What Drives Community Support for Successful Nature Centers?

Browning, M. H. E. M., Stern, M. J., Ardoin, N. M., & Heimlich, J. E. (2018). Factors that contribute to community members' support of local nature centers. Environmental Education Research, 24, 326 - 342.

Nature connectedness has been linked to increased environmental awareness and pro-environmental behaviors. However, research has shown that people are becoming increasingly disconnected from nature. Currently, more than 1,800 nature centers in the United States play important roles in connecting communities to nature and providing environmental education. Many nature centers rely on community support—in the form of volunteers and donations—to maintain operations. This reliance on community support can pose significant challenges to nature centers, particularly in the context of declining volunteerism and membership in community-based organizations. Better understanding factors that drive community support can help nature centers cultivate that support as well as achieve their mission of connecting communities to nature. The authors of this study identified variables they thought might be correlated with support of nature centers and explored how well they explained nature center support.

In a previous study, the researchers had interviewed environmental professionals to identify the ways in which nature centers were perceived as most successful in the U.S. From these interviews, they selected 16 nature centers distributed across urban, suburban, and rural contexts to include in this study. From prior interview results and a literature review, the researchers developed a list of 16 variables they thought might be correlated with community support of nature centers. These 16 variables were environmental connection, leisure provision, civic engagement, community resilience, staff acquaintance, service awareness, past donations, past volunteering, staff performance, staff volunteering, shared staff values, financial constraints, busyness, normative influences, commitment to nature, and visitation frequency. The researchers defined community support as volunteering, donating, and/or responding to direct threats to nature center operations.

To collect data about the relationships between the 16 variables and the 3 different types of support, the researchers hired a marketing firm to invite community members who lived within the defined radius for all 16 nature centers to complete an online survey. The participants were recruited to participate through mail and email from within 3 miles of urban nature centers, 6 miles of suburban nature centers, and 20 miles of rural nature centers.

Survey results indicated that all 16 variables were significantly correlated with at least one type of support, and 14 variables were correlated with all three types of support. Further, results indicated that people were most likely to support nature centers when they valued four specific services they perceived that their local nature center was providing—nature connectedness, leisure, community engagement, and community resilience. Another group of variables were also strongly correlated with nature center support, specifically how often people visited their local nature center, commitment to nature, staff performance, and past donations. That these variables are connected to community support is perhaps obvious, yet useful for nature centers to recognize.

Yet another group of variables related to social qualities of nature centers suggests that nature centers that are perceived as part of the community have a broader base of support. Encouragingly, results indicated that nature centers have more control over the variables that are most predictive of community support.

The authors caution that the survey had a very low response rate (1.7% of those invited) and respondents were not demographically representative of their respective communities. Further, the nature centers that were selected for the study were not representative of all nature centers in the U.S.; rather, they represented the “most successful” as defined by environmental professionals. Because the most successful nature centers likely receive more community support than their less successful counterparts, this study's focus on the most successful centers likely skews the results. This limits the extent to which survey results are generalizable to the broader network of nature centers.

The authors also recommend that nature centers explore opportunities to provide a variety of services, including those they might think are tangentially related to core missions, such as building community resilience and meaningfully engaging communities. By broadening the scope of services, nature centers might solicit higher levels of community support for operations. Finally, the authors suggest that community support is a two-way process, whereby community members are more likely to be involved in their local nature centers when their local centers are actively involved in the community. They recommend that nature center staff make efforts to be more visible in and engaged with the broader community.

The Bottom Line

<p>Nature centers can play important roles in connecting people to nature and educating their local communities about the environment. Most nature centers rely on community support to maintain successful operations. Focusing on nature centers that experts perceive to be most successful, this study explores drivers of community support and offers an initial set of ideas for how nature centers can shape operations to maximize community engagement and support. The findings suggest that nature centers might cultivate more support by expanding their scope of services to include community engagement and resilience building activities, as well as by doing outreach in local communities. By drawing community members in through these expanded services, nature centers will be better positioned to engage with and solicit support in the future.</p>

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