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Hope and Heart: Engaging Volunteers in Conservation

By Rachel Dunham on 4. December 2019
Rachel Dunham

Reflecting on the process of building the Xerces Ambassador program and looking ahead to the program's expansion to new cities.


“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

– Anne Frank


Five years ago, I started working with volunteers and in many ways it changed my life. I discovered a community of people who were eager to freely give of their time, experience, and hearts. It was inspiring and motivating, and eventually I focused my career on volunteer management. This has allowed me to continue to cultivate, and take part in, a community of incredible people.

Since 2018, I have been building an exciting new volunteer program for the Xerces Society. With a high demand for our presence at events across the country and a passionate community of potential volunteers, we developed the Xerces Ambassador Volunteer Program. This program aims to engage audiences in towns and cities through education and inspiring action around invertebrate conservation.


A smiling woman wearing a black coat and a black Xerces Society hat leans over a table. On the other side of the table, a kid with a colorful hoodie reaches for an assortment of small glass vials containing bee specimens. The woman and the kid are looking at the same vials and appear to be talking.
Rachel Dunham, the Xerces Society's first Community Engagement Coordinator, conducts outreach at an event in spring 2019. (Photo: Chad Wildermuth)


The benefits of this program are three-fold: It engages communities through volunteerism and connects Xerces to new communities; it provides an opportunity for the public to learn about invertebrate conservation and a new way to connect to nature; and it encourages action through participation in community science, changing gardening practices, nature exploration, and more.

Two of our key audiences are youth and gardeners. Gardeners are the perfect audience to engage with because they already have a unique connection with nature. With resources like plant lists and pesticide alternatives education, Xerces can help support gardeners to provide and improve habitat for pollinators.

Youth are our future—let’s face it, without their engagement in conservation, invertebrates and our planet as a whole will be in much more danger than they are today. By fostering a connection to nature through education and inspiration, it is our hope that youth will take action to steward the natural world around them. While Xerces has previously worked on projects with youth, this program will provide more time and resources to reach the next generation in a more significant way.


A girl smiles as she wears a hand-colored paper butterfly mask and holds up a Xerces Society bookmark with a photo of a monarch butterfly (orange and black wings) on a purple flower in a meadow.
By fostering a connection to nature through education and inspiration, it is our hope that youth will take action to steward the natural world around them. (Photo: Xerces Society / Rachel Dunham)


The Xerces Ambassador program was piloted in spring 2019 in Portland, Oregon. We recruited 15 volunteers with backgrounds ranging from Master Gardeners and Master Naturalists, to college students and insect enthusiasts. Training for the program involved a combination of videos I created featuring Xerces staff presenting on various topics and in-person training on environmental interpretation (informal education) and the ambassador outreach kit.

The ambassador outreach kit includes everything our Xerces Ambassadors need to participate in an event, which can range from plant sales and farmers’ markets to family-oriented, themed events such as Earth Day and pollinator week celebrations. To ensure that our outreach is engaging and accessible to all ages and backgrounds, we created activities that are visual, hands-on, and can be done independently or with a group. One of the activities is a card game where the participant matches the picture of the pollinator to the picture of the plant it pollinates. Many of the plants produce common food products such as chocolate, figs, and tomatoes. For younger kids, we have butterfly masks they can color while their guardians play trivia.

The most popular activity involves matching ten bee specimens, a wasp, and a fly suspended in hand sanitizer inside bottles to their corresponding picture. Traditionally, bees are displayed on pins, often inside a box. The bottles, however, allow kids and adults to easily handle the bees and most importantly, it displays them in such a way that makes them more animal-like (they are animals, after all!), fostering an emotional connection to creatures that are often seen as creepy and strange.

Since training in March, the ambassadors have engaged over 4,500 people in nine cities from Monmouth, Oregon, to Ridgefield, Washington. We were able to participate in events such as Discount Days at the Oregon Zoo, Explorando el Columbia Slough, and the Vancouver Peace and Justice Fair, making connections with people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Visitors learned about Xerces and our work, participated in one of our engaging activities, and left with an action item: To explore butterflies and bees in their backyard or a local park, participate in community science programs, plant more pollinator friendly plants, and share this new information with friends and neighbors.


A person with short hair has their back to the camera as they look at a colorful table of activities, including (prominently featured) a lot of glass vials holding specimens. A smiling woman stands on the other side of the table, wearing a Xerces Society shirt, and appears to be in conversation with the visitor.
Since training in March, our volunteer Xerces Ambassadors have engaged over 4,500 people in nine cities from Monmouth, Oregon to Ridgefield, Washington. (Photo: Xerces Society / Rachel Dunham)


So, what’s next? For the Portland program, we are developing activities with the outreach kit that can be taken into schools, libraries, and other community centers. Ambassadors will be able to engage with youth in greater depth and continue to build deeper community support around invertebrate conservation. As for the rest of the country, get ready! In spring 2020 the ambassador program will be expanding beyond Portland, engaging three new cities: Omaha, Nebraska; Kansas City, Missouri; and Nashville, Tennessee. It is our hope that these cities can serve as hubs for surrounding areas, and we invite anyone interested in the program and able to attend the in-person trainings to apply—see details below.

Before coming to Xerces, it was my dream to build a volunteer program. What I’ve learned through the process is that with a strong foundation, it is truly the volunteers that make a program extraordinary. This program is no exception. I have been inspired and filled with hope countless times because of the passion, drive, and desire that Xerces Ambassadors have to change the world. For that, I am forever grateful, and excited for what lies ahead.


Additional Resources

Learn more about the Xerces Society’s volunteer program, and view our full list of opportunities.


As the Xerces Society’s first Community Engagement Coordinator, Rachel has built the volunteer program from the ground up and is finding new ways for Xerces to connect to communities. As an Oregonian, she has always loved wildlife and being outdoors. Rachel pursued her passion for nature at Seattle Pacific University, graduating with a bachelor's in ecology, and earning a master's of wildlife conservation from the University of Maine. Her work history includes the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Princess Cruise Lines, and Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge.

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