Volunteers In Community Marine & Coastal Education
86 Polwarth Road, Lorne, Victoria 3232
Biography: Since assisting with my first rockpool ramble at age 15, I have developed a keen interest in community education, gaining experience working as a Seasonal Interpretation Officer at Grampians, Mornington Peninsula and Kakadu National Parks, and as a Training Officer with Greening Australia Victoria.
I am currently working as a Coast Action/Coastcare Coordinator and am on the executive of both the Victorian and Great Ocean Road Branches of the Australian Marine Conservation Society.
78 Henna Street, Warrnambool, Victoria 3280
Biography: As an Interpretation Officer with the Department of Natural Resources and Environment my introduction to the field of interpretation had a primary focus on national parks and the appreciation of these special areas. In this environment the audience was predominantly visitors to the area.
In my current role in the Coast Action/Coastcare Program, my interest and experience in interpretation has expanded to techniques for encouraging community involvement in the protection of local environments.
"Volunteers are more trouble than they are worth."
By investigating this commonly held sentiment we have identified a number of benefits and constraints involved in working with volunteers in community marine and coastal education. This workshop will examine these, making suggestions for overcoming problems associated with volunteers through recruitment, training and evaluation.
By focusing on the Coast Action/Coastcare Summer Activities Program in Victoria, we will also provide a working example of the potential to generate ongoing community support for marine and coastal protection through a focused, volunteer based, community education program.
Since the recent surge in environmental awareness worldwide, the concept of volunteerism has attracted more attention, with issues surrounding volunteer management being widely discussed. The original pros and cons of volunteers in any aspect of conservation or resource management still remain, primarily that expectations of a volunteers time and expertise can be too high, and that the time involved in preparing and supervising volunteers creates additional work for an organisation that can sometimes outweigh the benefits gained.
This paper will give a brief overview of the benefits and constraints to engaging volunteers in community marine and coastal education, with a primary focus on the Victorian Coast Action/Coastcare Summer Activities Program. In addition it will put forward possible solutions to the constraints that are commonly identified in utilising volunteers.
In any situation where volunteers are put to use there are potential direct and indirect benefits to the volunteers, organisation engaging them and to the wider community (Black 1995). In the delivery of interpretive community education services this also holds true. With proper planning and management of volunteer community education programs there is the potential for a mutually beneficial situation for all parties.
Volunteers stand to gain from the opportunity to broaden experience in management techniques and develop specialist skills; networking with people with similar interests; involvement in a team situation and having an input to management decisions; increasing future employment opportunities; and perhaps most importantly a feeling of self satisfaction and confidence in personal abilities and communications with others (Black 1995; Hamilton-Smith 1995).
A natural or cultural heritage agency organising a volunteer community education program also stands to gain. The immediate effect is the direct interaction between volunteers and staff, generating support for management objectives. The volunteers in turn reach a wider audience through more frequent interpretive events (Oaten 1989). Volunteers, as representatives from many different parts of society, can also offer new and creative perspectives on management approaches (Brownlie, 1991).
Historically the primary motive for organisations engaging volunteers has been as a cost saving enterprise. This saving is not always immediate or indeed even monetary, but the potential benefits of conveying a desired message are far reaching and hopefully long term. Once a program is up and running this can also free up employees for other projects where their skills are required.
What may not be initially obvious is that the wider community also benefits from involving volunteers in community education, based on the goodwill this can create amongst individuals and groups. It provides the community with an opportunity to become involved in resource management where previously this has been limited through fear of involving "non-professionals" (Hamilton-Smith 1988). Training provided to volunteers contributes to building the skillbase of the community. Environmentally based volunteer community education programs can also generate increased understanding and support for community conservation initiatives.
Overcoming the obstacles
Obviously there are always two sides to the coin and problems do arise in setting up a volunteer community education program. These are discussed below along with possible solutions or mitigative measures to ensure that the overall benefits of volunteer involvement in community education are upheld.
For the volunteers there are obviously demands on time and consequently this imposes restrictions on participation in other revenue generating activities. Ideally it is those who don't mind sacrificing this time that will volunteer their services anyway, and the non-monetary benefits of their efforts in terms of experience gained and community service are of real value. Where living costs and other general expenses are incurred by the volunteer these should be meet through organisational allowances.
There is the possibility that volunteers will be shown little respect by staff or the public, and the tendency to land volunteers with the unwanted or menial jobs. This can be avoided through proper planning of a volunteer program arising from the recognition of a real need for a particular service. Staff should also be given the opportunity to contribute to the development of volunteer programs (Black 1995, Brownlie 1991). Projects with visible outcomes should be initiated early so that at the last minute it doesn't become a mad rush to find something to keep them occupied. Abuse from the public while conducting community education activities, either general or directed towards government agencies, can be a problem, but this is not specific to volunteers and there are means of preparing for this and offering appropriate responses in the event of this occurring.
One potentially negative factor for volunteers is that, in some cases, to volunteer services requires a selection process. In a climate where it is difficult enough to gain employment and experience holds the key to successful job applications, it is easy for people who are willing to volunteer to gain that experience and are not successful to become disheartened. Selection processes could perhaps address this by having alternatives to offer unsuccessful applicants.
For the organisation engaging the volunteers there is a real possibility that overall resources dedicated to a program run by volunteers can exceed what would be needed to run the program internally. However the biggest resource in this instance is time and provided that proper planning goes into an event like this then limited resources will be needed from then on, particularly if volunteers choose to return and the preparation required for subsequent events is lessened. The same philosophy applies to the ongoing supervision of volunteers on the job, and in the long run this shouldn't put excessive demands on the organisation's time.
Perhaps the biggest constraint for organisations is the potential for the public image of the organisation to be tainted through inappropriate actions or comments from volunteers. This is particularly relevant to community education where face to face contact with the public is the primary requirement of the work. The public may also question the professional standard of people delivering a community education activity. Risk (1992) points out the importance of credibility in interpretation and how this can be established at an early stage of the recruitment process.
Thus a sound selection and training program can address the problem of maintaining credibility, along with other strategies such as provision of a uniform. In addition, if volunteers are able to receive feedback on their work from audiences and/or staff through informal or formal evaluations this can also help to continually improve their credibility with the public.
With any volunteer work there is a risk that skilled but unemployed people are boycotted for free labour (Black 1995 and Hamilton-Smith 1988). To help avoid this potential conflict, volunteer projects should not be based solely on everyday responsibilities of the organisation but be more designed to meet the needs of the volunteer and at the same time help to achieve organisational objectives that may not otherwise be met. It can also be pointed out to sceptics that volunteering is a way of providing community input into the management of natural and cultural resources and providing a sense of ownership of public areas (Hamilton-Smith 1995). Government injection of funds into community based heritage projects also reflects this increasing awareness of the need for community input into resource management.
On a smaller scale there may be disadvantages for organisations in relation to security and abuse of the provisions of the organisation. Overall unpredictability in volunteer skills and numbers is a problem (Black 1995) and the ongoing possibility that volunteers can pull out at any stage and leave the organisation with a program to run is a valid concern! The simple way to try and avoid this is to ensure that volunteers are shown respect from colleagues and contributions to the organisation are acknowledged and valued.
Case Study - The Coast Action/Coastcare Summer Activities Program
The Coast Action/Coastcare Community Program aims to facilitate direct community involvement in the management of coastal and marine resources. In order to do this it is vital that the community understand the values of these environments and appreciate the many threats they face. Over the past three years Coast Action/Coastcare have developed a highly successful Summer Activities Program in coastal Victoria to encourage a caring ethic amongst people visiting the coast and provide support for community conservation projects.
The Coast Action/Coastcare Summer Activities Program has two main components: the Campground Host program, involving volunteers living in a campground and running daily community education activities, and individual activities run by paid contractors. Over 11,000 participants took part in the 1997 Program which involved 50 volunteers providing activities in 12 campgrounds across the state, along with over 500 activities run by contractors and community groups.
This case study will focus mainly on the volunteer-based Campground Host element of the Summer Activities Program. When planning for the Campground Host Program Coast Action/Coastcare staff have identified the following important factors to be considered (Coast Action/Coastcare 1997).
Volunteer Selection and Training
Before undertaking a volunteer-based community education program it is essential that an organisation define why they are developing the program. This involves determining what organisational needs or objectives will be met, and how volunteers can contribute to this. Once you have an understanding of these objectives you can define what basic skill and experience the volunteers will need. This information can then be used in selecting volunteers that will be appropriate for the organisation. Advertising for Campground Host volunteers is mainly focused at universities that offer environmental or recreational courses. By doing this many of the people applying to be volunteers will already have a basic understanding of the issues and messages the Program will be promoting.
Volunteers undertake an intensive 5 day training course, covering various aspects of marine and coastal flora, fauna and ecology, coastal games, art and craft and other activities. This training week also provides Coast Action/Coastcare staff with an opportunity to observe the volunteers to ascertain what particular skills they have and to assess group dynamics. As these volunteers will be designing and running community education activities together, it is essential that they are divided into groups that work well together.
Throughout the selection and training process it is crucial that both the volunteers and Coast Action/Coastcare staff have a clear understanding of what is expected of them. As part of the Coast Action/Coastcare training volunteers and staff compose a Code of Practice by which the Campground Host Program will run. This Code of Practice assists in developing a professional image for the Program and can help prevent misunderstandings.
Of course one week of training will not turn volunteers into professional interpreters, marine biologists or coastal ecologists. However this lack of in-depth knowledge about a particular area or environment need not limit the range of activities volunteers are able to provide. Training in the basic design and preparation of interpretive activities should enable volunteers to develop activities that deliver a desired message and provide an enjoyable activity for all involved. Activities commonly run by Campground Host volunteers include rockpool rambles, beachcombs, trivia nights, coastal clean ups, art and crafts and bluff, heath, fossil and beach walks. As many community eductors know though, with a little imagination and a lot of improvisation, the range of activities possible is virtually limitless.
While much of the Campground Host Program revolves around the volunteers, they cannot be expected to do it all on their own. Support comes from the Coast Action/Coastcare staff in all forms, ranging from pre-program planning to activity ideas and problem solving. The amount of staff time this support take is considerable. Indeed the greatest part of a Coast Action/Coastcare Coordinator’s time during the Summer Activities Program is taken up in orientation, supervision and meeting the needs of volunteers (with each Coordinator supervising 6 - 10 volunteers, usually in 2 locations). Planning the Program, and volunteer selection and training, also involves a significant workload in the months leading up to summer.
For the Program to be a success staff must understand and be willing to take on this task, and provide encouragement and recognition for the job the volunteers are doing. A negative attitude rubs off on both volunteers and participants, greatly reducing the effectiveness of the program and the image of the organisation.
Although at times the workload and number of issues to be considered when developing a volunteer based community education program may appear somewhat daunting, Coast Action/Coastcare have found that the benefits the Campground Host Program provides the volunteers, organisation and community justify the resources required to make the Program a success.
Running the Campground Host Program is not free. Apart from the time spent by Coast Action/Coastcare staff in co-ordinating the Program, costs include volunteer accommodation, training, advertising and publicity, materials and uniforms. Coast Action/Coastcare also give their volunteers an allowance to help with the costs of living away from home and travel to the campground.
Some of these costs can be met through sponsorship. Campgrounds and caravan parks at which Campground Hosts are based sponsor the program through the provision of sites for an activity base and volunteer accommodation.
Contrast with Contracted Activities
One of the main drawbacks with using volunteers to run a community education program is that they will rarely be able to provide activities that require expert knowledge, specific qualifications or specialised equipment. Professional interpreters, through greater experience and training, also often have better presentation skills than volunteers.
So why not run a community education program purely with contracted staff rather than undertake the extra work involved in a volunteer based program? Apart from the many benefits we have already mentioned, public feedback regarding the Coast Action/Coastcare Summer Activities Program gives us further insight into this. It is not uncommon for participants in Campground Host activities to mention how impressed they are that the volunteers are willing to give so much to provide activities for them.
The commitment to conserving our natural and cultural heritage that this demonstrates often has a profound impact on people. For some people the simple fact that someone cares enough about conserving the coast to freely spend time conveying this to others can generate much more support for this conservation than any number of rockpool rambles or guided walks.
By combining the volunteer based Campground Host Program with the contracting of professional interpreters, Coast Action/Coastcare have been able to produce a balanced program of community education activities spanning the coast of Victoria.
Overall there are many factors involved in engaging volunteers in community education and it is not something that can be left to the last minute and then be expected to run smoothly and without excess cost to an organisation. With careful scrutiny of management needs and objectives, a sound planning and consultative process, and appropriate selection and training procedures, the potential benefits can extend to the adoption of a unified and holistic approach to conservation.
Black, R. 1995. Volunteers: Aiming for Mutual Benefit, in Interpretation and the getting of wisdom. Conference proceedings, (Beckmann, E.A. and Russell, R.)
Brownlie, T. 1991. Volunteers in national parks. Australian Ranger
23, pp. 43-45.