Abstract Although the concepts of institutions in economics and institutional analysis have been integrated in recent writings about payments for ecosystem services (PES), their joint operationalization and testing have been limited. To tackle this integration challenge, we empirically explore how Finnish non-industrial private forest owners' perceptions about voluntary biodiversity conservation contracting correspond with the institutional theories about PES. Further, we test whether the perceptions are related to PES contracting in the past or in the future. The results of the explorative factor analyses corresponded with the theoretical considerations of both economics and institutional analysis. The logistic regression analyses showed that the factors that related to past contracting differed notably from those that explained future intentions to contract. Most consistently, perceptions about positive ecological impacts were positively related to past contracting, while social and moral normative perceptions had a negative effect. In other words, those who would conserve nature for altruistic reasons tended not to have entered a contract but rather stayed out. Local and social welfare expectations increased the willingness to contract in the future. Our analysis highlights the importance of normative conservation justifications as well as the expectations regarding non-economic benefits and welfare impacts for PES design and analysis.