PWV members patrolling the Hewlett Gulch Trail, an 8.2-mile (13.2-km) trail in Roosevelt National Forest.

What Keeps Wilderness Stewards Coming Back? An Analysis of Practices that Enhance Volunteer Retention

Communication & Education

April 2021 | Volume 27, Number 1

by Martha Bierut

by Rebecca Niemiec

by Randy Welsh

by Dave Cantrell


We examined how wilderness stewardship organizations may enhance volunteers’ sense of belongingness and feelings of being valued to increase volunteer retention. We conducted 33 interviews and 40 surveys of volunteers in a wilderness stewardship organization with high rates of retention. Our findings suggest numerous factors may enhance retention by increasing belongingness and the feeling of being valued, including organizing volunteers into small groups for hands-on activities during events such as training weekends; incorporating purely social events; offering diverse opportunities for volunteers to participate in leadership, mentorship, committees, or other unique positions tailored to the skills or interests of individual volunteers; creating opportunities for formal and informal recognition of volunteers’ work; and helping volunteers see the impact of their work.

Wilderness stewardship organizations are essential to protecting and managing public lands (Lewis 2013). As federal funds for management of wilderness areas have decreased in the United States, land management organizations and agencies have increasingly relied on long-term volunteers to maintain and patrol trails, educate trail users, collect data, and remove litter and invasive species (Bruyere and Rappe 2007; Lewis 2013; Stepenuck and Genskow 2018). Given the growing reliance on volunteers to help agencies manage wilderness areas, it is increasingly important for wilderness stewardship organizations to design their programs to keep volunteers engaged and active over time. High rates of volunteer retention are important for maintaining data consistency, preventing wasted financial resources on projects, and reducing costs of constant retraining of new volunteers.

A growing number of studies have begun to investigate what factors influence volunteer retention to inform organizations and agencies on how to enhance retention rates (Asah and Blahna 2012; Asah and Blahna 2013; Bruyere and Rappe 2007). Previous studies have suggested that volunteer retention in stewardship organizations is influenced by volunteers’ social motivations to feel a sense of connection and belongingness as well as their personal motivations to feel valued and impactful (Asah and Blahna 2012; Asah and Blahna 2013; Asah et al. 2014; Measham and Barnett 2008; Ryan et al. 2001). Asah and Blahna (2012), for example, found that social motivations were the most significant predictors of volunteers’ frequency of participation in urban environmental stewardship programs in Seattle. The more volunteers wanted to interact with like-minded people, the more frequently they volunteered for their favorite stewardship organization. Environmental motivations were important only when personal and social motivations were met. Furthermore, Ryan et al. (2001) found that while the desire to help the environment initially motivated individuals to start volunteering for stewardship organizations in Michigan, organizational and social factors, such as meeting new people and feeling needed, determined volunteers’ commitment over time.

The importance of feeling a sense of belongingness and feeling valued for volunteering builds on psychological research, which suggests these concepts are critical motivators of human behavior (Ashktorab et al. 2017; Leary and Cox 2008). Burton’s (1990) human needs theory suggests that belongingness (i.e., the need to be accepted by others and have strong personal ties) and self-esteem and recognition (i.e., the need to be recognized by others as competent, capable, and having an impact) are basic needs that humans are constantly striving for and seeking out in their life, along with needs such as safety and freedom. Indeed, a feeling of belongingness and greater self-esteem and recognition has been associated with enhanced motivation and a variety of positive outcomes, such as increased work performance and self-directed learning (Ashktorab et al. 2017; Bakker and Demerouti 2008).

Figure 1 – PWV patrollers aid in trail navigation

Together, this research suggests that wilderness stewardship organizations could potentially increase volunteer retention by harnessing volunteers’ fundamental needs to feel belongingness, valued, and impactful. However, few studies have examined what specific practices organizations can engage in to fulfill such motivations (Handelman 2013). Our study sought to determine what specific practices wilderness stewardship organizations can engage in to help volunteers feel valued and a sense of belongingness within the organization. We were also interested in understanding the factors influencing retention in wilderness stewardship volunteer programs, including factors beyond social and personal motivations that may reduce participation or cause volunteers to leave an organization.

Our study was guided by the following research questions: What types of experiences or practices help volunteers feel valued and a sense of belongingness within wilderness stewardship organizations? What types of experiences or practices make volunteers feel less motivated to contribute to wilderness stewardship organizations? Why did volunteers leave a wilderness stewardship organization, and what would make them feel more valued?

Figure 2 – PWV Trail Crew members clearing a fallen tree from a hiking trail

Case Study Organization

Because we were interested in understanding practices that were effective at enhancing volunteer retention and volunteers’ feeling of belongingness and feeling valued, we focused our research on a case study of the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers (PWV). PWV is an organization with high rates of retention, a two-decade history of stable operations, and existing ties to researchers, which facilitated close cooperation. PWV was identified as a case study of successful volunteer retention through conversations with leadership at PWV and the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance. PWV was formed in 1995 to address the growing need for environmental stewardship volunteers to help manage public lands in the Canyon Lakes Ranger District of the US Forest Service in Larimer County, Colorado. From 1993 to 1995, the US Forest Service was forced to reduce coverage in the area PWV now patrols from 30 seasonal employees to 2. PWV cofounder Chuck Bell recognized a pressing need for volunteer support to reduce reliance on government funding. PWV was established as a nonprofit organization in Larimer County, Colorado, in 1996.

Today, PWV is a highly successful wilderness stewardship organization that boasts high membership and volunteer retention. In 2018, PWV had 318 active volunteers. From 2012 to 2018, PWV had 52 to 73 new recruits each year, with 55 to 80% volunteer retention beyond the first year of involvement. Entirely volunteer run, PWV “recruits, trains, equips, and fields citizen volunteers to serve as wilderness rangers and hosts for the purpose of educating the public, and provides other support to these wild areas” ( Leadership turnover at PWV is intentionally frequent, with board of director appointments lasting only two years to keep ideas fresh and to give all volunteers that want to progress into leadership positions the opportunity to do so. Some of the services PWV provides include conducting trail patrols to educate the public about backcountry safety and stewardship, reporting on trail conditions and usage, reporting and removing noxious weed species, and maintaining trails and other facilities. PWV members are expected to complete six trail patrols per season to remain an active volunteer in the organization.

This study will have the limitations of any case study, in that the organization selected reflects a community with specific demographics. Much of initial volunteer interest and recruitment for PWV could well be aided by the abundance of recreation resources adjacent to residents of Larimer County, Colorado, such as the Cache la Poudre River, the Arapaho and Roosevelt National Forests, and Rocky Mountain National Park. The local population includes people who moved here to be near these resources; as a result, accessing and protecting them may be a stronger motivator for residents than in some areas of the nation. What remains to be examined, however, is what mechanisms influence the high rates of retention within PWV, particularly given research suggesting that retention is often less influenced by environmental motivations and more influenced by social and community motivations (Asah and Blahna 2013).


Our case study involved a qualitative investigation into the factors influencing retention, conducted via interviews and open-ended surveys of PWV volunteers. We began with interviews of residents until we reached saturation, and then followed up with surveys. The in-person interviews allowed for a more in-depth examination of the nuanced factors influencing retention, belongingness, and feelings of being valued. The surveys supplemented the interviews by enabling us to look at which of the themes identified in the interviews were most reported among a larger sample of PWV respondents.

To recruit the interview and survey participants for this study, we sampled from the full population of all the organization’s past and present volunteers by email solicitation in November 2018. PWV leadership provided a list of 856 current and past PWV volunteers that was already stratified by PWV leadership into three categories: (1) those who are highly committed to the group and are involved in decision-making; (2) those who are engaged with the group but not the most active (i.e., those who have completed their expected six patrols per year but are not involved in other ways) and those who are involved, but only minimally (i.e., those who have not completed their expected six patrols per year); and (3) those who were once part of the organization but have since left. Interviewing and surveying volunteers from each of these three categories allowed us to determine how varying experiences, barriers, and motivations influenced volunteers with varying levels of commitment over time.

Through the interviews and survey, we asked participants 12 identical open-ended, semistructured questions about their experience with PWV, including when they felt valued and a sense of belongingness as a volunteer with PWV, when they felt less motivated to contribute to PWV, and what PWV could do to improve their volunteer experience. We also asked volunteers who left the organization why they had left (see survey/interview script in Appendix 1).

Interviews were carried out with 33 individuals from PWV who indicated their desire to be interviewed; of these interviewees, 9 were previous volunteers that had since left the organization, 10 were moderately or somewhat involved volunteers, and 15 were highly involved volunteers. After saturation was reached from the in-person interviews, the survey was sent out to the remaining volunteers who were interested in participating. The anonymous survey was created using Qualtrics with the same exact questions as the interview script. An additional 40 volunteers completed all or most of the survey.

Table 1 – The frequency of factors that facilitated volunteers’ feelings of belonging as well as their feeling valued, reported in surveys and interviews

Table 2– The frequency of factors that were challenges to volunteer retention, reported in surveys and interviews

All interview recordings were transcribed. Interview and survey results were coded using “structured coding,” which involves coding “a topic of inquiry to a segment of data that relates to a specific research question used to frame the interview” (Saldaña 2016, p. 98). We used an inductive approach for coding interview segments for each research question, which involved an iterative process of developing codes based on themes commonly mentioned in the data. Interview segments assigned to an initial code were then analyzed together for more detailed final coding. For each final code, we counted and tabulated the number of respondents who mentioned the code (reported in Tables 1 and 2).


Overall, interview and survey respondents discussed positive experiences with PWV, and most reported feelings of belongingness and being valued in the organization. In the first two sections of the results, we discuss the factors that led PWV members to feel valued and a strong sense of belongingness. In Table 1, we review how frequently each factor was mentioned across all surveys and interviews. Then, in the third section of the results, we discuss the factors that reduced some respondents’ motivations to volunteer and resulted in some volunteers leaving the organization (also summarized in Table 2).

Figure 3 – PWV Committee Chair meeting

Fostering Belongingness

When asked what specifically led volunteers to feel a sense of belongingness in the organization, participants from interviews and surveys most often mentioned Spring Training, which is the annual training weekend for new recruits, and the focal point of the PWV’s year (Table 1). Regarding Spring Training, one respondent mentioned, “You have to go through this training together, and that really, I think, bonds people.” The training weekend takes place from a Friday afternoon through Sunday toward the end of May (which is typically as early as conditions allow outdoor activities and camping). While the training weekend is required for new recruits, all members are urged to attend, and many are directly involved in support activities. A typical Spring Training weekend may see up to 180 PWVs on-site. Settings have varied over the years, but participants may camp, stay in RVs, or lodge in bunkhouse facilities. Meals are provided throughout, and mealtime socialization offers additional opportunities for old and new members to meet. Very early in PWV history (ca. 1998), training transitioned from lecture-discussion models to an interactive on-the-ground experience.

Many survey and interview respondents mentioned “Animal Groups” at Spring Training specifically as fostering a strong sense of belongingness. Animal Groups are groups assigned at Spring Training that include eight new recruits and two “Animal Group Leaders.” The groups are alphabetical, from “Antelope, Badger, Coyote, Deer” to the number of groups required to keep group size at 10, typically up to “Hawk.” The Animal Groups give new recruits a small core group within which they can form supportive ties, while the dinners and all-group activities at Spring Training give them an opportunity to start to meet more veteran members. One volunteer described the Animal Group experience as: “You’re also given a group and a mascot at spring training, which I think made even more of a family feel.” Another said: “You’re divided into a group, you have a leader, and you work with that group of people. Right there is a real sense of belonging.” The Animal Groups also help encourage belongingness for current members that take up the responsibility of leading a group. For example, one respondent said: “I was a group leader at the 2018 spring training, which involved a lot of preparation and study, but made me feel like part of the team.”

Friday and Sunday at Spring Training involve a mix of activities, ranging from small-group learning about the organization to open-to-all classes, always including trail patrol essentials such as First Aid, navigation, and safety. On Saturday, a four-mile-long Training Trail is carefully designed with stations to simulate what may occur on patrol, such as signage that people will encounter on patrols, including a trailhead kiosk, wilderness boundaries, and designated camping sites; weed identification; encounters with horseback riders; orienteering lost hikers; recruiting potential new PWV members; and simulated medical emergencies. At each station, one recruit takes “point” and handles the situation, followed by feedback and group discussion. The Training Trail, while taking the whole of Saturday’s training, is designed to be nonjudgmental and fun, with continual support from the two Animal Group leaders, and a focus on group learning and building camaraderie as well as confidence in volunteer roles and responsibilities.

Training continues after the Spring Training weekend through the mentor program. Indeed, mentoring was mentioned as another key factor fostering belongingness in surveys and interviews (Table 1). New recruits’ first three patrols are with a mentor, a veteran PWV member who demonstrates how the initial training carries into actual field work, visitor contacts, and patrol reports. These patrol mentors can be different from their assigned Animal Group leaders and can be designated through social contacts or formally in the organization, which encourages new relationships and connections within the greater PWV community. As one respondent said: “When I first joined, my mentor became such a wonderful friend, a person who I fully respected, enjoyed his company and felt that I really belonged to such a great organization.” Like with Animal Groups, respondents reported that serving as a mentor also helped to foster belongingness, not just being mentored.

Volunteers also reported feeling a sense of belongingness when they served in other leadership roles, were asked to contribute in a specific way based on their skills or interests, or when they worked closely with a group or another individual with shared interests and goals (Table 1). Besides from being an Animal Group leader or a mentor, one way in which PWV volunteers could gain experience as a leader or contribute specific interests and skills was through organizational committees. Under the guidance of an active board of directors, PWV operates through many committees, a structure that gives many opportunities for members, including new recruits, to engage. As of this writing, there are 39 committees named on the PWV website. These range from general organization needs (e.g., Recruiting, Fund Development, and Trail Report Committees) to functions specific to organizational activities (e.g., Stock Riding, Kids in Nature, Weed Crew, and Affiliation Gathering Committees). A few committees are necessitated by the size of the organization (such as the Organization Handbook Committee). These varied and diverse committees foster an environment where volunteers may get involved at the organizational level in different realms of personal interest and continue to work in small groups with shared interests. When speaking to the role of committees and leadership positions in fostering belongingness, one respondent said: “The year I served as overall PWV board chair – I got to know a large percentage of our members.” Another said: “She asked me if I’d be on the trail patrolling committee. That’s kind of the way I got involved.”

Volunteers also mentioned feeling a sense of belongingness when they attended social events such as casual meet-ups at a local brewery, fund-raising events, and the year-end party where individuals are recognized for years of service and stories of the year’s highlights are shared. Of social events and the camaraderie and belongingness they foster, one volunteer recounted:

I show up [at the year-end event], and the people there that I maybe did a patrol with a year before or saw them at some event seven months before, and they knew my name, and they knew things about me … that couple that I initially met, I keep in touch with them regularly. So, people keep in touch … It was like, wow! These people cared to make that connection.

Helping Volunteers Feel Valued

In response to our question, “What makes you feel valued at PWV?” interview and survey respondents most frequently cited being recognized and thanked by people they met while on patrols (Table 1). For example, one respondent replied: “The people on the trail who are enjoying it say thank you for volunteering and for the work that you do. That’s right at the top.” Another respondent expanded:

When people walk our trails, and we encounter them on the trails, I can’t tell you how many people say how clean our trails are compared to other trails they’ve hiked in other states and other areas. They just always comment on how impressed they are with their experience on our trails. That feels really good to me.

Respondents also mentioned feeling valued when they were publicly recognized by the organization and received awards. PWV holds year-end events, where stories of the season’s field work are shared, and individual members are recognized at five-year increments for years of service. There is also special recognition for accomplishments such as carrying out the most patrols in a season. One participant said, “I’ve received a couple of certificates. I was even kindly recognized at the year-end event, which was surprising, really sweet, I didn’t expect that at all. That was really nice.” Another said: “I’ve still got pins and a nametag. I have a special name tag, because I was there longer than 10 years and things like this.” In addition to more formal recognition, participants discussed the impact of receiving more informal praise and compliments from others in the organization. For example, one respondent who works on reports for PWV responded about feeling valued: “When [I was] helping the first year and every year since then with the surveys and evaluations, [I] would be thanked a lot for taking this on. A lot of thanks.”

Volunteers also reported feeling valued when they were able to feel like they “made a difference” or engaged in a task successfully and saw the on-the-ground impact of their work. For example, one interviewee said, “We hiked in 3 or 4 miles maybe, and we cleared a whole lot of little trees. So, you come back and think … we did good work today!” Another said: “The trail maintenance, I think I get more reward out of that. By the end of the day, you can see what you’ve actually done. To me, that’s been pretty rewarding.”

Finally, participants reported feeling valued when they were asked by organization leaders to assume a leadership role or to contribute a particular skill, and when their ideas were put into practice. On the importance of being asked to contribute a specific skill, one respondent said, “When they were working on the North Fork trail after I joined, they asked if any stock riders could come and they could help bring up pieces of the bridge … I felt really valued.” Another said, “I was so happy that I was chosen and allowed to do some really special things right from the start. It made me feel good about myself but also humbled to say, ‘man, I wouldn’t have dreamed it would work out this way.’” Respondents reported feeling valued when their ideas were put into practice, which occurred on committees and/or when the board of directors considered their ideas. One volunteer recalled:

Figure 4 – A social gathering brings volunteers together

With PWV, I could, when I was on the board, or I could go to the board right now and say, ‘do x. I think we should change the way this works,’ or something.… I just don’t feel like I have the type of influence with the city or the county where I’m able to with PWV. It’s another group of volunteers, and if you get everybody on board to do something, as long as the Forest Service approves, we do it.

Factors that Reduced Motivation to Continue Volunteering

While most respondents reported that their experiences with PWV were primarily positive, we were able to identify several factors that led to feelings of decreased volunteer motivation, frustration, and stress (see Table 2). Many of the concerns expressed are an unfortunate result of the size of the organization and the range of tasks taken on by volunteers.

The most mentioned factor leading to decreased motivation was the perception that there was too much work, too much pressure, and too many requirements imposed by the organization (Table 2). For example, several respondents cited the patrol reports (i.e., reports that they had to complete summarizing what they did during a trail patrol, how many hikers they encountered, how many broken trail rules and regulations were witnessed, etc.) as a source of frustration, while others claimed more broadly that the organization takes too much time from their lives. For example, the “PWV Training Manual,” which recruits are asked to partially master, now runs to more than 200 pages, and a conscientious new recruit might dip into a dozen other manuals covering specific areas. The need to provide good data to the US Forest Service has resulted in daunting, complex patrol reports (seven main categories, each with a plethora of potential details), so that learning to perceive and record the data that will go into a given report is challenging for some. Since the organization was founded to patrol trails, there is also a requirement of six patrols per year to occur in order to still be considered a fully active member, which some respondents claimed placed too much pressure on people volunteering their time. Other respondents offered that other volunteer tasks, such as serving on committees or doing trail maintenance, should be included in participation, since PWV’s activities are far more diverse today than its establishment more than 20 years ago.

Some respondents expressed frustration at the pressure from others within the organization to do more or to participate in activities with which they weren’t comfortable (e.g., one former member expressed interest in helping the organization in ways other than patrolling as they weren’t physically able to travel to and hike the trails). One member stated, “I guess maybe having the more intensely involved members put less pressure on me to become even more involved would help.” Others were frustrated by required rules, trainings, and recertifications. For example, the US Forest Service recently mandated that members do training every five years of volunteering at PWV, which frustrates some longtime volunteers who feel very familiar with the rules and regulations already.

The second most common factor that PWV respondents cited that reduced motivation to continue volunteering was a lack of social connection with other PWV members. Indeed, while group activities such as Spring Training and one-on-one mentoring hikes helped foster belongingness among many volunteers, those who were less motivated to continue volunteering perceived a lack of social or emotional connection. For example, one interviewee said: “Unless you actually get seriously involved in the organization, you don’t really get to know folks…. You sort of didn’t see these people around again.” Another respondent added, “Cliques are apparent, and not all members of the organization are other-oriented and welcoming.”

Another factor reducing motivation to volunteer over time was a perceived lack of interest or appreciation when members offered to provide skills or input to the organization, causing a general lack of “feeling heard” in the organization; for example, one volunteer mentioned that they wanted to contribute a specific skill that they believed could greatly aid the organization and were met with resistance from organization leaders, causing a perceived silencing and lack of interest. Another demotivating factor was the sense that work was being undone by other members, such as current organizational leaders changing what previous leaders had established. Although not related to social or personal motivations, respondents also discussed accessibility issues such as mobility, health-related challenges, and logistical problems such as horse troubles, driving long distances, or inability to attend weeknight events.

Factors that led to volunteers leaving the organization overlapped with factors leading to decreased motivation among those who were still part of the organization (Table 2). Former PWV members discussed that they left because of the perception that the leadership or culture was not inclusive enough, which discouraged volunteers from taking leadership roles or making connections with senior members. Much of this dissatisfaction arose from a view that the same types of leaders from the same social circles get selected to lead the organization. The next most common theme was too much bureaucracy involved with the volunteer organization; one respondent added, “It just seems to be more bureaucracy. With trail reports, every trail report that you submit is scrutinized by a committee. If you do something the wrong way, you get this nasty note.” Several respondents said that the perceived “red tape” and rigid organizational structure was too much like a professional work setting. Another respondent expanded on the frustrations of the bureaucracy involved in PWV: “They’re too over-engineered.… They try to run it like a federal institution, like a federal branch. While we are under the guidance and the instruction of the feds, we are volunteers.” Other reported issues were a perceived lack of organizational recognition for work or effort and not being heard by the organization, responded to, or reached out to personally.


We found that volunteers’ sense of belongingness in our case study was most often associated with serving in a leadership role or contributing unique skills/interests, social events, and a training weekend where participants were divided into small groups. Our results support those of previous studies conducted on belongingness in a work setting, which have found that belongingness is not only influenced by feelings of sociality (i.e., “being a member of a team”) but also by feelings of having a worthy and credible role in that team (Ashktorab et al. 2017; Levett-Jones et al. 2007). In our case study, the wilderness stewardship organization helped new volunteers feel they were part of a team by not only hosting purely social events but also by hosting a Spring Training weekend, when new recruits completed hands-on activities together in small “Animal” groups. The Animal groups especially helped members feel like they were part of a team through shared hands-on experiences during training, shared group leaders, and symbolic gestures affirming group membership (i.e., the name of the animal mascot representing their group).

We found that volunteers’ sense of belongingness in our case study was most often associated with serving in a leadership role or contributing unique skills/interests, social events, and a training weekend where participants were divided into small groups.

The wilderness stewardship organization also helped volunteers feel they had a worthy and credible role by asking them to complete unique tasks and take on diverse leadership roles. For example, respondents discussed a feeling of belongingness when they were asked to participate as a group leader at the annual Spring Training event, on the board of the organization, or as the leader or a member of one of the organization’s many committees. We found that even the smallest request to take on a specific, “worthy” role could create a big impact; for example, when asked about what led to a feeling of belongingness, one volunteer discussed being asked by other volunteers to play a mountain biker in a role-play during Spring Training.

These results suggest that to enhance volunteer retention, it may be important for wilderness stewardship organizations to not only host social events but also to make sure new volunteers are part of a smaller group that feels like family. This group could engage in a variety of different tasks together, whether it’s training (like PWV’s Spring Training) or group trail patrols, and could use symbolic gestures to affirm group membership, such as shirts, mascots, or group names. Our results suggest that wilderness stewardship organizations may also benefit from offering numerous unique roles and leadership positions to volunteers, which could range from being on the board of the organization, participating in a committee, or mentoring a new volunteer. Developing mentorship programs may be especially important for enhancing retention, as we found that in the case of PWV, these programs could enhance a sense of belongingness for the mentor as well as the mentee.

We found that formal and informal recognition were important for making participants feel valued. These results support those of Gooch (2005), who found that stewardship volunteers feel valued when they are thanked by the organization and when they feel that the work has been impactful. This also builds on Asah and Blahna’s 2012 findings, which suggest that people are not only motivated to volunteer for stewardship organizations to protect the environment but also to “defend and enhance their ego” (i.e., to maintain and enhance personal affect). Our results therefore highlight the importance of exploring new and creative ways to ensure volunteers are recognized both formally and informally by those inside and outside the organization. For example, volunteer organizations and government agencies could put up signs for trail users saying, “Thank your wilderness stewardship volunteer for maintaining your trail,” given our finding that gratitude from recreationalists was particularly motivating. In addition, organizations could offer formal recognition to volunteers; for example, awards or badges could be created for maintaining a website, raising a certain amount of money, mentoring, or organizing social events, in addition to completing trail patrols or engaging in more traditional wilderness stewardship tasks. It is, however, important to note that formal recognitions such as these were less commonly cited as motivating factors than informal recognition from organization members and the public in the case study of PWV. As a result, reminding the public, leadership, and other volunteers to thank those in the organization through more informal channels (e.g. emails, phone calls) could potentially make an impact for retention.

We also found that participants in our case study felt valued when they could engage in a task successfully and see the on-the-ground impact of their work. These findings relate to psychological research (Bandura and Schunk 1981; Keller 2006) suggesting individuals feel greater motivation to engage in a task when they have greater self-efficacy (they believe they have the ability to accomplish a task successfully) and greater response efficacy (they believe their actions will make an impact on desired outcomes). Respondents particularly discussed feeling motivated when they were able to visually see the products of their work (e.g., a section of a bridge built, or a section of trail cleared of downed trees). Our findings therefore suggest that to enhance motivation, wilderness stewardship organizations may seek to develop ways of showcasing the impacts of volunteers’ work. For example, organizations could share “before” and “after” photographs of trail work and invasive species removal efforts or keep track of the number of recreationalists reached through volunteers’ education to demonstrate the impacts of volunteers’ work.

In addition to investigating how organizations may appeal to volunteers’ need for belongingness and feeling valued, we also examined factors that may reduce motivation and lead to volunteers leaving an organization. The primary demotivating factors we identified were the perception of too many rules and requirements, too much pressure to contribute, and too much bureaucracy within the organization; a perceived lack of connection with other members; and a perception that the leadership is not inclusive enough. The perception of too many rules and requirements could pose a challenge to similar wilderness stewardship organizations, which often rely on formal reports to keep track of, analyze, and synthesize the impacts of volunteers’ work. Many stewardship organizations, such as our case study organization, rely on partnerships with federal and state agencies, which require formal reports and have certain rules and regulations that must be followed. Additional studies could examine if this perception of too many requirements is prevalent and demotivating in other stewardship organizations. If so, studies might do well to examine whether better distributing workload and responsibility to organizational leaders might lessen the perceived burden on patrolling volunteers. Another way to address this demotivating factor may be to ensure that organizational mentors and leaders better educate volunteers as to the value of requirements for goals such as ensuring trustworthy data and justifying activities to funding sources. Additionally, stewardship organizations could potentially choose these assignments for volunteers who have the temperament to enjoy the task and become proficient in it.

There are several limitations to our study that should be considered when interpreting our results. First, only 33 interviews and 40 surveys were completed to represent an organization with 856 past and present volunteers. While we ensured in our interviews that we received responses from volunteers with varying levels of motivation, our findings may not represent all volunteers in the entire organization. Another limitation was that the 40 surveys were completed anonymously, which prevented us from stratifying these respondents into groups based on level of participation, whereas we were able to do so with interview respondents. Additionally, our case study organization is in a community near to many natural areas on the Front Range of Colorado, so the organization may have had a larger population of individuals motivated to engage in environmental stewardship and recreation to recruit volunteers from. Further research could examine to what extent the practices for motivating volunteers we identified apply and how they could be adapted to the diversity of unique social and ecological contexts faced by wilderness stewardship organizations.


Given the increasing importance of volunteers to help agencies meet goals for wilderness areas, studies have begun examining the factors influencing wilderness stewardship volunteer retention. We build on this growing body of work by examining the specific practices that fostered volunteers’ sense of belongingness and the feeling of being valued within a wilderness stewardship organization. Our findings suggest numerous practices that organizations could adopt to enhance retention, including creating small, supportive groups of volunteers that engage in hands-on activities such as training; incorporating purely social events; encouraging involvement in unique tasks, committees, and leadership or mentorship roles; creating opportunities for formal and informal recognition of volunteers’ work; helping volunteers see the on-the-ground impact of their work; and developing ways to make regulations and rules seem less overwhelming or demotivating. Future work may build on ours by examining how these strategies could be implemented across diverse wilderness stewardship organizations and the extent to which these strategies may enhance retention over time.

About the Authors

MARTHA BIERUT is a PhD student in ecology and human-environment interactions at Colorado State University. She has a master’s degree in conservation leadership from the Human Dimensions of Natural Resources Department at Colorado State University; email:


REBECCA NIEMIEC, PhD, is a conservation psychologist and an assistant professor in the Human Dimensions of Natural Resources Department at Colorado State University; email:


DAVE CANTRELL, PhD, is a retired psychologist. He is on the board of directors of the National Stewardship Alliance and the advisory board of the Poudre Wilderness Volunteers. He has been volunteering for 22 years for the Canyon Lake Ranger District; email:

is the executive director for the National Wilderness Stewardship Alliance; email:


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Appendix 1: Interview Script

Poudre Wilderness Volunteers Interview Questions

By Martha Bierut and Rebecca Niemiec

Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, Colorado State University

  1. Do you have a background in environmental stewardship through school, work, previous volunteer work, etc.?
  2. How did you come to know about PWV? What drew you to the organization?
  3. How long have you been volunteering with PWV? How often do you volunteer, and what activities do you do when you volunteer?
  4. Tell me about an experience that made you feel excited about being a part of PWV.
  5. Is there an experience you can share that made you feel overwhelmed, frustrated, or less motivated to contribute to PWV?
  6. Tell me about a time in which you felt like you first connected with someone from PWV.
  7. Tell me about a time in which you felt like you truly belonged to the PWV community.
  8. Tell me about an experience that made you feel valued as a volunteer with PWV.
  9. Tell me about what could make you feel more valued as a volunteer with PWV.
  10. How does your experience with PWV compare to other organizations you’ve volunteered with? Do you feel like you belong more or less to the PWV community compared to that other organization? Why?
  11. Under what circumstances might you contribute more to PWV?
  12. [If no longer volunteering with organization]: Why did you stop volunteering with PWV? Do you volunteer with other groups now? Tell me about the other groups you volunteer with and how they differ from PWV.

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