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Understanding the impact of

volunteering on pro-
environmental behavioural change
and wellbeing
Voluntary Sector and Volunteering
Research Conference 2014

Mike King, Resources for change
Roberta Antonaci, The Conservation Volunteers
Valentine Seymour - Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS), UCL

Volunteerism is viewed by many (Dolnicar and Randle, 2004; Hobbs and White, 2012) as a key
source of social capital that supports the social structural functioning of communities. Each year
10 million people across England (UK) volunteer in a host of capacities and settings, being an
integral part of society. Such view is underpinned by three key motivations; firstly volunteering is
viewed as a positive measure to enhance future possibilities and the quality of life of the
individual; secondly, volunteering can infuse social cohesion and stabilize social capital thereby
strengthening citizen participation and unity amongst those from disadvantaged and advantages
groups of society; and finally it evokes participation of citizens in local governance, seen as a vital
component of the democratic process (Haski-leventhal et al., 2009). Nonetheless, whilst these
voluntary activities, including the encouragement of public engagement and related behavioural
attitudes, contribute to the growth and strengthening of social capital, there still remain barriers
that limit the understanding of their full potential, owing to the lack of information regarding
their value and importance for both individuals and society (Arvidson, 2009; Ellis and Gregory,
Within the past two decades there has been growing effort amongst the UK volunteering
organisations to enhance existing impact measurement practices, with charity evaluation services
and think-tanks including the Inspiring Impact Network, the National Council for Voluntary
Organisations (NCVO), New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) and the Association of Chief Executives
of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO), leading the innovative movement (Harlock, 2013).
More recently mental wellbeing and physical health agendas are increasingly a concern of policy
makers, public health officials and researchers of ecopsychology, seeing a rapid surge in the
thousands of programmes that have emerged in the past decade (Blue gyms, Green Gyms, virtual
environments as well as other ecotherapy programmes) within the UK alone to motivate people
to become more physically active outdoors (Bird, 2012). Such new call for a green agenda within
the UK health care system follows the growing evidence that suggests natures benefits of
peoples mental and physical wellbeing. For instance, in a recent meta-analysis study conducted
by Barton and Pretty (2010) which analysed 10 UK studies involving 1,252 participants found
that dose responses for both intensity and duration of exercise were regarded as showing large
benefits from short engagements in green exercise, with every type of green environment
improving both self-esteem and mood. But, as many researchers are pointing out, though these
outdoor programmes do present some positive results, they have yet to be scrutinised to
rigorous scientific analysis, particularly as the prescription of drugs and pressure on health care
services continues to rise owing to the lack of alternatives that are known to produce benefits
(Depledge, 2011; White et al., 2012).
If it is simple to record the impact of volunteering in terms, for example, of the number of trees
planted or tasks undertaken, it is much more challenging to measure other benefits such as
personal development, health or behaviour change.

In order to fill this gap in knowledge, for the past three years The Conservation Volunteers (TCV)
have been running the Green Impacts Project. This action research project has set out to better
understand and record whether an involvement in outdoor activity influences the development
of more environmentally friendly lifestyles for individuals and leads to greater community
resilience for groups.
This paper links the research findings from the Green Impacts Project which focused on
particular at the impacts of volunteering on development of pro-environmental behaviours with
TCV wider work investigating the impacts on individual health and wellbeing.
The data presented on wellbeing refers to a specific TCV programme: TCVs Green Gym. The
Green Gym was established in 1997 with Dr William Bird, GP and has been endorsed by the
Department of Health to have proven impacts on the participants health and wellbeing as well as
on their community spaces.
Green Gym provides a unique way for people to come together, get physically active and
improve at the same time their wellbeing and the environment through practical activities such as
planting trees, seeding wildflower meadows and growing food. Unlike other TCV conservation
projects, the emphasis is very much on health and fitness. Sessions run to maximise health
benefits and include warm-up and cool down exercises.
Firstly, we will discuss the aims and methodology of our research. Secondly, we will present the
results of the statistical analysis. Finally, we conclude and discuss the main empirical findings.
1. Methodology
1.1 Pro-environmental behavioural change
It is easy to look at the impact of volunteering from an outputs perspective, but the benefits that
volunteers themselves receive from what they do is just as important. For this reason, since 2012,
The Conservation Volunteers have been running the Green Impacts project, which has
researched the effects of volunteering on volunteers' pro-environmental behaviour and linked its
results with changes in health and wellbeing. The Green Impacts Project has adopted an
approach first developed by WWF and CAG Consulting called the Change! Tool, based on the
behaviour change cycle developed by James Prochaska and Carlo DiClements in the 1980s. Their
model is based on a cycle of behaviour change with the following steps: pre-contemplation,
contemplation, action, maintenance and lapse or relapse. The Change! Tool uses a set of
questions that are based around sustainable lifestyle choices and focuses on measuring where
volunteers are on a cycle of behaviour.
It measures the volunteering impacts on the adoption of pro-environmental behaviour in 8 main
areas: travel, waste, food growing, local decisions, energy, wildlife in your area, community,

The research focused on a mixed group of TCV volunteers based in London. Surveys were
undertaken at regular intervals during a persons engagement with TCV. A baseline survey was
undertaken at the first point of contact with a TCV project and then subsequent surveys were
undertaken after completing four volunteering tasks and again after 10 tasks. The Green Impacts
Project has been able to analyse data from 1,059 surveys (784 baseline surveys, 202 Second
surveys 73 third surveys).
To better understand the factors that might be influencing any reported behavior change, a
qualitative component to the research was developed. Interviews with volunteers were
undertaken to explore in more depth the motivations behind the behaviour change.
1.2 Wellbeing
TCV believe the quality of our natural environment is a powerful driver of health and wellbeing;
the Green Gym project, in particular, promotes better health and wellbeing, a socially alternative
to conventional gyms. In order to track its impact on the volunteers, TCV use a range of methods
to capture the change in health and wellbeing of its volunteers, and the wider impact of their
activity through social, environmental and economic outcomes.
The results on the impact of volunteering on wellbeing presented in this paper were collected
through the SF-12 questionnaire and the Short Warwick Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale
In use since the beginning of Green Gym, the SF-12 questionnaires are the most widely used
tools in the world for measuring patient-reported outcomes, with more than 41,000,000 surveys
taken and over 32,000 licenses issued to date.
Mental wellbeing has only recently been measureable with valid and reliable measures. The most
popular scales of mental wellbeing in the UK are the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being
Scale (WEMWBS) and the short version (SWEMWBS) that was used for this research
Volunteers are surveyed on registration with the Green Gym and after their 4
, 10
, 20
sessions. Since April 2008, 6,500 SF-12 surveys have been collected (including 3,744 baseline
surveys, 1,472 second surveys). TCV started to survey using WEMWBS from October 2012
since when 478 surveys have been collected (352 baseline surveys, 126 second surveys).

1.3 Pro-environmental behavioural change and
It has been commissioned by NHS Health Scotland and developed by theUniversity of Warwick and theUniversity of Edinburgh. TCV havebeen using this means of
measuring wellbeing in Green Exercise, a partnership with Mind and Walk Unlimited (2012-15) funded through theDepartment of Health Innovation Fund.

A series of correlation tests were applied to assess for significant relationships between
volunteers wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviour scores. All statistical analysis utilised was
performed with R statistical programme version 3.0.3, with those data sets lacking homogeneity
of variance being normalised.

2 Results

2.1 Pro-environmental behavioural change

TCV asked volunteers to report on their pro-environmental behaviour. Fig. 1 shows an example
of one of the areas TCV asked volunteers to report, waste. For each area, there are six different
options that go from low to high in the scale of pro-environmental behaviour.
If on the baseline survey a volunteer was to say I consider the environment when throwing
things away and then on the first follow-up survey after 4 sessions was to say: I
recycle/compost some of my waste, this would be considered a positive step change on their
pro-environmental behaviour. A negative step change would be the opposite.

Fig. 1 A section of the pro-environmental behavior survey, Waste

I do not think there is a connection between the waste I produce and the environment.
I do think there is a connection between the waste I produce and the environment but I dont recycle.
I consider the environment when throwing things away
I recycle/compost some of my waste.
I recycle/compost most of my waste.
I recycle/compost all of the recyclable and compostable material in my waste.

2.1.1 Change increases over time

Fig. 2 shows the self-reported behaviour change between the first and second surveys and
between the first and third surveys. These results suggest that involvement in volunteering is
having a positive impact upon peoples attitudes and behaviours towards the environmental
impact of their lifestyles and their willingness to engage in their locality. It is also apparent that the
amount of change that individuals report develops overtime.

Fig.2 Self-reported pro-environmental behavior change

Shopping Travel Waste Food Energy Your area Community Local Decisions



Survey 1 -2 Survey 1-3

2.1.2 Volunteering appears to promote more change in certain areas than
in others

Volunteering is a process of active involvement therefore it perhaps should not be surprising that
it engenders an interest in local civic engagement.
Volunteers reported in the interviews a wider appreciation of what voluntary action could
achieve and a growing confidence to get involved.
Travel is another area where volunteers reported that their behaviour had changed. The
suggest that peer pressure and the example set by TCV in its use of sustainable transport were
key factors; it would be useful to undertake further research to ascertain the significance of these
influencing factors.
The negative result for waste is intriguing, as recycling and waste reduction are well established
environmental behaviours. Interviews suggest that when volunteers undertook the baseline
survey felt that they were doing as much as they could and were also frustrated that there were
not the opportunities and facilities for them to do more.

2.1.3 External factors play a key role

The Green Impacts Project looked at a number of factors related to the participant completing
survey, to determine how peoples lives outside of their voluntary role might affect their ability
willingness to change. The following key points emerged:
Gender differences were evident with women reporting three steps of change and men only
one between the first and third surveys.
Positive change was more evident in the 2554 age range than either the younger or older age groups.

Volunteers coming from areas ranked as most deprived on the Index of Multiple Deprivation, show the
most change as a result of their volunteering experience.
As illustrated in Fig.3, volunteers coming from areas ranked as most deprived were most likely to
engage in new behaviours that had a direct economic impact such as transport and energy use.
Those from mid ranking localities were more likely to engage in their local community and make
different shopping choices. The least change was evident in those who came from the least
deprived areas.

Fig. 3 Impact of socio-economic background on pro-environmental behavior change

Shopping Travel Waste Food Energy Your area Community Local Decisions

2.1.4 How TCV organises volunteering appears to have a major influence

There is not one TCV model for organising volunteering but many different approaches based
on the needs of the volunteers and the type of activity undertaken. The Green Impacts Project
looked at two of these models:
Action Teams: where the primary focus is undertaking work to conserve a green space.

Green Gyms: where the focus is on the improving the health and wellbeing of the volunteer
through being outside and involved in practical work to promote biodiversity and grow food.
Fig. 4 shows that there is a significant difference on how the volunteers respond to the questions
on environmental behaviours. This would suggest that Green Gyms are far more
effective at stimulating behaviour change than Action Teams.

Many people who join a Green Gym are referred by health practitioners or have joined because
of a motivation to improve their own health. The interviews have shown than many are not
initially motivated by an interest in the environment. This is backed up by the baseline survey
which shows that consideration of their impact on the environment starts from a low base.
However, ongoing involvement in the Green Gym opens peoples eyes to the issues and what
they can do to help address them. By the time of the third Survey many are reporting that
volunteering has changed the way they think about and respond to environmental issues.

Action Teams primarily attract volunteers who are motivated by the idea of undertaking work to
improve the environment. Baseline surveys show that they start from a much higher level of
appreciation of environmental issues and their progress through the surveys suggest that the
process of volunteering does not add much to this understanding. The negative change shown in
the third survey results needs further investigation but might be a result of volunteers being
helped to see the bigger picture and recalibrating their view of their own contribution.
This is borne out by the few volunteers who have gone on to undertake fourth and fifth surveys,
where the results show a high level of positive change.

Fig. 4 Impact of different types of volunteering on pro-environmental behaviour change

Shopping Travel Waste Food Energy Your area Community Local Decisions

2.2 Wellbeing
2.2.1 Volunteering positively impacts health and wellbeing

In 2008, an independent evaluation of Green Gym by Oxford Brookes University
found that
Green Gym has a positive effect on volunteers mental health. Furthermore, participants with the
lowest mental health scores on the introductory questionnaire were three times more likely to be
the ones improving the most.
The results presented here represent the first attempt to analyse data from Green Gyms across
the UK not only on mental health, but also on wellbeing. They confirm the same conclusions
drawn by Oxford Brookes University.

Fig.5 shows the percentage of volunteers who reported an improvement. All volunteers attended
four or more Green Gyms and completed the first and second SF-12 (1,472 volunteers) or
WEMWBS (126 volunteers) surveys. Both the SF12 and Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being
Yerrell, P. (2008) National Evaluation of BTCVs Green Gym. Oxford Brookes University

Scale (WEMWBS) show a significant percentage of people are reporting physical and mental
health improvements during their time volunteering on Green Gyms. From survey 1 to 3,
51.72% of the volunteers improved their physical score, 58.89% improved their mental health
score and 52.83% improved their wellbeing score.

Fig.5 Percentage of volunteers improving health and wellbeing

2.2.2 Impacts are even greater for volunteers that receive training
The data also suggests that volunteers who are given training and progress into positions of
responsibility report even greater improvements in physical health, mental health and wellbeing.
There is an opportunity to conduct a thorough analysis of the SF-12 data, and to look further into
volunteer progression on both the physical and mental health components, through 4, 10, 20
and 30 sessions, and link to other factors such as training to identify any correlation that could
support the development of Ecotherapy programmes such as the Green Gym.

2.3 Pro-environmental behavioural change and
Physical Health
Mental Health
Percentage Vos improving
their scores

2.3.1 Correlation between wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviours
Based on 54 people who answered both the Green Exercise and Green Impacts surveys, a
correlation test indicated that there is no significant correlation between subjective wellbeing and
pro-environmental behaviour change (r = 0.139, p< 0.168). Instead, as Fig. 6 shows, pro-
environmental behaviour is evident across the wellbeing spectrum and those with poor or
excellent wellbeing scores where just as likely to exhibit pro-environmental behaviours.
Further correlation tests also showed there to be no significant correlation between volunteers
overall wellbeing scores with each of the pro-environmental behaviours individually.
Fig. 6: Correlation between volunteers subjective wellbeing and pro-environmental
behaviour scores

3 Findings
TCV has long championed the wider impacts of volunteering, and as part of this process has been
running the Green Impacts project for the last three years to better understand and record
whether involvement in outdoor volunteering influences the development of more
environmentally friendly life styles, and leads to greater community resilience. The paper presents
the findings from this research and links this with TCVs wider work to monitor the impacts of
volunteering on individual health and wellbeing.

3.1 Pro-environmental behavioural change
Various environmental problems pose a threat to environmental sustainability, among which
global warming, urban air pollution, water shortages, environmental noise, and loss of
biodiversity. Many of these problems are rooted in human behaviour (DuNann Winter & Koger,

2004; Gardner & Stern, 2002; Vlek & Steg, 2007), and can thus be managed by changing the
relevant behaviour so as to reduce its environmental impacts.
A wide range of studies focused on the role of moral and normative concerns underlying
environmental behaviour from different theoretical perspectives. First, scholars have examined
the value-basis of environmental beliefs and behaviour (De Groot & Steg, 2007, 2008; Nordlund
& Garvill, 2002; Schultz & Zelezny, 1999; Stern & Dietz, 1994; Stern, Dietz, & Kalof, 1993;
Stern, Dietz, Kalof, & Guagnano,1995). These studies revealed that the more strongly individuals
subscribe to values beyond their immediate own interests, that is, self-transcendent, prosocial,
altruistic or biospheric values, the more likely they are to engage in pro-environmental behaviour.
A second line of research focused on the role of environmental concern. Different
conceptualisations of environmental concern have been used, but environmental concern has
mostly been measured by the New Environmental Paradigm scale (Dunlap & Van Liere, 1978;
Dunlap, Van Liere, Mertig, & Jones, 2000). These studies revealed that higher environmental
concern is associated with acting more pro-environmentally, although relationships are generally
not strong (e.g., Poortinga, Steg, & Vlek, 2004; Schultz & Zelezny, 1998; Vining & Ebreo, 1992).
A third line of research focuses on moral obligations to act pro environmentally. These studies
are based on the norm-activation model (NAM; Schwartz, 1977; Schwartz & Howard, 1981) or
value-belief-norm theory of environmentalism (VBN theory; Stern, 2000; Stern, Dietz, Abel,
Guagnano, & Kalof, 1999).

The volunteerings contribution on influencing pro-environmental behavioural changes has not
been extensively analysed and quantified yet. The Green Impacts Project was established to fill
this gap in knowledge. The results from the data collected in the 3 years Research Project show
that individuals are positively influenced by their involvement in volunteering, with a positive
change across all pro-environmental behaviours apart from waste. The three areas that
volunteers self-reported most change on behaviours were: encouragement of wildlife in your
area, active engagement in local decisions and transport.
The research explored the many factors that influence the volunteers ability and willingness to
change, such as gender, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic background, and the different types of
volunteering activities. For example, positive change was more evident in women than men, in
the 2554 age range than either the younger or older age groups.
Volunteers from areas most deprived on the Index of Multiple Deprivation show the most
change as a result of their volunteering experience, with the most significant change to behaviour
in their engagement with their local community.
These findings will help TCV to better support volunteers and tailor programmes to suit the
demographic profile and needs of local communities.

3.2 Wellbeing
Volunteering has proven to have multiple benefits for people over the course of their lives. The
substantial scientific literature has found a positive relationship between volunteer activity and
positive physical and mental health outcomes. Volunteering has been found to be associated with
better physical functioning, better self-rated health, improved psychological wellbeing, and even
increased longevity (Greenfield and Marks, 2004; Lum and Lightfoot, 2005; Morrow-Howell et
al., 2003).
Further, research suggests that engagement in environmental organisations and activities may
provide additional benefits beyond those found in other types of volunteering. In a national
survey of over 2,000 respondents, Librett and colleagues (2005) found that compared to non
volunteers, individuals who performed any kind of volunteering were 1.8 times more likely to
meet the standards for physical activity established by the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention guidelines. Environmental volunteers, however, were 2.6 times more likely to meet
these guidelines. Given the well-known relationship between physical activity and mental and
physical health (Prohaska et al.,2006), one benefit specifically of environmental volunteering may
be increased physical activity, over and above other types of volunteering.
A second benefit of environmental volunteering is increased exposure to nature. Studies have
shown the benefits of exposure to nature for older adults, including improvements in cognitive
functioning (Hartig, Mang, and Evans, 1991), enhanced psychological wellbeing (Kaplan, 1973),
and greater levels of physical activity (Ellaway, Macintyre, and Bonnefoy, 2005).
A third way in which environmental volunteering might promote health and wellbeing is by
increasing social connections and support. Environmental activities generally take place in
organised groups that are typically intergenerational, thus offering a variety of opportunities for
meaningful relationships and shared experiences (Pillemer and Wagenet, 2008).
The recent research conducted by TCV, whose results are presented in this paper, confirms the
positive results of volunteering on health and wellbeing highlighted by previous research. In
particular, it also suggests that participants with the lowest mental health scores on the
introductory questionnaire were three times more likely to be the ones improving the most.
Furthermore, volunteers who are given training and progress into positions of responsibility
report even greater improvements in physical health, mental health and wellbeing.
3.3 Pro-environmental behavioural change and
Many of those volunteers surveyed through Green Impacts on pro-environmental behaviour also
completed the WEMWBS survey in parallel, providing a unique opportunity to compare the

interactions between subjective wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviours. Findings from the
analysis indicated that there did not appear to be a particular level of subjective wellbeing
attained before pro-environmental behaviours became evident. Instead, subjective wellbeing
scores were apparent across the spectrum, both high and low, regardless of a volunteers degree
of pro-environmental behaviour exhibited, and were equally likely to display pro-environmental
behaviours. As such, this could suggest there to be other factors involved including the type of
volunteer programme or activity, locality of the volunteering activity, how wellbeing is viewed by
individuals (e.g. hedonic versus eudaimonic) as well as the external barriers which can prohibit
pro-environmental behaviours (Venhoeven et al., 2013; Kollmuss and Agyeman, 2002).
Further, unlike previous studies by Brown and Kasser (2005) and Xiao and Li (2011), this analysis
showed that pro-environmental behaviours of volunteers cannot be used directly as a predictor
of subjective wellbeing. Nonetheless, it is important to note that the findings are based on
comparative analysis, in which causality between pro-environmental behaviours and subjective
wellbeing of volunteers cannot be inferred. By contrast, this comparative analysis serves as a
preliminary baseline upon which ongoing research will explore further the direct connections
between a volunteers wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviours as well as changes that occur
at an individual level as they progress through their volunteering experience.
3.4 Conclusions
Understanding and articulating the many impacts that emerge from the process of volunteering
is of considerable importance if these are to continue to flourish. It is especially pertinent at a
time when public budgets are severely challenged and it is increasingly the case that communities
are being encouraged to take more responsibility for their own surroundings and their futures.
The Green Impacts Project has been able to add some important perspectives on this subject but
has also pointed the way to further research such as:
a pro-environmental behaviour study across multiple regions and encompassing a wider
range of activity, perhaps using citizen science.
The relationship between health, wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviours.
How interventions in the volunteering process, such as training and mentoring, impact the
development of health, wellbeing and pro-environmental behaviours.

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