Guest blog – Valuing conservation volunteers by Louise Bacon

Louise writes: I used to be a biochemist studying human immune system malfunction whilst being a part-time naturalist and conservationist. Then I converted to being an environmental data geek, which is what I do part of the time in a vague attempt to pay the bills I have been a birder since childhood, and am now the Cambridgeshire county bird recorder, and am also a butterfly and moth enthusiast, with an interest in several other taxon groups including lichens, ants and molluscs, and when not in front of maps or a database can usually be found in woodlands carrying out vital management work, or surveying farmland birds.

Valuing the role of volunteers in the conservation sector?

Just how much time do you give to conservation charities? An innocent enough question from a close friend, but what a turmoil of further questions the calculation of the answer caused.

So what sort of things would this involve? I have been closely involved in survey work as part of national monitoring programmes such as the BTO Breeding Bird Survey, and local bird surveys, as well as practical conservation management work for over a decade. I am also a county recorder twice over, so volunteer time includes data management as well as physical stuff. The other aspect is attending events – going out to spread the word to others.

Starting on the back of an envelope, I soon realised an envelope wasn’t going to solve it, and it needed a proper spreadsheet approach. The commitments to conservation societies in various roles duly accumulated and counted up, I actually felt a little horrified when the total amounted to 100 days per year, based on an 8-hour day. That’s one third of a working year. Having given this amount of time over a decade then got me thinking about how this is valued within the sector, and that’s where I feel the topic needs airing to a wider audience.

I don’t expect any congratulations or praise for the time I put in from my peer group, who all give some time to the cause. What I think we do need to do is to find a way to get the wildlife charities ACTUALLY thinking about the value of volunteer’s commitment.

One third of a year of a salaried conservation officer within a wildlife charity would be maybe £8000. One hundred days of contractor time would be more than double this.

Having worked as an employee and freelance within the sector, I know that charities gather data on the number of hours volunteers put in over a year, often to tick boxes on grant funding bids. But, the people in the office gathering that data do not necessarily have the skills to take that value and translate it into staff/contractor time. Even if they do, is it, I would love to know, in a way which says ‘Great, volunteers have done x hours this year, that has saved us tens of thousands of pounds in expenditure which we will never have to find to pay salaries.’ 

I think this is increasingly the case, rather than ‘Fantastic, volunteers have contributed x hours this year, for free, on top of our salaried staff, and we should celebrate the fact and highlight their worth to all.’

Its not just me giving time, and some folk only give say 16 hours a year. That’s still 2 days, and count up the thousands of volunteers, and you soon have a massive sum.

Quite a lot of the time given by volunteers collects data which creates national trends in declining or increasing bird, butterfly, plant species, on which the country builds conservation targets, projects and policies.  That is something you never hear mentioned when the press releases and headlines go out.

Breaking down what I do into its different activity types means we can start to expand this to a UK-wide calculation for some of the things, and start to equate the volunteer time to hard cash.

A BBS square for instance takes 2-3 hours to walk at each visit, and is done twice per season. Add data entry afterwards, and it’s now 6 – 8 hours. There were in 2017 (BBS Report) 3941 squares covered, so that’s between 23600 and 31500 hours. Even if we use the UK living wage as a benchmark figure and the lower hours total, that’s £206,902. Taking it back to an average conservation officer salary, it’s about £100 per day and an mid-point between the two sets of hours estimated, 27,500, so that’s a ‘cost saving’ of £343,750 on salaries at a minimum. Remember, this is data used to generate national population trends.

Similarly, butterflies have a monitoring scheme. Luckily, the exact number of walks is provided, for 2016 this was 29,413. What there is not available is how long each survey takes, so let’s assume 1 hour which is probably a safe estimate and probably under the real figure. SO using our 8-hour day that’s 3677 days, at £100 per day its £367,700.

I reckon that, as a county bird or butterfly recorder, I spend a minimum of 56 hours per year on data management and committee meetings. There are equivalent people across the UK in each of these two taxonomic groups, so thats 7 days at £100 per area, £7000 each x 80 for bird recorder, a total of £560,000, and for butterflies, 70 recorders, making it a mere £490,000.

OK, there is now the more difficult to quantify element, the practical reserve management work. I know my contribution is just short of 300 hours per annum, across 4 organisations. I know of at least 10 people in my close circle in Cambridge who give approximately as much time, so let’s say 37.5 days each, and sticking with our average conservation officer salary day rate of £100, its only £3750 worth. But, a group of volunteers working on a task can, sometimes, achieve several person-days work in a day. Totting this up within a charity, let alone across all the organisations doing it and the numbers of volunteers involved has almost certainly never been done, and would be a mammoth task to do, but lets assume that each wildlife trust has 100 volunteers and Butterfly Conservation branch has 20 volunteers doing only 50 hours each per year, that’s 41x100x50 hours and 32x20x50 hours, that’s 205,000 and 32000 hours; that’s 29625 days and therefore £2.9 million ‘Saved’.

This is starting to look like big money. We haven’t even considered time spent attending events to ‘spread the word’, attending committee meeting or sending emails/phone calls to organise events, or providing newsletters to members. Another huge stack of time spent by volunteers and therefore NOT spent by the charities themselves.

SO, what is the bill looking like so far? We have National monitoring for butterflies and birds, cost minimum £574,600 and that does not include Wetland bird survey (WeBS) monitoring – something I’m not involved in so I cannot begin to calculate the time and therefore cost involved, but it is a one-day per month commitment for 6 months of the year at a large number of sites….. or any other monitoring schemes. Then add the cost of county recorders for the same 2 taxon groups, with which we could not produce various trends on species at a finer level across the UK, thats £1million. Add in moths, plants and everything else, the publicity, the time spent planning and the cost starts to look like the national debt of a small country, I reckon.  Or at least like the running costs of a smaller wildlife NGO.

And then practical reserve management, as above was almost £3million. We are at £4.5million for these two taxon groups and a significant under estimate of practical work, so lets make it £10million and rising. With increasingly diminished budgets and departed staff not being replaced, the time being spent by volunteers on vital national population data, on running charities, spreading the word and recruiting the next generation is rising. It could reach breaking point.

What happens when these volunteers begin to feel more and more disillusioned with the sector, with the scant thanks they sometimes receive, with feeling like they have given all of their free time away for what tangible benefit to society and to wildlife and begin to walk away.

Which leads to the big final question…What is the final bill and where should we, as the volunteers behind the wildlife sector, send the invoice to?


37 Replies to “Guest blog – Valuing conservation volunteers by Louise Bacon”

    1. excellent spot – thanks…. but it only addresses one part of my post – the structured monitoring, where it is easiest to assess the contribution….. the harder bit is the less tangible – the conservation management work, the organising of stuff, the manning of volunteer centres, publicity stands, cafes, etc., the being a county recorder or national scheme recorder, the sending in of records if an active naturalist…….. its all good will and its all hard to capture in terms of volunteer time.

    2. MarkP – that is quite interesting although it seems to think that the BBS and WeBS are BTO schemes which rather neglects the financial contribution made by the RSPB (I know, those large contributions used to come out of my budget) which isn’t the best way to say thank you to partners. And we volunteers are seen as belonging to particular organisations, hmmmm. If this is about valuing contributions then…

      But, all the same, yes it’s a big sum and that article admits ignoring some of the elements that Louise covers here.

        1. Me too – I’m the current organiser! That NBN article does refer to WeBS and some other partnership schemes incorrectly, but the plot of contributions does include all the non-JNCC partners’ financial contributions for each scheme together under the NGO heading, where it acknowledges RSPB (see footnote 1).

          At various times I’ve been asked to quantify unpaid contributions when working in Local Records Centres as well as well as for WeBS, and it is incredibly hard. No two people do the same tasks within their volunteer role. Taking WeBS as an example, we might have a good idea of the time people spend on site because it’s included in their submission, but what about the average time they take checking and inputting their counts, how far they had to [pay to] travel etc. Like many of the larger structured surveys, we also have volunteer organisers, who do most of the direct support to counters, local publicity, data checking and many other things to help run the survey. We asked them to tell us how long they spent on this admin volunteering, and had a huge variation in response (and I suspect many of them underestimated their true time commitment).

          When it comes to other branches of biological recording, the time it takes in the field is one thing, but the time in front of a microscope and computer is another, often invisible, contribution. So is the time people spend organising local groups and societies.

          I’d be very sad if people felt their volunteer contributions weren’t being celebrated. I have spent much of my career championing the unpaid work of wildlife recorders and survey volunteers and explaining their expertise, passion and the gift they make of their time to people who need information. Perhaps you might call it a “saving”, but surely there is no country in the world where the sector is adequately resourced to use salaried staff to generate an equivalent amount of data we do in the UK by unpaid naturalists. I prefer to present it as how a relatively small amount of support from the NGO and government sectors lubricates production of millions of £s worth of high quality information about our environment. And isn’t data one of the most valuable assets of our age – as long as it is used of course (another story!).

          I’d like to think BTO (and the sector as a whole) is pretty good at championing the contributions of volunteers to the surveys it runs, whether that’s in the organisation’s annual review, behind the scenes meetings, the reports and newsletters sent to participants, public talks or in social media or press releases. But you are right to remind us all that we are substantially in the debt of those gifting their time – and we should keep on shouting about it!

  1. This excellent blog post rightly questions how the input from volunteers is valued within the charity conservation sector. It might also be appropriate to question how the paid staff in the sector are valued. In these days the demands upon the sector far outweigh the resources available to meet those demands both in terms of manpower and money. Is it not reasonable for the sector to make this clear to members of the charities when the board becomes aware of this before instituting staff reductions and thus relying even more upon the goodwill of volunteers?

      1. I think Ian Carter’s guest blogs over the past few weeks, of what happens when you retire/leave NE (other conservation organsations area avilable!) really sum up for me what I know so many other NE/NGO staff feel right now – that you have worked in the sector for so long to see it sliding away through funding cuts and increasing lack of morale. Its made me run away, and others too.

  2. Make this tax deductible. In the USA if you do government work (ringing birds for example) you can deduct the cost of travel – which if I remember correctly was 45 cents per mile. This is not a huge amount but it certainly covers the cost of the fuel.

    1. Because I cannot reliably identify birds or animals, my volunteering has been restricted to deploying mink rafts and sometimes as many as 2 traps which need to be examined daily. The fuel cost alone in visiting 2 river basins daily is obviously enormous, and the idea of recovering the cost from government would have appealed. I did choose to automate the tasks by deploying cheap smartphones to send 3 photographs daily (I was an electrical engineer) which reduced the need for physical visits. As I have not seen a mink here for years due to the success of the operation I no longer need to visit rafts on such a frequent basis, and am no longer even certain to which organisation I am reporting my findings, if any.

      1. Hi Alex……..would like to discuss this withyou. My partner is currently working on en evaluation of expanding mink control to a GB-wide eradication. Not sure how to contact you as couldnt find an email address on your blog. I am happy for Mark to pass my contact details on to you if you are keen to provide some info on what you have been doing with mink and what you think about the plan, even if you dont feel able to participate yourself.

        1. Hi Louise. Please just comment on the website that is in this signature. I’ll email you if you do that, and just delete the comment.
          Mink certainly need controlling away from my area. I’d be happy to send a modified phone to you, as well as a report, so that you could convince yourself that it meets regulatory requirements. It does need a phone signal, but it does not need to be that reliable, as you will see.

  3. There is no doubt that volunteers make a very large contribution to a variety of conservation activities and that much of this work would simply not get done otherwise but I am not quite sure what to make of this information. Is it really the case that volunteers receive scant thanks for their input? That has not really been my experience but perhaps others do feel that their contributions have been under-valued. I guess that for a significant chunk of what volunteers do (at least the survey work, perhaps not the committee work, the manning of stands, selling raffle tickets or stuffing of envelopes, etc) the main reward is from doing the activity itself – participating in a survey provides an additional purpose to what the surveyor would probably be doing anyway while working on a habitat management task is often an enjoyable way to spend a winter’s day with like-minded people.
    What is clear is that members of NGOs such as the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, Butterfly Conservation et al are a very valuable resource and not just for the cash we contribute through our subs. It may be that sometimes the focus of the NGOs is a little too much on winkling out the money from us and not enough on husbanding the resource for the other valuable contributions it can provide. It has been commented on here many times, for example, that the RSPB has not been very proactive in mobilising its members in support of its campaigns and could perhaps make much better use of its membership in this regard.
    In any case thank you for a thought provoking article, Louise, and keep up all your good work!

    1. I have had to seriously cut down on what I do – eventually it is bad for the mind… I am not sure that we ARE undervalued or not appreciated – just wanted to play devils advocate. With a wildlife trust senior manager friend of mine we are working on an expanded piece from this starting point, which we hope will be published somewhere else. I need to get the day job done now, so I will bow out of the discussion for a while at least.

  4. When I was able to walk comfortably I did two BBS surveys plus many county bird surveys as well as weekly moth recording for a national scheme – a considerable time commitment. I still do what I can manage.

    I did/do it because I derive immense pleasure from the experience and I believe that it is of enormous benefit to my psychological well-being!

  5. The rather concerning, but not unexpected Independent report about NE , demonstrates just how important Conservation Volunteers are and will be in the future. I’ve been a ‘CV’ for 12 years. Recognition of the value of our work done carries a painfully low profile in the local media. Currently a local planning idea is in motion to convert a green wild space in a ‘green corridor, over to a massive concrete apron for car parking. An area I have worked on previously with different projects. That’s an example of the reward one gets for giving away your time for free.

  6. Great thought provoking article. It is really important to remind ourselves that the entire conservation sector – agencies & professional consultants included – is a construct of voluntary endeavour. I think most NGO’s do undertake a valuation of volunteer time – it is generally quoted in annual reports and in reporting to the likes of HLF and other grant funders. In my experience these such volunteer figures are generally under reported because not all voluntary work creates an audit trail (nor should it), but I haven’t seen a collated figure. Whilst I think there needs to be better recognition at strategic policy level of our the value of volunteer support and the time commitment behind it, I would warn against putting too much emphasis on this. There are deeper yet less tangible contributions that volunteering makes. Volunteer work is part of the hearts and minds effort needed to drive social change and pro-conservation policy. Like Natural Capital, our Social Capital is ultimately priceless.

  7. Many paid conservation workers have insecure, poorly paid jobs, which they have to do years of voluntary work to have a chance of getting. Any security, or pay levels near the national average, are a luxury they may never acquire. Wouldn’t be surprised if many are somewhat envious of people who are fortunate enough to be able to work for nothing, and may feel their jobs are put at risk by those working for free. What organisation would employ someone if it can get the work done for nothing? And you want appreciation from these people! (BTW, I don’t work in conservation, but I do volunteer a bit.)
    Separately from that, I think charities can accept gifts in kind, so would have thought they could reckon all this gifted work as income and show it in their accounts.

    1. M Parry, I have to agree. Many of the volunteers I’ve worked with have been on retirement incomes far greater than my salary. It does grate sometimes.

    2. I have to disagree. I’ve volunteered many many hours to a whole host of organisations and I’ve been employed by various green organisations. The pay is terrible and the hours far exceed the hours paid for BUT it’s wonderful to get paid for doing something you’d do in any case.

      Personally I enjoy volunteering. I’m definitely not wealthy but I volunteer because I believe in the causes and, since society doesn’t put a huge value on caring activities (whether for people or animals) I think it’s worth making an effort.

      What I object to is giving up my time for the economic benefit of others.

      I used to volunteer at a community crop share scheme.  You could either pay about 10 pounds for a bag of fruit and veg or volunteer 3 hours a week weeding, gathering crops in etc.  The scheme, of course, claimed to be ‘teaching’ us volunteers about crop growing etc when in reality we’d just be asked to clear ‘weeds’ or gather crops from specific beds etc.  It seemed to me that the volunteers were subsidizing the customers by effectively ‘paying in time’ almost 3 times the amount  that non-volunteers financially paid.  That’s not fair!

      I’ve also paid for green building courses where I’ve paid and given up my time to construct a new green building for the people lucky enough to have the money to own the land in the first place!  That seemed like a double whammy!

      WOOFing is another example.

  8. p.s. usually the cost of employing someone is reckoned at double their wages I think, due to employers NI etc. Don’t know what you’d do for volunteers.

  9. And look at BTO Garden Bird Survey, might add up to around 50 hrs a year plus weekly data entry, though working in comfort from home. Participants pay BTO a special annual subs expressly to fund the scheme as well. A birding friend who travelled widely always aroused disbelief in other countries when describing how the scheme was voluntary recording but you paid for the privilege!

    1. Richard – that has always puzzled me too. I don’t participate so it doesn’t cost me anything.

  10. I hope the organisations I’ve worked for have valued and supported their volunteers – I think they have, certainly it’s something I’ve tried to do. They’ve all done thank-you events and updates and recorded, more or less, volunteer hours and reported them as being equivalent to so many extra full-time staff or whatever. And of course, for some grant schemes, volunteer time counts as match funding so it has a very real cash value.

    That said I can’t help thinking that our dependence on volunteers speaks volumes about the status of the natural environment within society. There are lots of services that keep society running but which don’t directly earn money. Police, fire, NHS, waste and recycling, road building, sewage treatment, education, social services; we all expect that the professionals who deliver these services will be paid. But nature conservation and giving people access to greenspace is considered so unimportant that society often expects it to be delivered for free, by volunteers. Often extremely well qualified volunteers. Do we, unwittingly, encourage this attitude? You value what you pay for is an old adage but it is still true.

    Sometimes I do wonder if our strength in volunteering is also a sign, and even a cause, of our failure to get the importance of the natural world taken seriously enough.

      1. I disagree with both of you.

        I’ve been a long time carer for a relative and now a friend getting no respite help and no day off for over a year. I have to provide constant care sometimes being up very late at night or early in the morning. For this I’ve been rewarded by the government with my Carers Allowance of $60 a week. That’s how much caring work is appreciated by government. If I was paid on an hourly rate … Well I can’t be bothered to estimate the salary I would be entitled to.

        Carers, wildlife rangers, conservation officers, volunteer coordinators, nursery staff etc etc all get terrible pay or do it for free. We shouldn’t resent volunteers who help the vulnerable. They’re helping society. Landowners, estate agents, bankers, solicitors, on the other hand get massive salaries. That’s where the injustice lies. It’s unfortunately a reflection of the importance of property, money and capitalism in society.

    1. “Do we, unwittingly, encourage this attitude?”

      It’s not an experiment that I would want to risk trying but my feeling is that if all the people who volunteer in different ways to nature conservation stopped doing so no-one would step in to deploy a fully funded army of professionals to carry out all the work instead.

      Of course it is not just time (and often expertise) that volunteers provide but also cash through our subscriptions and donations. The argument that by working for free we are letting the government off the hook of doing that work also applies to charitable donations – we are letting the government off its responsibilities to pay for maintaining a healthy environment (in the case of environmental charities) from general taxation. But, again, I think if we stopped paying money to the RSPB and other conservation charities we would simply witness much/most of the work they do falling by the wayside and the decline of natural habitats and the species they support would accelerate.

      So, yes, we may be encouraging the attitude but I fear we have little choice but to do so.

  11. One other type of volunteer that hasn’t been mentioned yet is the charity trustees. This group of people, often working ‘behind the scenes’, is legally responsible, amongst other things, for setting the strategy and priorities of the organisation, ensuring that it fulfils its charitable objectives, and its financial reporting to the Charity Commission.

    In the last 32 years I have been a trustee of nine local, regional or national charities (chairman of four of them) and I would hate to have to add up all the time taken, on top of the hundreds of hours a year that I spend ringing birds, doing atlas surveying, BBS, heronries census, butterfly counts etc. By law, the trustees of charities cannot be paid for their work so there is no question of substituting paid ‘professionals’.

  12. I’m a bit puzzled by this post. Volunteering should be a gift, a gift of time from one party, and a gift of ‘something to do’ from the other, which should be enjoyed and provide mutual benefit. This applies to any volunteering – conservation, sports coaching, hospital visiting etc.

    If this exchange of gifts fails, then one or both parties will be unhappy.
    If there’s no mutual benefit, it’s a poor example of volunteering that needs to change.

    Volunteering is evaluated financially for reporting on projects that receive funding – and is often a key lever, and measure of volunteer involvement. And it’s an interesting idea to discuss.

    But beyond that, it’s not a particularly useful indicator. Without volunteers, most volunteering would simply cease. No-one’s about to start paying others to step in. And everyone would be worse off.

  13. Volunteering shouldn’t be seen as saving a charity x thousands of pounds a year, instead it is a case of if the practical work, surveying etc. wasn’t done by volunteers it wouldn’t be done at all. I have done a lot of conservation volunteering (as well as some freelance work) and don’t expect my contribution to be recorded or it’s financial value to be analysed in any way. It is enough for me to know that my time has made a small but real difference, and to know that if, for example, I didn’t spend a day in the pouring rain picking litter of a beach then that trash would still be there. This knowledge is far more important to me than thinking that I might have saved a charity £100 in freelancer wages.
    I think it is up to conservation NGO’s, and the staff that work with volunteers to impress upon volunteers how they have made a real difference to the natural world, and not try to translate this into purely financial terms. Money can’t buy happiness, and if volunteers go away at the end of the day happy because they know they have done something positive then surely this is the most important thing.

    1. Hi Matthew… I agree that that is what most volunteers think, that giving their time is more important than anything and thatthey are helping make a difference. I was really trying to air the subject more widely as I suspect there are a FEW people who are based in conservation NGOs and other bodies who really HAVE NOT thought about what its worth, and I also believe there are a few who seriously believe its great that its money saved which they dont have to find in salaries………….

Comments are closed.