Green Volunteers in the Spotlight

Understanding action for nature through studying citizen scientists and other nature volunteers

By Wessel Ganzevoort, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Centre Connecting Humans and Nature, Institute for Science in Society, Radboud University

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Considering everything going on in the world right now, we should not forget to celebrate our achievements. This autumn, much-needed glad tidings came my way when I received the news that my PhD thesis has been approved. I have enjoyed working on it immensely, but I readily admit that I am also relieved that it is done. It should come as no surprise that writing a thesis is a lot of work.

(c) Jacek Matysiak

As the title of my thesis (and this blog post) indicates, my work focuses on green volunteers. It reports a series of survey studies among Dutch green volunteers, including biodiversity citizen scientists, conservation volunteers and volunteers involved in policy or education. Since the work I conducted over the past years connects well to the aims of EnviroCitizen, here I want to briefly highlight three main lessons for the project.

The starting point of my research was that literature on biodiversity research and conservation tends to take volunteers’ current and continued involvement as a given. Who these people are, what they do, and why they do so is not commonly investigated. The title of my thesis illustrates my aim to put this dimension front and centre. Not only was I interested in the profile, motivations and experiences of these volunteers, I also wanted to get an idea of how green volunteering relates to volunteers’ broader connection to and action for nature.

I would like to highlight three important take-home messages based on these studies.

Motivations for green volunteer work are incredibly diverse: wanting to make a meaningful contribution to conservation, emotional ties to a landscape, social bonding, and personal learning all play a role. Volunteers also likely have multiple motivations, and key motivations may change over time. However, a main lesson from the data I collected is that the respondents overwhelmingly selected nature-related motivations as those most important to them. Especially a personal connection to nature and the desire to contribute to nature conservation were often highlighted. This pattern was remarkably stable for different types of green volunteer work.

Secondly, if we zoom in on biodiversity citizen science, much discussion on this topic focuses on the data collected by volunteers, and especially the quality of these data. On the one hand, accuracy of observations is definitely important for biodiversity citizen scientists, linked to learning as an important motivation for them[1]. On the other hand, it is important to realise that citizen science for volunteers tends to be about much more than data. Our respondents’ descriptions of their most significant nature experiences highlighted how much they cherished a personal sense of discovery; not necessarily rare or remarkable species, but observations that were new to them. Studies have also shown how biodiversity citizen science can affect one’s personal life, e.g. through adopting different gardening practices[2]. It is therefore important to look at data collected by citizen scientists with a broader perspective than just quality. For instance, have you ever asked (fellow) birders how they perceive the importance of their data, to themselves and to others, and how they think about the responsibly of the organisation to which they submit their data[3]? My thesis suggests these to be highly relevant questions.

Finally, while the above findings suggest great potential of green volunteer work to inspire people and bring them (back) in touch with nature, we must also not be too quick to declare it some sort of universal remedy to the increasing disconnect between humans and nature. Specifically, across our studies we found our respondents to be somewhat older and very highly educated. Volunteers themselves were also concerned about the perceived lack of younger volunteers. If we have the ambition to further build on the potential of citizen science, the question who does not participate, and why not, should be at the forefront of our minds.

Some of the questions raised by my thesis are thus of great relevance to EnviroCitizen as well. After all, the project foregrounds diversity and inclusion in biodiversity citizen science, aims to actively engage youths, and gives us the chance to investigate how participants actually work in the field, and what their connection to nature means to them. Both the aims of EnviroCitizen and a growing body of literature (including my thesis) make one thing clear: if you aim to understand citizen science, then you must understand the citizen scientists.

[1] For more on learning as a motivation for biodiversity citizen science, see Bell et al. (2008). What counts? Volunteers and their organisations in the recording and monitoring of biodiversity. Biodiversity and Conservation, 17, 3443-3454.

[2] Deguines et al. (2020). Assessing the emergence of pro-biodiversity practices in citizen scientists of a backyard butterfly survey. Science of the Total Environment, 716, 136842.

[3] Ellis & Waterton (2004). Environmental citizenship in the making: The participation of volunteer naturalists in UK biological recording and biodiversity policy. Science and Public Policy, 31(2), 95-105.