Do conservation internships favour the rich?

You care about the environment, are utterly infatuated with natural history and decide you wish to work in the conservation sector. What next? You leave school, hopefully in possession of good grades, graduate university and are then faced with the harsh reality of just how competitive the sector really is. You work out that the only way to get ‘ahead of the competition’ so to speak, is to gain experience through volunteer work. Volunteer work that often requires commitment for long periods of time in order to gain the experience required to further your career aspirations. So, you set your sights on a volunteer internship, residential placement or similar scheme, one that would almost certainly lead to better things in the future. The only problem is, you cannot afford to sustain yourself for such a period of time absent an income. What do you do next? Well, some are then able to acquire the necessary funds from family members and thus everything remains hunky dory. For many however, this is not an option. Many cannot afford to dedicate their time for periods of four, six or eight months absent an income. When this happens, many fall into an all too familiar trap. A merry-go-round of applications and rejections citing a “lack of applicable experience“.

The above scenario is one I fear is all too familiar to young people seeking a career in the environmental field and is certainly one that resonates with me. Volunteer work is perhaps the only sure fire way to achieve a career in conservation, and rightfully so. It highlights the dedication, passion and  the willingness to work of the person in question and has the potential to greatly bolster that individuals professional skill-set. More often than not, short-term volunteer placements do not offer the necessary level of work experience and thus people are forced to look for longer internships only to realise they cannot afford them. This alone is often enough to dissuade many people from following their dreams and I know too people people stuck in the ‘inexperience rut’ due to financial restraints. These people are no less passionate than those who have made the cut, they simply come from working-class background and cannot afford to live absent an income for long periods of time. This is a topic that, as a working-class conservationist, greatly interests me. It has lead some, including Oliver Simms (@OSimmsBirding) to question the current mentality and call for NGO’s to make such placements available to everyone, not just those from upper and middle-class backgrounds. An excellent blog by Oliver on the subject can be found here, on Mark Avery’s ‘Standing Up for Nature’ site.

Before proceeding, I feel I should give a little background on myself in this regard. As I mentioned before, I do not come from a wealthy background. This has never bothered me per say but it has meant that my family cannot afford to sustain me on my career quest. I jumped through all the hoops, good grades at school, a degree in a relevant field and small stints of volunteer work here and there. Upon graduating, I found myself presented with the aforementioned scenario, lacking the “one years work experience” requested in many job applications and thus opted to save up and delve into a volunteer internship. I was, later, lucky enough to be selected for a lengthy volunteer position with a renowned NGO and stand thoroughly grateful for the opportunity. Midway through said placement however, with a glaring student overdraft and money disappearing much faster than expected, it suddenly dawned on me that I could no longer afford to live without an income. As such, I decided to leave my ranger role and moved back home. This did not go down overly well with my “employers” who had suggested I take a weekend or evening job to sustain myself for the remaining months – something that while volunteering full time, five days a week (often including weekends), in a remote area, seemed wholly unfeasible. I would like to think opting leave early did cause others to question my dedication but I fear it did. Something that I understand but equally disagree with.

Fast forward a little over a year and things are looking brighter, I have landed my first ‘real’ job within the sector and things are certainly looking up. My situation, and the experiences of many others, have however caused me to ponder the topic in greater depth. Are careers in conservation tailored towards the wealthy? – At present I stand on the middle ground, understanding the  importance of voluntary experience and its wider benefits but slowly edging towards a resounding yes.

Please do not mistake this post for a general attack on volunteer positions – I understand how important they are. As I stated previously, they are a sure fire way to “cut your teeth” in conservation, providing you with many useful skills and working wonders for networking. Dedicating prolonged periods of time, absent pay, to any job is certainly a great way to demonstrate your dedication to the cause. Likewise, I understand that conservation bodies, most of whom rely on the good will of their members, cannot afford to offer a wage to all volunteers. I am very much of the mindset that even if you come from a low-income background, like I did, if you want something badly, you will work to get it. This explains my previous comment regarding occupying “the middle ground“. This said, it would not hurt for the playing field to be leveled somewhat and I do begrudge the fact that poorer individuals must work twice as hard to achieve their goals than those who can simply ‘buy their way into conservation’.

In his blog, Oliver calls for conservation NGO’s to offer bursaries to individuals from less privileged backgrounds, awarded once the applicant has achieved the position in question. This is something I fully agree with and I would personally like to see certain organisations, particularly those with large memberships and a lot of money, step up the the plate. Equally I would be happy if a student loan style scheme was set up by the powers that be to boost peoples career prospects though, given the nature of our government, I would have more luck extracting water from fragment of volcanic rock. Some may claim, that by offering bursaries based on income, conservation bodies would only be increasing the divide between classes but to me, it seems like a jolly good idea.

One of the other things I have seen touched upon, both by Oliver and others elsewhere, is the lack of attention centered on this issue. You would think that with many people likely missing out due to a lack of funds, more of a clamor would have been raised but alas, tumbleweed. After all, conservation and raising a fuss more often than not come hand in hand, it’s practically in the job description. The only reason I can think of for this is that those who have already made it and those with the financial stability not to worry about such things simply do not care. In the future I would love to see high profile members of our community taking this on board and making a difference and likewise, would like to those involved in the ‘youth conservation movement’ speaking out a lot more. Many, it seems, are vocal in private but fall silent when the issue is raised mainstream. This has to change, only with numerous voices calling for change will the issue be heard.

Of course, there is one glaring question associated with such change. Why would NGO’s bother to splash out funding poor individuals while wealthier people are tripping over themselves to fill the gaps? Well, Oliver again pretty much hits the nail on the head in the previously mentioned blog post. Not only would it increase equality within the workforce, it would allow more overtly passionate young people to contribute to the ‘good causes’ championed by such organisations. These people are equally capable, equally dedicated and who knows, if given the chance could develop into the next ‘big names’ speaking out to protect our wildlife. A win win situation if ever there was one is it not?

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James Common
James is a nature writer, conservationist, blogger and birder; holding an MSc in Wildlife Management and working previously in the fields of ecology and practical conservation. He maintains a popular natural history blog at, writes regularly for Northumberland Wildlife Trust and, as its managing director, runs New Nature - the youth nature magazine.

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4 Responses

  1. I’m pleased to hear that things are looking up for you and you’ve secured your first paid job in conservation. Your knowledge and enthusiasm will be a big plus for conservation! Having completed her Masters qualification, my daughter is looking for conservation opportunities, so I can understand your frustration about volunteer work favouring those who are better off. Like you, my daughter can’t afford to take a long term voluntary position, with 3-4 months being viable if accommodation is provided and only food costs need to be found. One year would be impossible without a part-time job, but as you point out, some locations are too remote for a job on the side. It seems unbelievable that graduates who are well qualified and passionate about working in conservation aren’t able to find openings, and may be forced to take unrelated, unfulfilling jobs unless they live at home and can volunteer locally. Is there any lottery funding directed at bursary opportunities with NGO’s?

  2. James Common James Common says:

    Hi Tracy,

    Thanks for your comment – It really is a tricky situation and it does at times feel like you’re stuck in a constant and rather frustrating rut. I can sympathize fully with your daughter! 3-4 month placements are usually okay if board is provided. The longer more grandiose ones whether abroad or at home are usually way too expensive however, which is a shame as these often provide the necessary “foot in the door” with many organisations. I wish your daughter all the luck in world! James.

  3. Avatar Lou says:

    As a student currently in this vicious loop i loved this article, i calculated it would cost me £3000 to do a 6 month internship as a trainee Ecologist last summer and that was just to stay at an £18 a night campsite due to not being able to afford a proper b&b not including food, car insurance or petrol. I completely understand that some places like wildlife trusts can’t afford to assist with expenses but for consultancies and other businesses it is a little unfair to demand a full working week plus occasional weekends of a volunteer with no income especially when some places (not all) will be using you as free labour or to do the jobs they don’t want rather than training you in exchange for your time. I’ve managed to scrape by with a weekend job but i still can’t break into a volunteer role i want even with ranger experience. I’m being outdone by people with PhDs and masters who can’t get the paid roles either which means getting into huge debt trying to get a masters or PhD myself

  4. Avatar Zandri says:

    Hi James,

    I am so glad I found your article! I recently graduated with distinction from my conservation course in South Africa yet I cant find work due to volunteers filling the gaps. I cant afford to volunteer and contribute to the conservation of my own country’s natural heritage but foreigners can! makes me livid! To top it all off South Africa has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world!

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