During my work in the conservation sector from 2007 to 2011 in Borneo, Australia and New Zealand, I was in positions which aimed to involve untrained citizens in environmental restoration activities such as tree planting, weed control, predator control and environmental monitoring.
My focus during this research period was to trigger my memories of my previous experiences, by accessing my old blog posts, photos, and videos. This was a relatively immersive approach thanks to my photography from the time, and my desire to share my experiences with friends and family overseas.
Most of the recollections were fed into the mapping exercises, such as ‘a day in the life of a conservation team leader’ and a spatial journey map for international volunteers visiting New Zealand. I also found archives of my photo monitoring activities for my employer of the time, Conservation Volunteers New Zealand, which spurred a line of enquiry into environmental monitoring and evaluation.
In my role as a team leader with Conservation Volunteers, I was primarily concerned with running experiences for local and international volunteers. I was in a privileged position in the conservation sector - a stable, salaried role, backed by an organisation which valued professional development and developing strong processes to support staff. This is not the norm for project coordinators in the community sector, who mostly run their projects with very little money (some are part-paid, few are full time or paid a ‘market rate’ for their skills), many almost exclusively working with volunteers - both the governance and the people who turn up to take action on the ground. Project coordinators are often required to do a mix of volunteer recruitment (graphic design, marketing, administration), conservation planning (restoration management, project management, stakeholder liaison), event management (health & safety, conservation skill training, volunteer motivation, data capture), and project governance (report writing, grant applications, stakeholder liaison, financial accounting).
Project coordinators are often very knowledgeable about the practicalities of conservation, and many wish to do work which would have more impact. They are willing to learn new skills, try new approaches, and draw on lessons from outside the sector. The majority of this intention can be stifled by the lack of time available and the broad scope of their work which demands constant frame switching (which is a heavy cognitive load). However if some of the repetitive tasks which are currently done manually could be automated, semi-automated, or otherwise eliminated, it could release time and resources to focus on improving the impact of the project.
This breadth and depth of skills required often makes the coordinators vital to the project’s survival, and in turn, over-relied upon, stressed and at risk of burnout.
When you add the ‘underpaid’ aspect to this situation, you often find that coordinators see their work as unsustainable in the long term. Some leave to find other work, or will stay in the role for a few years and then hand over the project to another person - with their knowledge and skills being lost, and having to be replicated by their successor if they have one.
With community-led conservation providing a significant portion of Australia and New Zealand’s conservation activities (Peters et al, 2015 ), care and attention is needed to sustain their work.
As a well resourced organisation, we still had limits on the scale of participation we could support. These limitations were often three fold:
Amount of tools we had available (and could maintain to a high standard)
Health & safety guidelines for Supervisor to Volunteer ratio
Amount of time available for staffing multiple events
Often I have seen a focus on supporting conservation projects to find more volunteers, or alternatively to make it easier for volunteers to find activities - often represented by the regular cycle of people and organisations setting up digital platforms and portals to channel eager volunteer energy towards projects (Collaborate, and Nature Space for example). Whilst removing friction of volunteering is important, it is not a silver bullet.
What most project coordinators really want, is more loyal and committed volunteers, who they can train a little, and know they will quietly get on with whatever task they are asked to do, without hurting themself or someone else.
In short, a committed team of 7 volunteers who turn up every weekend may well do more than an untrained army of 30 who turn up once or twice a year.