Environment volunteers and citizen scientists provide value to the ACT in many different ways. Some of these values are obvious and immediate, such as planting trees that create habitat for wildlife and provide shade for picnickers in an urban park. Other values, such as the improved health and wellbeing of those who participate in volunteering, are more intangible.
This page discusses some of the values of volunteering and in a few cases attempts to quantify them, but this is still a work in progress. Part of the reason for this is that collecting information that enables these values to be quantified often requires volunteers themselves to commit many more hours of their time to reporting on their activities or responding to surveys. Most volunteers would simply rather spend this time doing something more hands-on – as one person put it during a workshop to collect information for this report, volunteers don’t want to be a statistic – they just want to work!
Future ACT State of the Environment Reports will build on these discussions and statistics to continually improve how we recognise and appreciate the contributions of volunteers. Perhaps ironically, the most obvious values of volunteers’ work – environmental restoration and scientific contributions – have proven the most difficult to quantify.
Equivalent Wage Value
We have calculated that it would cost over $21.5 million each year if the ACT’s environment volunteers were paid for the work they do.
The direct replacement cost of volunteers with paid labour is a common way of measuring volunteer value, but collecting data about volunteer hours and the types of work being done is challenging. This is largely because this data collection depends on volunteers themselves putting in even more time to reporting, an administrative activity which most do not find especially rewarding.
In previous calculations of volunteer time contributions, the Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment (OCSE) extrapolated figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) General Social Surveys to determine hours of volunteer contribution. For this background report, OCSE has gathered this information directly from volunteer program managers and community groups, and in some cases has calculated volunteer time based on informed estimates.
There are a number of reasons for this change in approach, but chiefly it is because this report is focussed on on-ground environmental volunteering, citizen science, and wildlife care only.
The General Social Survey data does not differentiate between different kinds of ‘environment’ volunteering, and so also includes domestic animal care, sustainability and climate change work which are not covered in this paper.
The figures used in this report are still likely to substantially underestimate the time spent by environment volunteers and citizen scientists working in the ACT, but represent the best available data at this time. Across all volunteer program areas considered on this site, OCSE estimates that 307,047 hours are contributed each year. The approximate breakdown for these is 85,687 hours for on-ground environmental work; 69,268 hours for citizen science, 121,935 are for wildlife management, and 30,158 hours for administration.
The equivalent wage cost for this work would be $21,684,671 per year.
In calculating equivalent wage costs for these hours, OCSE has used an hourly rate of $50.40 per hour. This is based on ABS data for the average 2020 wage in the ACT specifically. The average rate has been chosen to account for the wide range of skills and expertise that volunteers contribute, ranging from unskilled manual labour through to extremely high levels of technical and scientific expertise.
Much of the volunteer work undertaken in the ACT requires some level of technical knowledge, and indeed many volunteers had or have careers in academia, industry or the public service and bring their professional skills to their volunteer work. Currently, a detailed break-down of the different types of volunteering and associated skill levels is not available across the diverse volunteer programs and groups in the ACT.
The calculations for this report also include 17% on-costs to account for overheads that would apply if volunteers were replaced by paid staff. This is a very conservative estimate, covering only base level superannuation contributions and payroll tax. The calculation also assumes one hour of travel time for every five hours of volunteer work.
Due to differences in reporting times and the impacts of COVID-19, this report does not claim to show volunteer value for a particular year, but rather for an approximate 12-month period within the period of 2018-2020.
Volunteering and Wellbeing
We have calculated that environmental volunteering in the ACT saves over $13 million per year in avoided healthcare costs.
Many national and international studies (refer below for a selection of these) have demonstrated the link between environmental volunteering and wellbeing, showing a combination of improved physical health, mental health, and social belonging, among those who participate in this type of volunteering. While this is clearly beneficial to the individual volunteers themselves, the societal benefits have proved difficult to quantify.
In 2021, Landcare Australia and consultant KPMG have sought to do this by calculating the avoided healthcare costs arising from participation in environmental volunteering. Their report estimates economic benefits of $2,182 per year for each person involved in regular environmental volunteering (this is the ‘middle scenario’ out of three scenarios posed by KPMG). This is made up of avoided physical and mental health costs and savings due to increased personal psychological resilience to natural disasters. In the ACT, where OCSE estimate approximately 6000 people regularly participate in this kind of volunteering, that is a financial benefit to the economy of the ACT of $13,092,000 per year.
In 2019-20, the ACT Government developed a Wellbeing Framework to measure and improve the wellbeing of the Territory’s citizens. The purpose of the framework is to increase the government’s ability to embed wellbeing considerations in government processes and service delivery. This framework recognises that connection to a healthy and resilient natural environment is an essential aspect of wellbeing, and particularly relevant for those living in urban areas. This is indicative of the ongoing shift in the way that interacting with the natural environment is valued by decision-makers, and environmental volunteering and citizen science are undoubtedly an important component of this in the ACT.
“While working in reserve areas we are, in effect, an extension of the eyes and ears of the ranger force in regard to land management issues. We are able to report fires, new occurrences of weeds and pest animals, unrecorded Aboriginal sites, and problems with locks and gates, for example.”
NPA ACT volunteer
Parks and reserves make up more than 60% of the ACT. With such a large area of land being managed for ecological values and associated reasons, the capacity provided by volunteers cannot be underestimated. However, due to the many different entities involved in coordinating volunteer work in the ACT, it has not been possible to collect information to provide a clear overall picture of the on-ground contributions made by volunteers to the natural environment.
Some community groups do this very well – for example Friends of Grasslands through their incredibly detailed annual reports – but it is not reasonable to expect this level of record-keeping from volunteers as a general rule. More transparency around the outcomes of volunteer programs run by ACT Government would be welcome.
Perhaps the single aspect of land management where volunteers consistently provide value to enhancement of the ACT’s environment is weed control. Weed removal comprises the majority of work carried out by both ParkCare (41% of total hours) and urban Landcare (60% of total hours) volunteers. The ACT invasive plants operations dashboard, which displays weed control carried out by government staff, paid contractors, and volunteers, demonstrates the scale of volunteer contributions to land management efforts and how this is comparable with the work done by professionals. It is also an example of the way in which ACT Government can showcase the work of volunteers. The Invasive Plants Plan 2020-25 acknowledges frequently that volunteers are a key part of managing weeds in the ACT, but does not attempt to quantify the value of their work.
Community groups can also bring funding to the Territory which cannot be accessed by the Government; for example in 2020 volunteer-led community groups brought in $421,685 for environment projects in the ACT through the Australian Government’s Communities Environment Program.
Science and Knowledge Values
Citizen science is increasingly being recognised at the global level, in part because of the sheer scale of information that can be collected by members of the public rather than solely by scientists. In addition to this, peer reviews of citizen science data are finding that it is often comparable in quality with information collected by technical specialists. In the ACT, findings from citizen science programs are already contributing new knowledge about plants and animals at the national level.
Recognition of the invaluable role of citizen science is growing in the ACT Government; citizen science data is increasingly being incorporated into its reports, and the collection of such data forming a component of its strategies and plans. The government has recently committed to long-term funding for the Waterwatch program, and shorter-term funding for Canberra Nature Map and Frogwatch.
This growing appreciation for citizen science is reflected in the EPSDD Science Plan 2020-2025, which states that: Citizen science is increasingly important as acceptance grows regarding use of multiple data sources, and new technologies enable good science to be designed, produced, proofed and analysed using citizen (volunteer) input. Its impact goes far beyond generation of knowledge to engagement, education and building community support for conservation and sustainability.
Strengthening collaboration with citizen scientists is one of the goals of this plan, and progress against this goal will be reviewed in future SoE Reports produced by OCSE.
Canberra Nature Map is widely used by the ACT Government, including GIS officers, Conservation Officers, and Park Rangers, to inform their decision making and management actions regarding the protection of Canberra’s wildlife. Having good data on new outbreaks of weed species aids in their management and removal, and Canberra Nature Map contributors are the main reports of new weed incursions into the ACT.
Finding out about new weed infestations quickly enables government land managers to eradicate them quickly, before they become more widespread.
Data collected by Waterwatch volunteers is used in a range of ACT Government and others’ reports and plans, and has been used as evidence in successful grant applications to secure funding for projects to rehabilitate waterways in the region.
An example of how citizen science data is being incorporated into by ACT Government conservation strategies can be seen in this technical report about the mysterious Small Ant-blue Butterfly. The report draws heavily on information collected by citizen scientists through Canberra Nature Map, and the author notes that monitoring ‘needs the continued involvement of citizen scientists, as this was critical for last season’s success. These citizen scientists are highly skilled, keen and knowledgeable observers able to contribute greatly to search effort in their local patches, and as such are an invaluable asset to the success of future monitoring.’
Another aspect of the knowledge-based value of the ACT’s environment volunteers is the specialist expertise that is held by volunteers, often to a very high level. Many volunteers working in the ACT have decades of knowledge about their particular reserve, or may have come from a career where they worked professionally in conservation or research. These people are able to share their experience both with fellow volunteers and community members, and with government staff. The long-term ‘corporate knowledge’ that some volunteers have about particular sites is a particularly valuable resource that is difficult to replicate among government staff, who generally do not stay in one role for their whole career.