Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Why Conservation is Failing and how to fix it, Part 12

Why Conservation is Failing and how to fix it, Part 12

I'll say what everyone avoids saying in the business.  Conservation organizations compete for funding.  We like to paint a picture of bucolic cooperation to donors, but the truth is we compete.  One organization's gain is another's loss.

Some might argue. To them I would point out the hundreds of conservation priority-setting studies that begin with some sentence like "because conservation assets are limited...."   This justifies the need to set priorities.  Funds are limited, so the logical conclusion follow,  organizations compete.

With a fixed pot of money if you start with four organizations, it looks something
 like this:

As you add organizations, the shares have to get smaller:

AHH, but we say,  the amount is not completely fixed, and organizations can drum up NEW sources of funding.  That is one reason they have development staff.  A strong Development Team can produce some new donors.   So the funding scene looks a little more like this:

The smaller ones still have their fixed share, but the larger ones are adding to the overall pool.

But the problem is not all NGOs can add new donors, so as more organizations form, they are left splitting their share of the fixed pool, while the larger organizations can sustain larger budgets, so pie begins to look more like this:

As competition for funding increases, the people within an organization who should be implementing conservation (not doing development)  spend increasing amounts of time fund raising (a topic discussed elsewhere in this series).  Eventually nearly everyone in an organization spends some time on development in one way or another.

And as I have also written in other parts of this series, when an organization is large it develops capacities the smaller organizations cannot develop, which in turn enable the large organizations to attract larger donors than the smaller organizations.  These factors lead to a negative feedback loop (from the viewpoint of small and local organizations, but a positive feedback loop from the perspective of the big international organizations) wherein conservation funding becomes increasingly unequal between a few large organizations and many small organizations.

In other words, when the main agents cultivating conservation donors also work for a specific conservation implementer, then those donors dollars go only to that single implementer.  This forces all organizations to compete by investing in development staff and activities.  It also drives donors to select their recipients more on the basis of the organization than the actual execution of conservation and outcomes.  Organizations gain funding by having strong development programs, not on the strength of their conservation programs.

What can be done?
One way to break this cycle is to segregate development from implementing programs.  Build organizations whose main mission is to raise conservation funding and distribute that to existing organizations based on their merits, i.e.  not to support their own activities.  This way an organization can specialize and excel in raising money AND direct that money to where it is most effective, not just to its own, often less effective, programs.

If development is segregated from the implementing agencies, donors can then choose based on real conservation priorities-- threatened species, geographic foci, etc.  and then those funds go to the people addressing those priorities.  When the independent development team that has raised funds has money to invest, they are free to select optimal recipients without bias to support themselves.  When those development people work for an implementing organization, they have no choice.  Organizations supported by such an intermediary can reduce their time and investment in development to focus on conservation.

There are organizations that do this.  One example is the Wildlife Conservation Network*.  Some of the crowd funding groups, like GlobalGiving**, essentially do this also.  There really are limits to conservation funding.  We need to start spending it more wisely on conservation and less on competition to build our slice of the pie.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Conservation Currency Exchange

Conservation Currency Exchange

Many of us who travel internationally return with small amounts of foreign currency.  Some of this we simply use for our next trip.  But sometimes we return with cash from countries we are unlikely to visit again.  If you are like me, you have an envelope stuffed with cash from countries you are unlikely to revisit.

Put that cash to use for conservation in those countries.

Here is how it works:

1)   Send your unwanted foreign currency to: Green Capacity, Inc., 340 Love Hollow Rd., New Florence, PA  15944  USA
2)   Include your return address and the names of two countries/currencies (not USD) for which you would like to have cash that would support conservation or conservation-related research in that country.   
3)   If you do not wish to be considered for a return but would like your cash to support conservation, just send the foreign currency.
4)   GC will hold on to cash received and keep track of donors.
5)   Once a year, for currencies that have accumulated >$50 USD value, we will send the cash to a contributor chosen randomly from those wanting that currency.
6)   GC will retain a small percentage to cover postage and handling expenses.

It costs little to join: just unwanted foreign currency and the cost of postage.   [Paper money only].

If you share and promote the idea with your colleagues and friends who travel, the larger the awards will be.

This is a way to crowd source unwanted cash to assist conservation.    Green Capacity is a conservation non-profit, but donations in foreign currency will not be tax-deductible.   If you want to receive a year-end summary of the project include your email address or a self-addressed stamped envelope with your donation. 

This is not a scam.  I, Andrew L. Mack, am doing this to benefit colleagues in conservation (  (

Friday, December 18, 2015

Foreign Aid, Drones, and Leadership

This photo encapsulates so much.  It is the cover page for a new aid program from the Australian government.  The humanitarian challenge—seeking innovative solutions to the challenges facing Pacific Island nations in the face of climate change.

The white guy appears to have just flown to some Melanesian island with his high tech gear in pelican cases.  At the edge of the village he tinkers with the computer that guides a drone [is there any problem that isn’t going to be solved with drones?].  Behind him the bored to mildly curious villagers passively watch.  They are not involved in this latest visit from yet another gadget-laden foreign expert on his opaque mission. 

They know he’ll stay a while then disappear like the others.  He might be a nice guy and they enjoy the contact, hungry to learn about the outside world.  But they know from past experience, such visitors do not change anything.  The typical Melanesian hospitality will be offered and some good times will be had.  The visitor will interpret this as validation.  Years later, he might wonder later why their apparent enthusiasm never translated into the actions he recommended. 

This new program, Innovation Change, like decades of failed development and aid, seeks a quick, cheap fix to difficult problems.  “If we can just get the right data, or the right analysis, or the right technology…  we can solve [fill in the blank].”  These solutions require highly trained and educated experts.  Experts you won’t find among the villagers whose livelihoods are at stake.  Bring in the foreign experts.

This new program promises some millions for humanitarian challenges.  It includes things like bringing “ideators” who compete in the ideation preliminaries to Australia.  There they have a whole two-day “design sprint” where they are coached by advisors.  Not some stinking half day workshop or a one day workshop.  TWO days!   Two million bucks in awards will then be given for these now better-trained ideators to become implementers. 

The premise is that people might be able to come up with ideas, but they need Aussie funds and guidance to make it work.  Maybe if lucky a guy with will come to their village and fly a drone around to collect important data.  But then he’ll go away.  Maybe he will write a report and send it back to the village.  I doubt the drone, or the report, will stop sea levels from rising.

But I wonder, why isn’t there already someone from that village or nearby who can fly a drone?  Why does someone have to come from outside to work on the problem? What would happen if the millions spent on innovative solutions instead were spent on training innovative Melanesians?  How many people could they put through engineering schools with a few million dollars per year?  

If more money over the past two decades had been invested in training Pacific Islanders the way the white guy in the baseball cap had been trained, there would already be someone in that village able to fly a drone.   And since they live there, they would not just write a report that eventually gets used to start a fire or roll smokes.  They would follow up. They would lead.  They would engage their community and families.  They would teach.  They would get things done. 

This new aid program probably sounds great in Canberra.  Maybe they will sustain it a few years, spending more millions of dollars.  But soon new leaders will identify new priorities.   Afterall, how can anyone claim to be a leader when all they do is continue what the last leader did?  “Real leadership” means doing something NEW.

 In ten years all that remains will be some stories in the village about the guy that came in and played with a mini helicopter.  Maybe someone saw his big pale full moon ass when he took a shower and they will still laugh about that!

But if the Aussies had invested in training, ten years later there’d be an engineer in the district who continues improving rainwater collection, installing solar panels in schools, and teaching at the high school.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The big issue about trophy hunting conservationists ignore

The big issue about trophy hunting conservationists ignore

Lately there have been several papers and essays in the literature about the value of trophy hunting to fund conservation of rare and endangered species.  Aside from the ethical and aesthetic issues around killing a magnificent animal so its head can be severed and displayed, the main point is that the people wanting trophies will pay a lot of money for the opportunity do so.   The follow-on to this argument then is that the money they spend creates a value for the animal and provides funds to poor countries to conserve living trophy species populations.   For the sake of discussion I’ll call the two schools the conservation hunters and the conservation professionals.  The hunters want to fund conservation by permits and fees to hunt, the professionals do not want animals killed for trophies and think conservation funding from other sources should suffice.

The underlying truth is that for the species in question, the status quo is not working.  More funding is needed.  Traditional funding sources seem not to be enough.  The hunters school say they can fill the funding gap.

But why should a relatively small amount of trophy funding make that much difference?  Even if there are a lot of hunters willing to pay, for rare species there just are not that many trophies to be had.  The income will be relatively small compared to the millions of people, some of them wealthy donors and foundations, willing to contribute for the conservation of charismatic endangered species (and all the species that might make good trophies are charismatic).   With all the millions of dollars available and being spent via the conservation professionals, how could the relatively small contribution of hunters make a difference?

A large part of the answer to this question is that the money from hunters largely goes directly to the countries where the endangered trophies can be hunted.  Permit fees go to wildlife departments, pay for guides and trackers go right to the communities around the endangered populations.  Funds from hunters might be relatively small compared to the overall pool for conservation.  But they seem to be inordinately effective because where they are spent.

Neighbors to the wealthy trophy hunters here in the United States might make comparable donations for conservation.  But their funds often do not go straight to foreign wildlife departments, guides and trackers.  Their donations go to conservation professionals.  They support a team of vice-presidents, policy analysts and accountants in the United States.  They support the office buildings, heating bills and all sorts of overhead for the people making sure the money that does make it to the trophy host country is well spent.  They support the annual gala and numerous wine and cheese events, asking for ever more money to protect those endangered species.  The hunters don’t need a gala, wine or cheese, much less a high-paid team of experts and administrators to manage the conservation spending.  Hunters send the money to the country, they get their permit, essentially buying an animal, they go there hiring local guides; their overheads are the lodges and inns where they stay.   Funds from trophy hunters, unlike typical conservation donors, are not spent in the United States.

Whether you think trophy hunting is ethical or not, whether you think it threatens populations more than saves them, there is a message conservation professionals and conservation donors should learn.  If we learned how to direct conservation donations more directly to where they have benefit, if we learned how to eliminate money-sucking middlemen, if we essentially paid for conservation the way hunters pay for trophies, then we might have less need for trophy funding and quite possibly fewer endangered species.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

On the loss of biocultural knowledge

On the loss of biocultural knowledge.

In my decades of travel back and forth between the USA and various places in Papua New Guinea I have witnessed very rapid changes in many cultures.  Many people are losing their cultural traditions, many of which are vital for survival.  The loss of cultural knowledge varies widely among tribes.

In the worst example I have seen, the traditional language has a word for nearly every plant and animal in the forest.  Yet nearly everyone in the community now is ignorant of this rich lore and only a handful of elders can identify any but the commonest plants or animals in their traditional lands.  Most of the people have lost their skills to grow food in their traditional gardens.  They no longer know how to hunt or find edible plants in the forest, much less medicinal plants.  They have lost the knowledge of how to butcher game or how to prepare it.  No one knows what kind of wood is best suited for what purposes, and indeed they no longer can cut wood themselves and build their traditional wooden homes.   The old ways of starting fires are forgotten and replaced by matches, and even with matches now, younger people can not even find dry wood in the wet forest to build a fire.  They cannot make clothing from plant fibers or skins any more.  Old traditional ways of making soap, salt, and other necessities have been completely forgotten.

These people have almost completely lost the traditional skills they once had that enabled them to live off the land.  They are completely dependent on manufactured goods made by people far away.   Only a handful of anthropologists and biologists seem to care that an entire population has lost its core knowledge and skills necessary for basic survival.  A handful of enlightened donors and non governmental organizations are trying to stem the loss of traditional knowledge among tribal people of Papua New Guinea.

Unfortunately, the people I am referring to are not eligible to receive help from these well-intentioned people working in Papua New Guinea.  Why?  Because these  people do not live in Papua New Guinea.  They are Americans.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Who should get your conservation donation?

Who should get your conservation donation?

There is a bewildering diversity of organizations out there.  How do you choose?  Making a donation is an extremely important decision; it is like voting.  Donors decide the priorities of non-profits.

1. Giving to a charity is an important personal decision.  What causes or issues do YOU care most about?  Don't impulsively respond to the pamphlet that comes in the mail.  Think about your issue before you begin to look for an organization to support.  You might care about some specific organism, like cheetahs; a group or organisms, like bats; a geographic region, like Amazonia; a specific place, like the wetlands down the road from you.  You might care about a particular problem, like invasive species; or you might be concerned most about a certain issue, like whaling; or you might have a favorite solution to a certain problem, like planting trees to combat climate change.  Make a very short list of YOUR priorities, the less you have to donate, the shorter your list should be. 

Taking the time to decide on one or two recipients makes your life easier in the long run.  I decide who I want to support, then mostly ignore the daily solicitations in my mail and inbox (except newly emerging issues/crises).  Your time is valuable, research well, then stick with it until you have reason to change your direction.

2.  Think about how you want a problem approached.  Are you more of an activist that wants to support in-your-face demonstrations?  Or do you prefer to work more quietly in the background?  Do you want accountability, like an organization that sues big polluters, or do you want to support a community-based rails to trails project in your county?   It is not just a matter of what issues an organization addresses, but how they operate.  Choose an organization that is consistent with your priorities and style.

3.  Do some research.  This takes time but is worth it. Invest some effort up front so you make a good choice, then stick with that organization until your priorities change or they disappoint you.  You'll save yourself time in the long run if you are not considering every solicitation you get.  Narrow the field to those that directly address YOUR priorities through YOUR preferred methods.

The research is easy.  Here are some of tips:

Look for focus.  Some organizations do a little of everything and do it everywhere.   If an organization works all over the world, on whales, butterflies, and orchids, they probably do not do all these things well.  If your interest is whales, find an organization that specializes on whales.  If you want to put a new roof on your house, who will you hire: a roofing contractor or a general contractor that also does floors, plumbing, wiring, drywall, paving, and landscaping?

Scrutinize the organization's annual reports.  I tend to avoid organizations with very glossy and glitzy annual reports produced by expensive marketing consultants.

How much of the budget is sucked up for administration, development and other departments geared to internal maintenance rather than conservation outcomes? 

Where do their funds come from?  Are they mainly funded by large grants and donations?  Or do they really rely on membership and small donors?
How significant will your contribution be to the organization?  For some organizations, the membership and small donors are mainly icing on the cake; others completely depend on small donors. 

Look at their organizational structure.  How many presidents, senior vice presidents, vice presidents, directors, assistant directors, etc. there?  The fewer, the better.  How many staff appear to be directly working on your priority?  Be cautious where you cannot find good information about organizational structure. 

But be skeptical of the annual report. There are many legal tricks to blur the figures in the annual report.  For example, they might say they only spend 10% of their budget on development.  But this only includes the fulltime development staff.  Other staff might easily spend 50% of their time on fundraising too, but they are listed as scientists, conservationists, field staff etc.  I am highly suspicious of large budget organizations funded by many diverse sources reporting small development budgets.

By supporting them will you be getting a glossy calendar, glossy magazine, nice mug, etc.?  Opt out of the gifts if you can.

Where are their offices?  Do they have expensive modern office space where real estate is expensive and far from the conservation scene?   

You can research on-line how non-profits spend their money from their IRS 990 forms.  By being tax-exempt these organizations are partly subsidized by the taxpayer; their filings are public.  Some organizations have their 990 forms on their website.  I like such transparency.

If not presented you can usually find it via a search engine like Google-- plug in the name of the organization and form "990".  The 990 form provides more detail on income and spending than most annual reports.  You can also access 990 forms and other useful information for many non-profits at  [But trust your own research more than the simple guidestar ratings; they are easy to fudge.]

For example, I googled "Wildlife Conservation Society 990" and the first hit was the link to the pdf of their 2009 990 form.[i] In 2009 the Wildlife Conservation Society spent $2,443,748 on its five largest consultants.  You can see that they listed income of $10,563,032 in membership dues. The 990 lists what the top employees are paid.  The Wildlife Conservation Society 990 for 2009 shows the CEO received benefits worth $1,014, 567.  He and the 15 Vice Presidents listed earned a combined $5,515,365 in 2009.  In this example, payments to the top five consultants and top 16 executives exceeded 75% of what they brought in from memberships. 

4.  Once you have a short list of organizations you might want to support, do not be afraid to contact them with questions.  Anyone willing to take your money should be more than happy to communicate with you.

If you still uncertain about an organization you can delve into your options more; read older annual reports (often available on their web sites, or request one).  Are they growing?  Do they keep a consistent mission?  Do they demonstrate results? 

Remember, these organizations want your money, their sales pitch puts them in the best possible light.  Exhibit the same skepticism you would use with any salesman. 

5.  Once you decide, stick with it and watch them closely.  Non-profits appreciate a loyal donor.  They can plan better when income is predictable. Inconsistent donors force organizations to invest considerable effort courting new donors.  If you stay with them for some time, you can see yourself if they are delivering.  If you jump to new organizations each year, you do not develop that perspective.  If your perspective tells you they are not delivering, then you can do one of two things: move to another organization, or try to hold them accountable. 

Your donation history gives you clout to demand better outcomes.  If you have supported one organization over several years, you have the ability to say "Each year I donate $XXX to your organization, but am becoming disillusioned with your failure to deliver...."  This means a lot more if you have been with an organization for several years than if you are a new member.  This is an important way you can get more clout for your donation.  

By being a consistent supporter, you also provide an asset the organization can use to market itself to foundations and larger donors.  It is one thing to say "We have 500 members,"  and it is quite a better thing to say "We have 500 members, 450 of them have supported us loyally for more than five years."  Your several small donations can have more leverage when you consolidate them in a larger amount to one recipient and sustain them for multiple years.

In summary:
·       Identify your priority issue and how you would like to see it addressed.
·       Research organizations that specialize on your issue.
·       Look for organizations that demonstrate efficiency and results, read their annual reports and 990s.
·       Avoid organizations that demonstrate high overheads and costly administration, marketing and development.
·       Concentrate on a few or one top recipient; don't shotgun 20 dollar donations all over the board (unless, perhaps, lending membership for advocacy purposes).
·       Stick with your organization as a loyal supporter for multiple years.
·       Follow your organization and demand results.

The conservation issues we face are huge and daunting. Most of us do not have the ability to simply give more.  But we can give more effectively.  No one can demand results better than a donor.  Take a little time, get to know who you are supporting, be loyal to those who deliver, demand more from those who do not.

[i] Full disclosure- a former employer of mine.  By using an organization I know, I could make sure what I used as an example was representative.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A view of social media of the future

When the team at SETI announced they had confirmed the existence of extraterrestrial life in 2042, the news spread like wildfire through Snicker.  By 2042 nearly everyone in the world was connected by Snicker, the social media system that replaced the old slow and sluggish media like Twitter and the primordial "Facebook" kids learned about in snickschool.  Snicker completely bypassed what was once called the world wide web, which had sluggishly channeled through servers and hubs around the world connected by actual cables.  Snicker worked off something like fibreless fiberoptics-- connecting user to user at the speed of light.  Each user's communit, the device that replaced cell phones the way telephones replaced smoke signals, filtered input as it came in.  With micro quantum processing, terabytes of information could be filtered in essentially no time, at least in this reality.

As soon as the announcement was out, pretty much everyone in the world was resnicking.  Most people snicklistened to the snicks that were resnicked the most.  You simply set your communit to communicate the top five, ten, whatever snicks on any subject that had been resnicked some tens of million times.  News of binary radio communication from the Epsilon Tau cluster instantly resnicked over a billion times.  Everyone heard it, or more like thought it, since communits plugged straight into Broca's Area of the brain.  A nifty device, sort of a cross between a syringe and a staple gun, zapped a commimplant to the Broca.  Snicks were "heard" much like the annoying internal mental dialog people used to have before displaced by the snickerverse.

Pope Bieber The Popular put out a snickatement immediately that the new discovery in no way altered theology, since the new life forms were God's Creation too.  Pretty much everyone who snicklistened to Christian snicks heard the ageing former pop singer and sent out a snicknod showing their approval.   Although it took some 5000 years for the radio message to reach us from Epsilon Tau, it went to nearly everyone on earth in a matter of nanoseconds at the speed of light.  And nearly just as quickly, it became old news.  The message itself when decoded was not terribly interesting; just some Epsilon Tauian sportscaster saying GGOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLL!!!! 

Minutes later, almost an eternity in the snickiverse, the Epsilon Tauians were no longer a topic of much snickussion.  The world had pretty much concurred on an image of them as purplish-hued sportslovers, much like a puce version of Manchester United fans (still the top futbol team in the world).  Within hours what people once quaintly thought would be the most earth-shattering discovery ever was simply absorbed and added to common knowledge.  The latest trending thing took forecourt, with the unveiling of the most recent surgically rejuvenated Kardashian buttocks called "the Brazilian Beachball."