Conservation volunteers having a break from restoration of the Cleddau horse bridge, Fiordland National Park, March 1993

Image: Paul Wilson


A blend of experimentation and controversy influenced the development of our first national volunteer policy and programme. It sparked significant changes to public involvement in our work.

It could be argued that the creation of our first national volunteering programme in the late 1980s really began to cement the concept of public involvement in the Department's work. Volunteer activities had been inherited from the Lands and Survey volunteer ranger programme and Wildlife Service volunteers.

"We had staff who were interested in working with volunteers and we used to get lots of enquiries from overseas wanting to volunteer," says Christine Jacobson who led the development of the programme at a national level. These days Christine is a senior policy adviser for Porirua City Council but her role in DOC at that time was to research and lead the development of a new volunteer programme.

Stranded Minke whale being moved by volunteers.
A stranded minke whale is moved by volunteers, Whites Bay, Marlborough, 1995
Image: Colin Davis

"The National Parks Centennial year was drawing to a close and I was asked by Les Molloy and Wren Green to look at the idea of a Conservation Corps. Research also indicated that we needed to look at volunteers as a separate programme. Four district offices were given seeding budget to develop a programme in the way they were working in their areas. It was a bit of an experiment to see what would work well, and what lessons we could learn from four different approaches." The pilots were evaluated followed by guidelines, models, training and networking opportunities for staff.

But the work was controversial. "Some of the senior managers were particularly keen on leveraging volunteers to get more work done for free. It took some persuading to convince those people that volunteers not only produced useful work, but that it was a great opportunity to do some conservation education/advocacy as well."

On top of this the NZ Workers Union was also very concerned that volunteers would take their jobs and we had to reassure them this wasn't the case. "That's why the initial volunteer guidelines were strict about making sure that volunteers would not do core work and would have the combination of work and education aspects."

Christine believes what helped the programme's development was "inspired and courageous staff who were prepared to experiment." She believes the change the volunteer programme brought to the organisation was a consistent approach to how it engaged with people who wanted to volunteer. "We wanted to appropriately value the contributions outsiders could bring. I never imagined that it would spark some of the significant changes to DOC's structure. It was always such an add-on in the early days."

Back to top