Unlocking the Potential: Nurturing Volunteer Management Skills for Conservation Professionals

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Logo: Kingston Maurward College

By Brian Heppenstall, Countryside, Wildlife and Environment Course Manager, Kingston Maurward College
With contribution from Gillie Molland, Lead Ranger New Forest National Park

People standing in a heathland listening to an instructor
Students undertaking Volunteer Management Assessment (Kingston Maurward College)

Volunteers remain a crucial part of the wildlife conservation sector, in the UK and globally (Pagès et al., 2019). In the UK, coordination and management of these volunteers are typically carried out by conservation professionals in Ranger roles (or similar). In my two decade career in conservation, my experience is that management of volunteers is often given to those in entry-level positions, although this may not be universal.

Of all of the units that I teach here at Kingston Maurward College, “Managing Volunteers” often gets a mixed reception. With some students keen to explore the human elements of conservation and gain an understanding of the nuances of managing unpaid workers. Others voice that being able to manage people is just common sense and doesn’t need teaching, in response I ask them if they ever experienced, or heard of, someone who wasn’t a “good” manager.

Of the skills required for entry-level positions in this sector, one relevant to the duty of managing volunteers is communication skills, which almost 70% of entry-level roles advertised by CJS over the last 18 months asks for. Only 6% of these opportunities explicitly asked for soft skills related to leadership. In one advert, a full-time role advertised by a major charity, offered the absolute minimum wage and asked specifically for experience of managing volunteers as an essential requirement, I have said enough in the past around high expectations and minimal reward for conservation roles, this is perhaps one of the most egregious examples I have come across. In this study, entry-level positions were counted as those offering full-time salaries up to £24k.

If many entry-level job roles are requiring candidates to manage volunteers, where are we teaching, training or providing opportunities for those coming into the sector to develop or evidence skills like communication and leadership?

The curriculum written by City and Guilds for the unit on Managing Volunteers is actually rather good. It discusses some of the main factors that feature in contemporary research around this important element of the sector, i.e. individual motivations of volunteers and how these can be catered for. Research by Collins et al. (2022) shows that older volunteers prefer volunteering not to resemble work and don’t like to be relied upon. Conversely, work by Leyshon et al. (2021), highlights that participation by young people might increase if volunteer conservation tasks included elements that help build life skills. In these two studies alone we can see the different typical motivations of groups, with older participants tending to favour task-focussed programmes and younger volunteers more likely to participate in tasks focusing on the person, and less about the task. A little in-depth perhaps, but these two studies highlight the nuances that may exist within groups of volunteers, or perhaps these nuances and the complexity of catering for these, are a factor for low levels of diversity within volunteering. It is no wonder that Beirne and Lambin (2013) found that low volunteer retention can, at times, be linked to lack of experience within supervising staff.

The assessments within the unit focus on a number of written tasks, for example creating a volunteer handbook, or interviewing a volunteer and creating a plan to help them upskill, but by far the most creative (and popular) is the activity when they have to manage a group of volunteers. The criteria requires them to consider roles within a task for those who either lack confidence or may lack the physical ability to carry out traditional elements - they actually have to plan to adapt their task to different abilities. In all of my time as a Ranger, I never planned for this and I see now how useful this can be when considered in advance. The students also needed to ensure that their task was pitched in a way that appealed to all interests present, in order to match both their motivations and their expectations. This last point shouldn’t be underestimated, meeting volunteer expectations has been found to be a key factor in volunteer retention, according to a number of studies (Farmer and Fedor, 1999, Haski-Leventhal and Bargal, 2008).

These assessments, which aid development, are not limited to educational settings. They could easily be carried out in the workplace. As part of an employee's development, they could be set the task of coming up with a plan for a volunteer task, of course it should include all of the minimal aspects; risk assessments, tools, grid reference (biscuits!) etc, but it could also include means of promotion (linking back again to encouraging a greater diversity of volunteers), adaptation (planning for all abilities) and how the task could meet different expectations, i.e. are there student work placements with you that might benefit from taking more responsibility over an element of the task?

This last point, around developing the skills of students, brings me to a wider observation. If we train early year conservationists to effectively recruit, manage, develop and retain volunteers, then those skills can have a wider impact. If someone can be trained/supported to be an effective volunteer manager, then we may have also helped to develop an effective manager. This development should all happen in line with regular and quality appraisals. I speak to many people within conservation whose appraisals are either skipped, treated as a tick-box exercise or used as a way of dishing out the next job list. One former manager of mine used to apologise to me for “having to do them”. If we want great volunteer managers, great species and habitat practitioners, engaging outreach officers and motivated researchers, then we also need to give time to develop them.

My good friend Gillie Molland, Head Ranger at New Forest National Park uses a similar appraisal technique that I did, she says that appraisals “are an essential mechanism for Managers to support their staff members to develop, improve and achieve the most from their roles. They are an opportunity to look back and reflect on recent achievements, set objectives for the upcoming period and thirdly to recognise any knowledge gaps and identify training that is needed. As Brian has noted, managing the nuances of volunteers, ensuring their motivations are met and sustained provides an equal if not sometimes greater challenge than staff team leadership so ensuring volunteer managers have the appropriate skills is essential. Quoting the words of D Ryan Setzer, “A team is a reflection of its leadership””.

In summary, the duty of volunteer management is an important one. Firstly for the sector, who, in places, rely heavily on the inputs of a volunteer workforce, but secondly for the staff member themselves. Good managers are not born that way, they are developed (Brown et al., 2023) and this duty provides a good opportunity for reflection (from both the employees manager and themselves) as part of their development - and importantly for this sector, that comes at no cost, but it does require quality interventions, the most likely of which would be purposeful and meaningful appraisals.

Brian is on LinkedIn here


Beirne, C. and Lambin, X. (2013). Understanding the Determinants of Volunteer Retention Through Capture-Recapture Analysis: Answering Social Science Questions Using a Wildlife Ecology Toolkit. Conservation Letters, 6(6), pp.391–401. doi:

Brown, C., Njouondo, E., Viltz, D., & Bell, R. (2023, April 26). Effective Leaders Are Trained—Not Born! Social Science Research Network.

‌‌Collins, A., Bingley, A., Varey, S. and Oaks, R. (2023). Negotiating the volunteer role: a qualitative study of older volunteers’ experiences in woodland conservation. International Journal of Human Resource Management, pp.1–24. doi:

Farmer, S.M. and Fedor, D.B. (1999). Volunteer Participation and Withdrawal. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 9(4), pp.349–368. doi:

Haski-Leventhal, D. and Bargal, D. (2008). The volunteer stages and transitions model: Organizational socialization of volunteers. Human Relations, 61(1), pp.67–102. doi:

Leyshon, M., Leyshon, C., Walker, T. and Fish, R. (2021). More than sweat equity: Young people as volunteers in conservation work. Journal of Rural Studies, 81, pp.78–88. doi:

Pagès, M., Fischer, A., van der Wal, R. and Lambin, X. (2019). Empowered communities or ‘cheap labour’? Engaging volunteers in the rationalised management of invasive alien species in Great Britain. Journal of Environmental Management, 229, pp.102–111. doi:


First published in CJS Focus on Volunteering on 5 February 2024. Read the full issue here


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Posted On: 11/01/2024

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