The Case for a Tripartite Strategy to Adult Environmental Education and Service Programs

By Gregory Ira|July 7, 2022

The mission of Ten Strands is to strengthen the partnerships and strategies that will bring environmental literacy to all of California’s K–12 students. I believe strongly in this mission and like many have benefited from the work of Ten Strands. I spent 15 years implementing an environmental education program at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection working toward a similar mission for Florida’s middle school students. Since 2015, however, my focus has been on adult/community audiences as part of the UC California Naturalist program. I wanted to share some lessons we’ve learned that directly relate to partnerships and strategies to promote environmental literacy, and how these efforts complement the efforts of others working primarily in formal education.

The California Naturalist Program

The California Naturalist program combines adult education related to the environment with service. Its origins come from “master naturalist” programs that have evolved in many states across the country. Many of these programs are led or coordinated by state Cooperative Extension Systems of land grant institutions. Typically, this family of programs involves 40 hours of instructional time (both classroom and field based) leading to a certificate and, in most cases, an expectation that the certified naturalist or steward will go on to provide some form of volunteer service to the community. In California, our program revolves around two courses: California Naturalist and Climate Stewards. The former is a more traditional naturalist training program, while the latter is a newly developed climate change education course. Both courses are delivered through partnerships between the California Naturalist Statewide Program, which is part of the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR), and a network of local community-based partner organizations. In this collaboration, the California Naturalist Program establishes and refines core curricula, establishes requirements for certification, trains local partner instructors, monitors program outputs and outcomes, while aggregating and sharing evaluation results. The local partner organizations tailor/co-design the core curricula, recruit participants, deliver the courses, and in some cases directly engage the certified graduates in volunteer service. 

This article highlights the importance of the adult audience, identifies several key challenges in statewide environmental education (EE) initiatives, describes three key specific partnership strategies that support the collaborative, and suggests ways in which the focus on adults complements efforts in the K-12 formal education realm.

Pictured participants gathered for a two-day California Naturalist Instructor Training Workshop at the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

The Adult Free Choice Audience 

While student audiences are our future, adult audiences have a disproportionate influence on the present and, for better or worse, are the mentors, role models, and sources of information or misinformation for many of our youth. There are a number of good reasons why statewide EE efforts should expand reach to adult audiences. The majority of the state’s 40 million population is 18 or older with the adult population increasing by 10% and the youth population down by 1.4%  in the 2020 census (CA 2020 Census). Seniors, a plurality in terms of our course participants, are the fastest growing segment of the state’s population and often have the most time available to support volunteer efforts related to environmental stewardship. While many adults may have been exposed to some environmental education in school, few have been exposed to climate change education. Over a lifetime, most learning takes place outside of formal education settings. 

Challenges Facing Environmental Education Initiatives for Adults

Free-choice adult environmental education initiatives have to address several challenges to be successful and sustainable: 1) achieve scale, 2) balance continuity and site specificity, 3) ensure equity, 4) aggregate results, and 5) demonstrate financial viability. 

  • Scale. As the largest state by population and third largest by area, California poses unique challenges to the delivery of adult environmental education. No single entity has the capacity or resources to cover the entire state. In a state of 24.5 million adults, achieving scale is one of the most difficult tasks, especially given the place-based emphasis of many environmental education programs. 
  • Continuity and Site Specificity. Given the place-based emphasis of many environmental education programs, keeping program content locally and culturally relevant is a significant challenge in a state as environmentally and demographically diverse as California. An environmental education initiative of statewide scale has to balance continuity with some degree of site specificity. 
  • Financial Viability. Financial viability looms over any free-choice environmental education program. Like other environmental education programs, they tend to rely heavily on grants, private donations, and government support. Typically, only a portion of the costs of a program are generated through cost recovery via program fees. 
  • Complexity. Environmental issues are complex and require multi- if not transdisciplinary approaches and systems thinking. The challenges are often more social than technological.
  • Equity. State naturalist programs have historically struggled to achieve broad audience participation. Any successful program must recognize and act to address root causes of inequity, including those that are structural, procedural, and distributional.  
  • Aggregating Results. Aggregating results across a wide range of projects involving a large number of people and locations – even when they are from the same organizations – is often a challenge when outputs and outcomes are not commensurable. Even when they are, collecting and aggregating them is often difficult. 

The only thing more difficult than trying to address these challenges as a single organization is to try and address them through multiple partnerships. Yet, this is the approach that has served the California Naturalist Program’s efforts to build environmental stewardship over the last 10 years. 

A Tripartite Program Collaboration Strategy

Over the last ten years, we have developed a collaborative strategy that combines three distinct, but complementary, partnership approaches to program delivery. Each approach helps address – not solve – one or more of the challenges presented above. These approaches include the Train-the-Trainer delivery model, the Social Franchise enterprise model, and the Collective Impact network. 

  • Train the Trainer. The most recognized component is the train-the-trainer model where the California Naturalist Program trains instructors from local partner organizations to deliver the certification course. This model is central to the ability to bring the program to scale and establish continuity across partner sites. 
  • Social Franchise. The social franchise enterprise model adopts elements of the franchise business model without the element of profit. It provides a recognized mechanism for cost recovery for both the local partner organization (franchisee) and the statewide partner (franchisor) based on their specific roles. This creates a consistent and more sustainable financial relationship for cost recovery for both. This model revolves around a partnership agreement outlining the roles and relationships of the partners. This helps promote brand continuity and ensure program delivery is done with fidelity across all partners. 
  • Collective Impact. The collective impact approach connects all the partners in the collaboration under a shared goal or agenda. In the absence of a profit motive among the partners, it provides a shared-purpose motive. The collective impact approach addresses the fact that no single partner can tackle the complex challenges associated with generating measurable environmental stewardship outcomes while promoting equity across the most diverse state in the country. Specifically, this approach recognizes the strengths that each partner brings to the collaboration through “mutually reinforcing activities.” This includes their own “co-design” or tailoring of the core curricula to be locally and culturally relevant. It also includes a specific role for a backbone organization to provide infrastructure for the network (i.e., a volunteer management system), promote regular communication (i.e., an existing  social media base), and aggregate and share results (i.e., through reports). 

Complementing K-12 Environmental Education

There are many great examples of successful local environmental education programs. On a larger scale, the examples are few and far between. The collaborative strategies described here are just a starting point, but they offer strengths that can address many of the key challenges facing large-scale environmental education programs. They also provide an opportunity to complement environmental education for K-12 audiences. Many of our course alumni volunteer in support of environmental education. Building a cadre of qualified volunteers to support K-12 environmental education can only bolster the efforts of teachers and paid environmental educators working with K-12 students. In addition, we know having engaged parents/adults is positively associated with student success and those adults are more likely to advocate for more environmental education more broadly. Finally, intergenerational conversations within families around issues like climate change are increasingly forcing adults to re-examine their priorities around the type of world they will leave to future generations. By building the capacity of our adult population to productively engage in these conversations, we reinforce the work of K-12 environmental education efforts. 

In summary, the integration of these three partnership approaches helps address the challenges facing large-scale, free-choice, adult environmental education programs today. This strategy moves beyond capacity building toward a recognition of the vital role of all partners in achieving programs at scale, sustainably, and in a manner that advances equity through co-design for local and cultural relevance. Since 2012, the UC California Naturalist Program has created 84 partnerships, trained 166 instructors, who have conducted over 400 courses, and certified over 5,200 naturalists and stewards who have recorded over 309,000 hours of volunteer service in California. For more information about the program, or to become a program partner, please visit

Gregory Ira
This article was written by Gregory Ira

Greg currently serves as the California Naturalist Program Director, developing and overseeing efficient and effective program operations through program planning, development, management, and evaluation. This includes two active courses: 1) California Naturalist and 2) Climate Stewards. In addition, Greg serves is an active member of the California Naturalist and Environmental Education Workgroups and the Climate Change Program Team. Greg has over twenty years of experience in the design, delivery. and management of environmental education programs and professional development. Greg earned his BA in Environmental Studies from Prescott College and MA in Asian Studies with a focus on Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Hawaii. In addition to program management, Greg's interests include inquiry-based environmental education, participatory science, program design with cultural competency, and advancing collective impact approaches to complex and large scale challenges.


  • Judy Adler

    Greg – I believe I may be able to assist you in your classes. I have been an environmental educator for much of my life. Do visit and see what you think.

  • Greg Ira

    Hi Judy, Thanks for your note and for sharing your website. I’ve sent you separate note about a potential opportunity in your area.