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.

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