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Giving Back, Ecologist Style

On the day after Thanksgiving, lying around and working to digest a large family meal with leftovers beckoning from the refrigerator, it can be easy to forget that we’re headed into a season of giving rather than a season of gluttony. But this is the season for charity, with bell ringers on the street corners and everyone’s minds on the perfect gift to show they care, whether for family or for those in need. The three months between November and January provide the majority of charitable contributions for many of America’s charities.

For those interested in giving, the web makes it easy to find and donate to charities that match your interests and passions for the world. But giving money can seem impersonal and, for students and early career ecologists making do with seasonal field jobs, it might be outside the budget. As an ecologist, however, you do have skills that are needed all over the world to solve critical problems.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could donate your time and expertise rather than simply opening your wallet?

This is the void that a relatively new startup organization is trying to fill. Ecologists Without Borders ( is a small non-profit that was started by three fisheries ecologists who realized that many places in the developing world lack the expertise on the ground to solve critical ecological problems, and that there were many ecologists in the developed world who could solve them. Their aim is to make that connection, providing the link between those with the expertise and those who are in need of it.

“To promote environmental sustainability and improve societal welfare in at-risk areas of the world through the transfer and application of ecological knowledge and technology, and to financially support projects and activities that further these goals.” – Ecologists Without Borders mission statement

What does this mean, and is it really worth supporting? I mean, let’s be real here. The first time I saw Ecologists Without Borders (EcoWB) in the showroom at the American Fisheries Society national meeting in Portland I was skeptical. Understanding an ecological problem takes money, it takes time, and it takes dedication. How can an international organization provide that, especially the money, for what sometimes appear to be intractable problems in the developing world? The concept of linking expertise with problems sounds great, but can it really be implemented?

Perhaps the proof is in the pudding, as they say. After all, EcoWB currently lists 4 active projects on it’s website. But, how do they go about making it all work? Their approach is two-fold. First, they aim to become “responders;” a group that governments, NGO’s, communities or other groups can approach for expertise for proposed, funded or ongoing projects as needed. The second is to actively develop projects worldwide; helping to connect those with project ideas with funding sources and on-the-ground partners.

To do this EcoWB wishes to create a pool of what they call “Ecological Service Providers,” professionals with training in ecology, policy, and law who can be called upon as projects arise. They also actively recruit volunteers outside of the “Ecological Service Provider” roles for field work, fundraising, administrative tasks and outreach.

All of these people with skills to lend need projects to work on. Thus, EcoWB is always looking for proposals from individuals, communities, or organizations. Once a project is proposed they can help to turn that idea into a clear proposal and implementation plan, recruit volunteers and Ecological Service Providers with the correct skills to make it happen, and help find and secure funding to make it happen.

Working in developing communities can present challenges, especially if projects aren’t clearly thought out or only benefit the few rather than the many. EcoWB is very clear throughout their website that their goals are to help those in need and only those who are asking for help. Their goals include reducing poverty, food insecurity and improving quality of life. Meanwhile project proposals must be sponsored or supported by the communities involved and must benefit everyone, not just a minority.

If there is one downside to EcoWB it might be that it is currently heavily focused on fisheries ecology. Their active projects include two in Mexico, mangrove biodiversity & conservation in Sinaloa and Nayarit, as well as fisheries sustainability in Baja California. They also have an active project in Fiji promoting sustainable aquaculture. Finally, they have partnered with the Sustainable Fisheries Foundation to help fisheries in developing countries become certified as sustainable fisheries by the Marine Stewardship Council.

This focus on aquatic and fisheries topics likely comes from the core founders of the group, who are all long-time fisheries ecologists. Still, they are a small organization who is just starting out, having been provided their first seed money by the American Fisheries Society in 2011. Their project proposal webpage, however, lists topics across the ecological disciplines and Eric Knudsen, one of the founders, assured me when I visited their booth at the American Fisheries Society meeting, that they are interested in projects from all fields of ecology.

If you’ve been searching for a way to give back, your ecological skills might be just what is needed to solve a problem in the developing world.

So, as you spend this season of giving with family and friends, if the charitable urge strikes, know that giving money is only one way of giving back. Heck, it might even lead to a trip abroad, or a visitor from a foreign land. For those of you with ideas, your project idea might be something that an organization like EcoWB could help bring to fruition. It might be worth checking out and deciding if it is an organization you would like to get involved with.

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