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Environmental issues are particularly salient for today's generation of young adults. Indeed, many have suggested that it will be this generation that will lead the environmental movement forward. Therefore, this study examines the motivations and mechanisms that influence proclivity and intensity of young adults' environmental volunteerism. Using a survey of environmental attitudes and behaviors of college students at a large urban Canadian university (n = 1 372), we assess why today's young adults volunteer for the environment and the factors that motivate their commitment. Our findings suggest that young adults who engage in pro-environmental behaviors in general, as well as those who volunteer for other types of nonprofit organizations, are more likely to volunteer for environmental nonprofit organizations. Moreover, we find that social aspects of volunteering are the strongest positive predictor of the intensity of volunteerism in environmental groups. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
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Today's generation of young adults are likely to be more aware of their place within the ecological landscape, having grown up with Earth Day celebrations all of their lives. Indeed, it was this generation that witnessed the worst oil spill in human history and also lived through the ecological devastations caused by natural disasters, such as hurricane Katrina, the Haitian earthquake, and the Indonesian and (the more recent) Japanese tsunamis. Given their exposure to these events, some believe that this generation will be pivotal in leading the environmental movement forward (McKay, 2010). In the US, for instance, student enrollment in degree programs related to the environment has steadily been on the rise (Galbraith, 2009); and in Canada, surveys indicate that young people today are more concerned about issues such as global warming than they are about advancing their own careers (CamWest News Service, 2007). Even in the workplace, today's generation of young adults has been shown to value green facilities and employers who engage in environmentally responsible behaviors (Hewlett et al., 2009).
Overall, these pro-environmental attitudes would seem to be encouraging, considering that favorable attitudes toward the environment have, at times, been shown to be positively related to a number of individual pro-environmental actions, such as recycling, reducing waste, and using public transportation (Vining & Ebreo, 1992; Kaiser et al., 1999). However, although these types of pro-environmental actions are undoubtedly important, confronting the ecological challenges of today will likely require more community-oriented solutions such as volunteerism and civic participation. Indeed, volunteering and active engagement in civic life constitute not only fundamental dimensions of civil society but also critical aspects of the promotion of both self and collective efficacy (Ohmer, 2007). Thus, understanding how to motivate and sustain environmental volunteerism among young adults will certainly be an important issue when confronting the ecological challenges of today, especially because it will likely be these young people who will serve as future leaders of the environmental movement.
Unfortunately, there have been few studies examining exactly why today's young adults volunteer for the environment or the factors that motivate their commitment. Therefore, this study is intended to add to the dearth of research examining the environmental volunteer behavior of young adults. Using a survey of environmental attitudes and behaviors of college students at a large urban Canadian university, we assess the mechanisms influencing the proclivity and intensity of young adults' environmental volunteerism. A better understanding of these issues can provide nonprofit managers in the environmental field greater insight into ways young people of today connect with the environment and the methods of engagement that will be necessary as these young adults confront the ecological challenges of today and those to come.
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The young adults in this study were more likely to be female (73%) and non-white (57%). Moreover, the majority of these young people were also politically liberal (44%). Only 16% identified themselves as politically conservative. Table 3 provides a description of the variables used in the analysis.
Table 3. Descriptive statistics
|Environmental volunteer proclivity||0.17||0.38||1,372||0||1|
|Environmental volunteer intensity||0.36||0.48||234||0||1|
|General volunteer proclivity||0.60||0.49||1,368||0||1|
|Environmental value orientations|
|General volunteer motivations|
We estimated a logistic regression model to determine the likelihood that normative influences and environmental value orientations would influence young adults' environmental volunteer proclivity. Model 1 in Table 4, shows the likelihood that a young adult indicated that he/she volunteered for an environmental organization in the past 2 years. With regard to normative influences, young adults who indicated that they had engaged in different daily pro-environmental actions were more likely to indicate that they had also volunteered for an environmental organization. Indeed, young adults who indicated that they had engaged in transportation-related pro-environmental behaviors were 24% more likely, than those who indicated that they had not engaged in such behaviors, to indicate that they had volunteered for an environmental organization. Similarly, young adults who indicated that they had engaged in consumption-related pro-environmental behaviors were more than two times as likely, than those who indicated that they had not engaged in such behaviors, to also indicate that they had volunteered for an environmental organization.
Table 4. Binomial logit models of environmental volunteer proclivity and intensity
| ||Model 1:||Model 2:||Model 3:|
|Independent variables||Volunteer proclivity||Volunteer intensity||Volunteer intensity|
| ||e(β) (SE)||e(β) (SE)||e(β) (SE)|
|Transportation-related||1.24 (0.14) *||1.34 (0.33)||1.37 (0.37)|
|Consumption-related||2.26 (0.49) ***||2.24 (0.99) *||2.03 (1.01)|
|General volunteer proclivity||6.22 (1.54) ***||0.71 (0.35)||0.75 (0.40)|
|Environmental Value Orientations|
|Altruistic–biospheric values||0.92 (0.11)||1.10 (0.25)||1.10 (0.26)|
|Egoistic values||1.00 (0.11)||0.85 (0.17)||0.85 (0.19)|
|General volunteer motivations|
|Values|| || ||1.65 (0.54)|
|Social|| || ||1.70 (0.51) *|
|Career|| || ||0.98 (0.20)|
|Understanding|| || ||0.49 (0.18) **|
|Enhancement|| || ||0.92 (0.20)|
|Protective|| || ||0.93 (0.15)|
|Asked|| || ||0.81 (0.12)|
|Male||1.38 (0.29)||1.47 (0.56)||1.34 (0.57)|
|White||1.28 (0.24)||0.82 (0.29)||0.94 (0.37)|
|Liberal||1.31 (0.27)||1.55 (0.62)||1.19 (0.54)|
|Conservative||1.21 (0.32)||1.68 (0.88)||1.91 (1.08)|
General volunteer proclivity also increased the likelihood that a young adult volunteered for an environmental organization. In particular, young adults who indicated that they had volunteered for a nonprofit organization other than an environmental organization were more than six times as likely, than those who indicated that they had not volunteered \for any other nonprofit organizations, to also indicate that they had volunteered for an environmental organization. Given that the data are cross-sectional, the direction of the relationship between general volunteer proclivity and environmental volunteerism is not certain. In other words, it is not clear whether students who engaged in environmental volunteerism got involved in this form of voluntary behavior through their involvement in other more general forms of volunteer service or vice versa.
In examining the influence of environmental value orientations on the proclivity of young adults' environmental volunteerism, the researchers found that neither altruistic–biospheric nor egoistic values were significant predictors of whether a young adult volunteered for an environmental organization. This, however, is not too surprising given that environmental values have long been shown to have a weak direct influence on pro-environmental actions (Hines et al., 1986/87; Scott & Willits, 1994; Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002; Turaga et al., 2010). As such, these findings provide further evidence of the tenuous nature of the relationship between value–behavior link and pro-environmental action. These findings also shed light on the possibility that even in the examination of collective-type pro-environmental actions such as environmental volunteerism, the influence of environmental value orientations remains weak.
We estimated a separate logistic regression model to assess the predictors of volunteerism intensity among the young adults who indicated that they had volunteered with an environmental organization in the past 2 years. Model 2 in Table 4 shows the regression results when focusing only on normative influences and environmental value orientations, along with demographic controls, as predictors. In this model, only one variable contributes significantly to explaining the intensity of voluntary commitment among young adults. Specifically, young adults who indicated that they had engaged in consumption-related pro-environmental behaviors were more than two times as likely to indicate that they had also spent greater than 25% of their volunteer time in environmental organizations.
In Table 4, Model 3 shows that when we include general volunteer motivations as additional predictors of the intensity of young adults' environmental volunteer participation, daily consumption-related pro-environmental behaviors are no longer related to the intensity of young adults' voluntary commitment. Two egoistic volunteer motivations, however, were found to significantly influence this relationship but in opposite directions. Young adults who indicated that they were motivated to volunteer for social reasons (i.e. to meet new people) were 70% more likely to indicate that they had also invested greater than 25% of their time volunteering for environmental organizations. However, young adults who indicated that they were motivated to volunteer for environmental organizations as a result of understanding-related motivations (i.e. either to learn new skills or to gain a new perspective on things) were 51% less likely to indicate that they had invested greater than 25% percent of their volunteer time in environmental organizations.
Altruistic volunteer motivations were not a significant factor in influencing the intensity of young adults' voluntary commitment. Likewise, being asked to volunteer did not influence the amount of time young adults invested into environmental volunteer activities.
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Nonprofit organizations have played an important role in addressing environmental issues, and environmental volunteers have often been critical to the success of these organizations. In recent years, young adults have been shown to express greater interest in environmental issues (see for instance, CamWest News Service, 2007; Galbraith, 2009; Hewlett et al., 2009; Lopez, 2003; McKay, 2010). Such increased interest is likely to be an asset to environmental nonprofit organizations if it also translates into increased levels of voluntary participation. Indeed in the US, young adults between the ages of 20 to 24 have already been shown to volunteer for environmental organizations nearly double the rate of environmental volunteers in the general population (BLS, 2010). As such, the purpose of this study was to examine the mechanisms influencing environmental volunteerism among young adult college students. In other words, we sought to explore the factors driving young adults to volunteer for the environment and subsequently, the motives leading to the intensity of their participation.
In this study, we found that young adults who engaged in a number of different daily pro-environmental behaviors were more likely, than those who did not engage in such behaviors, to volunteer for environmental organizations. Indeed, young adults who indicated that they engaged in both transportation-related and consumption-related pro-environmental behaviors were more likely to indicate that they had volunteered for an environmental organization in the past 2 years. Therefore, it is likely that environmental volunteerism can be viewed as a distinct form of pro-environmental behavior, wherein pro-environmental actions are taken for collective good purposes rather than for individual benefit (Stern, 2000).9 Indeed, young adults who engage in one form of pro-environmental behavior are likely to engage in other forms of pro-environmental behavior as well.
We also found that young adults who have a general proclivity toward volunteering are more likely, than those who do not have such a proclivity, to volunteer for environmental organizations. Indeed, volunteering for other (non-environmentally related) nonprofit organizations significantly increased the likelihood that a young adult volunteered for an environmental organization. Thus it is possible that, as Jennings (2002) has suggested, volunteering may cultivate a sense of civic identity, and young adults may tend to act in ways that reinforce that identity.
Similar to findings in the study of pro-environmental behavior in general, we also found that value orientations were not significant predictors of pro-environmental action—in this case, the pro-environmental action being environmental volunteerism. This may be suggestive of two things. On one hand, it may be likely that developing normative influences among young adults, such as active participation in voluntary initiatives and engaging in environmental activities, are more influential methods of attracting young adults to volunteer for the environment, as opposed to efforts in appealing to their values. On the other hand, because the invitation to participate in the study mentioned that the survey was about environmentalism, the environmentally concerned students were attracted to complete the survey, thus, reducing the statistical power of the environmental values variable This, then, may also explain why environmental values were not especially predictive of environmental volunteerism.
Among young adults who indicated that they had volunteered for an environmental organization, neither normative influences nor environmental value orientations were significant predictors of the intensity of their voluntary efforts. However, two general volunteer motivations were found to be significant predictors of volunteer intensity. In particular, young adults who volunteered for egoistic reasons such as the development of social connections were more likely to invest greater amounts of time volunteering for environmental organizations, whereas young adults who volunteered to gain greater understanding were significantly less likely to invest greater amounts of time volunteering for environmental organizations. It is likely, then, that many young people invest greater time volunteering for environmental organizations as a way of building, enhancing, and/or developing their social ties as opposed to building, enhancing, and/or developing their learning experiences. In the end then, we found support for hypotheses H2a and H2b. We also found partial support for hypothesis H3b. However, we rejected hypotheses H1a, H1b, as well as H3a.
These findings are consistent with previous research that has shown that young adults are often driven to volunteer for egoistic reasons such as social connections (Ralston & Rhoden, 2005; Handy et al., 2010; Gage & Thapa, 2011). Indeed, Ralston and Rhoden (2005) found that social connectedness and social contacts were important motivators for younger environmental volunteers. Furthermore, a recent study by Gage and Thapa (2011) found that values and understanding-related motivations were generally less important factors driving young adults to volunteer, particularly when they were facing more structural constraints such as lack of time, money, and transportation.
As with all studies, there are certain limitations that should be acknowledged. In particular, as previously discussed, the literature on the determinants of pro-environmental behavior has generally found a weak (direct) correlation between environmental values and behavior (for a review of this literature, see Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002). This is a finding that has long been recognized in theoretical models of behavioral decision-making, such as the theory of planned behavior and the theory of reasoned action (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1973; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975; Ajzen, 1985). However, there have been moderating influences shown to strengthen the attitude–behavior link.
Ajzen (1985, 1991), for instance, has long argued that intent is the strongest predictor of overt behavior; and several decades later, Hrubes et al. (2001) have found that intentions remain a central indicator of actual behavior. Furthermore, Liarakou et al. (2011) found that young adults who expressed favorable attitudes toward the environment, while also demonstrating a high internal locus of control (i.e. they believed that they were able to bring about change through their actions) were more likely to engage in environmental volunteerism, and Gigliotti (1992, 1994) found that individuals who expressed high levels of environmental concern and expressed a belief in technological solutions to environmental problems were less likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviors. Unfortunately, because of time and length considerations, we did not include questions in our survey that would have allowed us the opportunity to analyze these moderating influences. Future research should certainly explore the extent to which these moderating influences affect the value–behavior relationship in the area of environmental volunteerism.
In addition to this limitation, more general limitations also apply. First, the data used in this study were from a cross-sectional survey; hence, our findings are, at best, only suggestive of causal relationships. Second, our sample consisted entirely of university students. As such, our findings do not reflect the young adults in the general population because it is likely that the young adults in our sample have better educational backgrounds than those in the general population. Third, we also recognize that by focusing on young adults, we limit the generalizability of our findings to this age group. However, this also provides us with a better understanding of how a select group of individuals tend to engage in environmental issues. Indeed, Scott and Willits (1994) have argued that, “it is relevant to ask how different segments of the population differ in regard to environmental attitudes and behavior” (p. 241). Thus, our findings provide a starting point for future research exploring environmental volunteerism among young adult populations, as well as older adult populations.
Practical applicability for fundraising professionals
Overall, our findings should be quite encouraging for administrators of environmental nonprofit organizations. Indeed, if young adults are driven to volunteer for environmental organizations because they are already volunteering and engaging in other forms of pro-environmental behaviors, then recruiting young adults into voluntary environmental activities may not prove to be overly burdensome—whether financially or administratively. Additionally, if young adults are investing greater amounts of time in environmental organizations as a way to socialize and/or expand their social networks, as opposed to seeking personal enhancement, then conveying the social benefits of environmental volunteerism may be a much simpler process than attempting to create environmental learning experiences and other overly structured environmental volunteer activities. Thus, the social value of environmental volunteerism should undoubtedly be integrated into the planning and implementation of volunteer projects for young adults.
These findings also offer practical applications for practitioners when recruiting and retaining environmental volunteers. Indeed, many environmental nonprofit organizations are heavily reliant on the voluntary efforts of individuals. Gardner, Sherlock, and Hunter (2003; cited in Wahl, 2010), for instance, found that next to funding, volunteers were the single most important factor allowing environmental nonprofits in Canada to effectively achieve their missions. Undoubtedly then, if nonprofit mangers in the environmental field have a better understanding of the factors that motivate and sustain young adults to volunteer for the environment, then recruiting and retaining these young people—potentially the future leaders of the environmental movement—into environmental volunteerism will be a much simpler process. For example, presenting environmental volunteerism as a way to develop social ties might work better for recruiting young adults into environmental volunteer activities than presenting it as a positive learning experience.