By Maaike Manten (BirdLife International) and Stuart Paterson (The Rufford Foundation)
With limited time and money available to protect biodiversity, it is imperative that each and every conservation project is as sustainable as possible. However, for small grant projects (typically lasting 1-2 years, with budgets of no more than USD $75,000), this is not easy.
Projects are by definition time-bound, with a start date and an end date, and they have a fixed budget, which is usually finished by the time the project ends. How can we make sure that the results and impacts of our activities will continue beyond the timeline of the project?
In 2021, the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) organised a workshop during the online International Conference on Conservation Biology (ICCB 2021) to discuss this conundrum. Based on a survey among 12 small grant donors, CLP organised an interactive discussion with 30 conservation practitioners from all over the world to discuss challenges and solutions. The workshop culminated in a list of success factors and recommendations, which was shared with all donors and workshop participants after the ICCB event.
For more information, read the ICCB 2021 sustainability session report
Not wanting this initial piece of work go to waste (which would have scored low on the sustainability scale!) CLP, together with the Rufford Foundation, BirdLife International and the Center of Excellence in Biodiversity Conservation and Natural Resource Management (CoEB, University of Rwanda), delivered a short training course at this year’s ICCB in Kigali, Rwanda, to support young conservationists to make their work more sustainable, and thus to make their conservation efforts more effective.
For more information, read the ICCB 2023 sustainability training report
One of the main conclusions of the 2021 exercise was that long-term sustainability needs to be built into a project’s design. Good project design starts with a comprehensive problem analysis, to ensure that we will address the (root) causes of the issue that we hope to fix. It is critical to be aware of the fact that we cannot do this alone – we need our stakeholders (everybody with an interest in the issue, anybody who will be affected by our project, and anybody who has the ability to influence our success) to help define the real problems and the appropriate solutions. After all: if we are not doing the right thing in the right place, with the right people and in the right way, we can be sure that our project will not be sustainable!
“Project sustainability needs to be built into our project design, at all scales. We must think about what we need to do now to make sure our project will move forward and continue to have impact in the long-term.” – Henry Rees, co-facilitator of the 2023 workshop (former CLP Programme Officer at Fauna & Flora)
Ecological, financial and institutional sustainability
During the workshop in 2023, we specifically explored how to include ecological, financial and institutional sustainability in project design.
We are all striving to conserve nature, but we still need to think carefully about how our actions may have unintended consequences on the environment. For example, how much waste do projects produce? Do we weigh up, avoid/justify and off-set travel when required? Can offices source eco-friendly or locally produced materials? All of these (and many more) environmental factors need to be considered and need to be ‘mainstreamed’ into the project’s activities.
Financial sustainability is the ultimate goal for many projects, and it also makes donors very happy. Donors want to know that the funds they invest will help unlock sustainable solutions. During the 2023 workshop, the trainees considered a range of options that can be built into a project’s design to keep the project funded beyond the initial project period. These options varied from income-generating activities and partnerships with government agencies to corporate engagement and seeking in-kind contributions. Some practitioners also engage with volunteers and citizen scientists who are able to maintain activities during pauses in project financing.
We also discussed who will be responsible for maintaining activities after a project ends, known as an “exit strategy”. Who could be the owner, or champion, of the projects’ results? Again, here we need to look to our stakeholders, and engage them from the very beginning. Throughout the project, we can ensure to provide them with the necessary skills, tools, structures, resources, and partnerships to make sure the project will persist.
“Donors such as Rufford and CLP offer continuation funding to encourage applicants to plan beyond short-term projects. Some grantees have grown their projects into sustainable programmes, achieving longer-term goals.” – Stuart Paterson, co-facilitator of both 2021 and 2023 workshops (CEO of the Rufford Foundation and former CLP Executive Manager)
Programme and organisational sustainability
Another key recommendation of the 2021 event was that, in order to boost your project’s sustainability, it is good to have longer-term objectives on your radar. Even if you won’t be able to achieve these longer-term objectives within a specific small grant project, it helps to know that each project will contribute to a bigger impact. This is what we call ‘programmatic’ sustainability: to develop a longer-term, wider programme that can consist of multiple projects (e.g., research, community outreach, action, advocacy etc.), which together will deliver greater conservation impacts. This is also something that donors like to see and often ask for directly, even in proposals for smaller sums of funding. During the 2023 training, we discussed how to build such a programme, and how to develop a pipeline of funding opportunities.
Last but not least, we looked at organizational sustainability, and what we can do as conservationists to become better at our own work. All organisations, whether new or old, are established to deliver their mission. Resources, such as Capacity for Conservation, can help ensure that organisations plan to sustain themselves over the long-term. In particular, these resources can help you consider what capacity is needed, how do conduct communications, how to deliver projects and how to nurture potential partnerships.
“The sustainability of a project can be ensured through adaptability, engagement of key stakeholders and the continuous development of capacities and capabilities.” – Tharcisse Ukizintambara, co-facilitator of the 2023 workshop (Partnership and Capacity Development Coordinator, BirdLife International)
As Niels Bohr, 1922 Nobel laureate in Physics, once said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” Everything changes, all the time. Still, we strongly believe that contemplating the longevity of our work is worth the investment. We need to know what we need to do to make our projects last; we need to plan our programmes with long-term goals in mind; and we need to build resilient teams within our organisations who can go all the way. The key take home message from the workshop therefore was: Think ahead.
Thanks to Maaike Manten, Stu Paterson, Henry Rees, Simon Mickleburgh, Leala Rosen, Tharcisse Ukizintambara and Ian Gordon for co-facilitating the 2021 and 2023 workshops and for contributing to this blog.