The volunteer workforce – challenges and opportunities
Time has flown by. It feels like only yesterday MCP opened its doors, and already we’ve achieved a fair bit. We have had our share of successes, but have certainly also made our fair share of mistakes. As one of the founders of MCP, this is a good time to take a step back and look at and share our experiences with running a volunteer based organisation, and try to highlight some of the challenges and opportunities we face in the future.
Marine Conservation Philippines is a volunteer based conservation organisation. Although we have successfully applied for and secured some grants and have received minor donations, by and large we rely on volunteers for both funding and labour. Volunteers who join our project not only help us stay operational through their financial contribution via the volunteer fee, but also provide the labour allowing us to do the work we wish to do. In short, with the money they donate to the project they in a very real sense fuel our cars, paint our walls, pay our staff, fill our tanks, feed everyone on base, replace our equipment when it wears out and allow us to expand our operations. With the labour they provide, they allow us to gather data, plant mangroves, teach in the community, clean marine debris, remove ghost nets and many other things requiring intense amounts of manpower. If it sounds like I am spelling it out – it’s true, I am. We couldn’t do anything without volunteers! Even if we had all the funding, no-strings attached whatsoever, we would still need the massive manpower resource of volunteers to do the work.
Volunteer divers at work
That we operate this way, funded by volunteers and with a volunteer workforce, gives us some unique challenges and opportunities (To most researchers who work in the confines of tight budgets and limited time and manpower, we have absolutely mouthwatering amounts of volunteer man-hours to throw at problems and projects. A large challenge in marine science is getting enough data – for us though, that is never a problem.). On the other hand, one of the challenges we face is that academia – sadly often for good reasons – are hesitant to endorse the work of organisations who are in the borderland of eco-tourism. This is regrettably a completely valid concern – many projects, often perceived to be non-profits or NGO’s are in fact business enterprises. Many commercial projects accept volunteers not yet aged eighteen, or recruit volunteers on very short placements or let volunteers do nonsensical work. In the worst cases, some even help create or support the very problem they allegedly try to solve (Cambodian orphanages, big cats volunteering and some elephant petting zoos to name some) Our challenge is that as we are volunteer based, we get summarily grouped together with these commercial projects which if not directly hurts our scientific credibility, then certainly puts the pressure on us to show results and scientific backbone. Almost two years down the road from our launch in March 2015, I’d say we are well under way with this – but we need to keep the steam up and constantly prove ourselves (see our achievements) and continue being a resource to universities, peoples organisations and local government units.
A second challenge is that the volunteers who join our project to a large extent are untrained. Most are scuba divers when they arrive, and we are fortunate that many have a relevant background in biology or a related field. However, by and large, the majority of our divers are untrained in the sort of work we do, and need minimum a week and half of training before they can start contributing to our efforts. That we have previously accepted volunteers for placements as short as four weeks, that means our return of investment (time and manpower spent in training) is often limited, which of course is why we have always encouraged volunteers to stay longer, and why in 2017 we’ve upped the minimum volunteer stay to six weeks.
Above all, the most crucial thing for a conservation organisation is to actually make a positive change in its field. There is just so much to do, so how efficiently (how well our efforts translate into results) we engage these issues is of great importance. This means the question of how we best use our volunteers becomes key. Based on the feedback we get from former MCP volunteers, we know many volunteers like to get involved with different kinds of work while with us. This is completely understandable if you come with no precise idea of how you can help – after all, trying many different things and helping in many different ways sounds appealing. However it forces us to look at our return of investment. Does it make sense to teach a four-week volunteer for two weeks to be a good safe scuba diver able to do scientific work, if that person then spends some of his remaining two weeks to plant mangroves or maybe teach in a local school and do beach clean ups, even if only for a day or two? Well, Perhaps in some ways, as they leave as ambassadors of the underwater world which is always worthwhile in a global perspective – but not so much in terms of efficiency.
Basically, scuba diving is a highly specialist skill, that takes significant time to train people to do well. Scientific scuba diving, if only in limited citizen science application, takes even longer and is even more specialist. Using specialists in a generalist role is wasteful of the special talents that so much time was invested in acquiring.
So in a nutshell, we are learning it’s a balancing act between efficiency on one hand, and living up the dual expectations of both volunteers and the community on the other hand. What happens under the waves isn’t visible to non-divers, so it’s obviously valuable for us to “show our flag” and be out there and help on the beaches and in the mangroves, as it helps us engage local stakeholders that we are seen doing actual, practical work. (This sort of work is also enjoyed by many volunteers, which is not without importance either. After all, the continued success of Marine Conservation Philippines depends on our continued recruitment of volunteers.) On the other hand, we can best achieve efficiency and hence results by training specialists, and then have them focus on that particular job.
So, now a year, almost two, down the road, evaluating where we strike that difficult balance, has led us to walk down some new roads in unorthodox approaches in order to try to to increase our efficiency. A key component of this has been to up the minimum volunteer period to six weeks (from four previously,) secondly although volunteers still take part in a many faceted project, we now redirect parts of the volunteer fees to hire locals (who the local government has agreed to deputize) to guard MPAs, clean beaches, plant mangroves, and let the volunteers spend more of the precious time short time we have them, to be more involved with the underwater efforts requiring specialist training. That way, we believe we can achieve more. We can do more science, we can collect more garbage, we can protect larger areas, and create employment opportunities for locals etc.
We hope we will look positively at this development in another year and half from now and see how it helped us expand our reach and influence. We also trust and hope our rationale behind this development makes sense to the volunteers who join us.