doing voluntary conservation tasks. I know that I can have a greater impact for nature by enabling others, but doing activities myself has a number of selfish benefits – I get exercise, I meet new people, I get to learn about what is happening locally and what does and doesn’t work in terms of conservation tasks, and I get the personal gratification that comes from completing a task.
According to Leo Hickman, by volunteering, as well as “… contributing to either local or global community life, … you’re also likely to be happier and have a better quality of life.” (Hickman, 2005) However, William MacAskill warns that volunteering can be harmful to the charity if the volunteers are not delivering real benefit, are taking up costly management time, and are displacing more effective staff. He suggests that you should look for volunteering opportunities that do not cost the charity too much to support and that help you develop skills that might be useful for you later in life. (MacAskill, 2015).
So, who should I volunteer for? My parish has an environment group (and the neighbouring parish has an extremely active one), my borough has a conservation volunteer group (and the neighbouring borough manages nature reserves with conservation volunteers), my county has a conservation volunteer team and the Trust for Conservation Volunteers have a team that work in my part of the county. Effectively, each of the three levels of local government (in the UK) can sponsor volunteer groups doing many of the same things. In addition, I could volunteer for the local Wildlife Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the National Trust, the Woodland Trust, the People’s Trust for Endangered Species, Natural England (on a National Nature Reserve or monitoring bat roosts), or one of a number of “friends” of local nature reserves groups.
In addition, there are organisations that have been established to act as brokers between volunteers and organisations that need volunteers. The most useful of these (in the UK) seems to be the Do-it Trust (www.do-it.org) which is supported by the UK Government. There are also country-specific organisations established to support volunteering. In England, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (www.ncvo.org.uk) recommends looking for voluntary roles on CharityJobs (http://www.charityjob.co.uk/Volunteer-Jobs).
A relatively quick search of the above shows current local opportunities that cover a range of different activities including maintaining a nature reserve, monitoring species, engaging the public, fund-raising, mentoring others and working with local landowners and local businesses.
The book, Going Going, Gone? (Tait, 2008) provided me with additional ideas for volunteering to support the conservation of specific individual species or habitat types (in the UK and overseas), each with a different charity.
I have also contacted a couple of organisations, that I have an association with, which are not nature conservation charities but have the potential to encourage large numbers of people to engage with nature.
So far I’ve looked at more than twenty organisations many of which are offering multiple opportunities for volunteering with them. How do I narrow this down a bit?
James Borrell writes “There is nothing more dispiriting than people who think they are helping, but aren’t. That probably sounds unnecessarily harsh, but conservation is harsh. It’s unforgiving. It’s about choosing between a whole series of options that are far less than ideal. So for me, saving individual animals should always come second to saving species, which in turn comes second to protecting habitats. Often, in fact, conservation strategies actually involve exterminating invasive species.” (Borrell, 2016).
I made a start by filtering out those activities that are on days when I am already doing other things, or are too far from where I live. I also filtered out those where the website is out of date, or the response to my email request for further information was poor. I then took Borrell’s advice and favoured those that are doing habitat conservation work. As a result, I have four organisations that I am signed up to do conservation volunteering with and another couple that I might look at if any of the first four don’t work out.
For anyone wanting to do practical conservation volunteering in the UK, there is a wealth of choice. If you want to find all of the options open to you, you will need to do some hard work. The “brokerage” sites are currently of limited use because only a minority of the organisations mentioned above use them. This needs tidying-up. It should be easier for an individual to find up to date and useful information about opportunities without having to navigate dozens of websites, including the legacies of various historic government initiatives.
I may be showing my own prejudices, but the current set-up of conservation volunteering in the UK seems to be well-intentioned but inefficient. I have already come across an example of three parks, in close proximity, all being worked by different teams with their own specialists and equipment. Each of those teams is from a different organisation and is in turn working for a different local government organisation, so making more efficient use of those resources would require six different organisations to work together.
Borrell, J., 2016. Why Volunteering With Animals Does Nothing For Conservation. [Online] Available at: http://www.jamesborrell.com/why-volunteering-with-animals-does-nothing-for-conservation/ [Accessed 15 April 2018].
Hickman, L., 2005. A Good Life: The guide to ethical living. London: Eden Project Books.
MacAskill, W., 2015. Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference. London: Guardian Books.
Tait, M., 2008. Going, Going, Gone? Animals and plants on the brink of extinction and how you can help them. London: Think Books.