Menopausal Mother Nature

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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?