Motivations behind conservation volunteering revealed

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Shared identity – and empathy – is a key motivating factor for conservation volunteers

A new study investigating what motivates people to conserve other species – and offer up their time voluntarily to help achieve this – reveals that empathy and guilt drive the behaviour.

NGO conservation organisations rely on volunteers to provide unpaid assistance. Help offered includes animal husbandry, veterinary aid, administration, research and management. What drives people to aid conservation efforts to save endangered species?


Social psychologists show the key to pro-social behaviour between humans is empathy towards those we identify with. We assist those we believe we have things in common with and who are similar to us in some way. These similarities do not have to be physiological but can be constructed on the basis of other features.

Touch promotes connection

The current study examined how shared identity operates in motivating people to conserve non-human species. Open-ended questionnaires given to 111 international volunteers working on global animal conservation projects involving a range of animal species, asked why they had got involved and what motivated them to continue.

Qualitative analysis revealed that shared identity with either the animal and/or the NGO’s values was key to the decision to volunteer and to continue. Volunteers could create shared identity with the species being conserved through either place (we all live on earth) or anthropomorphism (the attribution of human characteristics and cognitive capabilities).

Previous studies show that anthropomorphism is common when the animal is mammal, but the current study revealed that species did not matter. A reciprocal relationship was perceived between human and animal particularly when the work involved direct contact with the species (being ‘hands on’). Touch promotes connection.


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Previous studies show that anthropomorphism is common when the animal is mammal, but the current study revealed that species did not matter

Other motivating factors include human guilt. Most volunteers reported that as humans have destroyed and exploited biodiversity, it is our duty to repair the damage. Conservation is an opportunity to relieve some of that guilt for the common good. This gives the volunteer positive self-esteem.

Conservation NGOs must provide helpers with a positive identity. Social psychologists emphasise the importance of positive self-image and social identity in guiding human behaviour. Where volunteers reported feeling used, undervalued, and subject to significant others questioning the reputation of the NGO, s/he would cease providing help.

Any conservation practice that is implemented which requires volunteers’ needs to take into account the human psychological factors that embraces or rejects it. Specifically, being given an opportunity to identify with the animal being conserved, the NGO’s values, and the chance to redress the damage done by humans, seem to be at the forefront of volunteers’ minds. As long as NGOs require volunteers to protect biodiversity, they will need to engage with the psychological factors required in recruiting and maintaining that help.

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