Most people would agree that protecting the natural world for future generations should be high on our list of priorities. Yet our love of nature is not reflected in the level of philanthropic funding directed towards protecting it: less than 5 per cent of UK philanthropy is dedicated to nature conservation, a figure that is little higher in the US. But it is not just the quantity of funding that matters. We also need to think about how conservation is funded.
In this article, we take a look at how a long-term, flexible approach to conservation funding benefits both the partners we work with and the funders who support them.
Why conserve nature?
Conservation done well benefits both nature and people: forests, wetlands, rivers, lakes, oceans, grasslands, coral reefs and all the species that bring them to life are the green infrastructure of our planet. Wherever we live, we depend on them to regulate the air we breathe and the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. A healthy environment underpins our food supply, provides fresh water and countless resources without which we could not survive. Wildlife and wild places fire our imaginations, inspire our stories and are integral to our wellbeing: when nature suffers, Earth’s unique and extraordinary natural heritage is endangered and our own societies and culture are impoverished.
The problem with conservation funding
Conservation works, but there is simply not enough of it. Many factors have an impact on how we protect (or fail to protect) the natural world – government policies, corporate lobbying, international bodies and scientific institutions, consumer behaviour and engagement – but whilst these are not always easy to influence, we do know that philanthropic funding can play a key role.
Short-term, inflexible project cycles can also impose a heavy burden on smaller NGOs, locking them into an endless process of proposal and report writing. ‘Top-down’, donor driven funding can prevent an organisation from carrying out the work that it knows needs to be done, or building the capacity to amplify its impact (which is why pooled funding can free up vital time for organisations to focus on the work they need to do). Claire Nouvian, the founder of French NGO and Synchronicity Earth partner, Bloom, highlights the impact that reporting can have on smaller organisations:
“If we had to do as much reporting as expected by large funders, then we’d probably spend more than half the year just writing reports, and we wouldn’t be able to do half the work we are actually doing!”
Funding cycles need to be much longer term, reflecting the natural rhythms in the ecological and social systems in which conservation has to operate. Changing the fate of a species within its ecosystem, or fostering societal change for conservation, cannot normally be achieved in 3 years! When Synchronicity Earth commits to supporting a partner, we try to understand their long-term needs and generally aspire to fund them over a longer timeframe. This may mean providing flexible one-year grants over 4 or 5 consecutive years or more, which we have done for many of our partners, but as our capacity to give larger grants grows, we will be able to provide a greater number of multi-year grants from the beginning.
Building relationships and understanding needs
Wherever Synchronicity Earth supports work, the relationships we develop with people and organisations are central to our ability to create strategic programmes that have real impact. Through dialogue, site visits and by taking a long-term view, we learn where funding and support will help our partners to achieve their goals, exploring what works and what does not.
For example, Mbou Mon Tour (MMT) is one of 16 local groups that Synchronicity Earth supports through its Congo Basin Programme. Since 2016, we have been providing funding for MMT, learning what they need to achieve their goals. We funded their work to support six local Bateke communities in Mai-Ndombe province to apply to the provincial government to create community forests which they would manage themselves.
Our funding has also helped MMT to train local people to develop family gardens, providing a more diverse diet as well as an important source of income. Community forests are designed to protect the ecological integrity of the area – conserving its unique flora and fauna, but at the same time promoting sustainable activities which will be beneficial to local people. These initiatives help to ensure community buy-in and provide opportunities to involve the community in conserving the amazing biodiversity of the region.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is a challenging location to work in: the funding provided through our Congo Basin Programme fills a vital gap and is beginning to pay dividends. The six requests to create community forests have been approved. Meanwhile, a recent survey showed that at least 50 per cent of households have increased the nutritional quality of their food since the start of the family gardens programme.
MMT are also committed to protecting the area’s endangered population of bonobos – our closest living relative – which they themselves discovered several years ago. Synchronicity Earth funds the salaries for 16 trackers working at three different sites. The bonobos have become accustomed to these trackers, meaning they can more effectively monitor them, providing vital information to the research teams they are working with. They have collected and removed 63 snares from these sites, helping these endangered primates to survive and thrive.
In Southeast Asia, we have supported Living River Association (LRA) since 2013. This is a small, grassroots organisation working with local communities in Thailand on conservation along two of the tributaries of the Mekong river. Flexible, long-term support from Synchronicity Earth has allowed LRA to develop its community-based conservation initiatives (Fish Conservation Zones and Wetland forest restoration).
They have identified these two initiatives as the best way they can work with local communities to achieve impact, but we have also helped them to develop their own capacity, helping them to write a fundraising strategy and submit grant applications to other international donors, thereby attracting further funding.
By developing strong relationships over time, we are able to support small organisations working where funding is hard to access. Many of these groups are not easy to reach and are conducting high-risk work in often politically challenging contexts, so they struggle to attract international funding.
Papua New Guinea, part of the island of New Guinea, is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. The island occupies less than 1 per cent of the planet’s landmass but is home to over 5 per cent of its plant and animal species, two-thirds of which occur nowhere else on Earth. It is also one of the most culturally diverse regions of the planet. Despite this extraordinary diversity, and the threats it faces, funding for conservation in Papua New Guinea is a rare commodity. The remoteness of the island and a unique social and cultural context have deterred many funders from involvement, making funding all the more vital.
We have supported two local organisations, Bismarck Ramu Group and ActNOW! since 2013. These groups campaign against land grabs for logging and large-scale oil palm planting, and draw attention to the damaging impacts of extractive activities in and around Papua New Guinea, such as copper and gold mining and deep-sea mining exploration.
Our support for these two groups is consistent but flexible, allowing them to focus their efforts where they can have most impact and react to a fast-moving situation on the ground.
Funding over a longer period of time, based on understanding these groups’ needs, has allowed them to hone their strategy and increase their impact, resulting in notable successes: at the end of 2017, export statistics indicated that logging had stopped in 62 of the 65 areas under so-called Special Agricultural Business Leases (SABLs) which had previously been dedicated for logging. This and other hard-won successes will have a huge positive impact for the local communities living in these areas and for biodiversity.
Benefits for the donor
The close relationships we have with our partners also benefits donors. Our goal is to help everyone who contributes funding to our programmes and partners to get a more in-depth appreciation of the work being done, its complexities and its benefits, not just for species and habitats, but also for people. This could be through convening funders at a webinar to talk directly to us and the partners doing the work on the ground, through a site visit to a specific programme partner or simply via regular reports and face to face meetings.
It is clear that there needs to be much more funding devoted to nature conservation around the world. But we believe that conservation can also be funded and supported better. To bring genuine and lasting positive impact to a place and its people, we think it is important to:
support core (staff and operational) costs to let an organisation develop and flourish;
support work in particularly challenging contexts, where international donors might be unwilling to go;
stay with organisations over longer periods of time and help connect them to scientific experts and other NGOs tackling similar issues;
share knowledge with other funders and promote better practice; and
be courageous – don’t just fund ‘safe organisations’ that are perceived to be ‘low risk’ but go for those that have the potential to deliver long-term conservation where the risk-averse fear to tread!
More funders are needed who are prepared to look beyond quick fixes and short-term impact. Supporting conservation in a meaningful way is a long-term learning process, but for those individuals, foundations and businesses prepared to engage with this process, we believe that the rewards are ultimately greater.