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Rethinking conservation funding models in Africa (commentary)

Pygmy chameleon (Brookesia peyrierasi) in a local guide's hand in Madagascar. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

  • Conservation in sub-Saharan Africa faces monumental challenges.
  • Ultimately, effective and durable conservation efforts require major investments in protecting large landscapes through government, community, and private institutions, and in improving governance at multiple levels.
  • A key to meeting the challenges to effective conservation at scale is providing resources that enable creative and effective conservation organizations to deliver lasting results.
  • This post is a commentary – the views expressed are those of the authors.

Conservation in sub-Saharan Africa faces monumental challenges. Rapidly growing human populations and resource consumption are creating growing pressures on land, water and other natural systems. Weak governance coupled with market demands means that illegal use of natural resources- from fisheries, to timber, to elephant ivory- is a major driver of over-exploitation. Ultimately, effective and durable conservation efforts require major investments in protecting large landscapes through government, community, and private institutions, and in improving governance at multiple levels.

A key to meeting the challenges to effective conservation at scale is providing resources that enable creative and effective conservation organizations to deliver lasting results. Much of the discussion in conservation focuses on the limited amounts of funding available-. However, an important, but less discussed, issue is how funding is delivered and accessed. Recently, we brought together funders and conservationists working in Africa, to discuss funding approaches that can achieve greater impact on the ground. Here we draw on this gathering to summarize both challenges with existing funding models and possibilities for addressing those. 

Pair of orphaned elephant calves at a rescue center in Kenya. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Existing Challenges

Lasting and effective conservation work depends heavily on innovative and capable local organizations that can develop new solutions and take them to scale. African conservation organizations, like organizations working for social and environmental change anywhere in the world, require enough funding to be creative, invest in their teams, and grow, and funding designed to increase on-the-ground impact. That means funding that rewards outcomes, and enables them to invest in core functions and capacity, particularly the recruitment and retention of top talent, staff development, and their core infrastructure. Building a successful organization with the ability to deliver great results takes time and therefore requires long-term funding.

This kind of funding is all too scarce in African conservation. The default funding model in conservation is through projects. Project funding is typically short-term, restricted, non-renewable, and generally rewards activities (what one does) rather than impact (what one achieves). Restricted project funding usually limits the organization’s ability to adapt to changing circumstances and incorporate new ideas and insights. Project funding also frequently limits the ability of an organization to invest in core capacity and resources- particularly people- through arbitrary limitations on overheads or staff salary costs. Because conservation outcomes are rarely measured, funders often practice due diligence by heavily managing how grants are spent. This limits grantees’ flexibility, creates heavy transaction costs, and almost always starves organizations of capital to invest in growth and resilience.

Moreover, funding is often not only prescriptive, but limited. While small-scale project funding (e.g. in the $10,000-$20,000 range) may be valuable during the initial stages of new initiatives, there is a ‘missing middle’ in conservation funding between those relatively small grants and funding available through large-scale development aid and public funding agencies. While the latter has the advantage of providing multi-year, large-scale funding, the heavy transaction costs of securing and managing such funding- daunting proposal, reporting, and compliance requirements inherent to most international public funding sources- creates barriers for many local organizations.

A related challenge is the accessibility of funding ‘markets’. For field-based and local groups in Africa, finding and connecting with funders is a major challenge. Conservation funding sources and markets are highly fragmented; there are few shared marketplaces or forums for funders and practitioners to meet and exchange information. This strongly favors large organizations that have already overcome the hurdles to developing sophisticated marketing and public relations operations.

Because of these problems, conventional conservation funding models can inhibit, rather than promote, the development of thriving organizations that meet the immense and growing challenges of African conservation. First, because time spent finding and reporting to funders comes at the expense of time spent on actions that drive impact. Second, restrictions on how funding can be used limit an organizations ability to quickly adapt and to invest in its core functions, internal development and future growth.

These challenges can play a significant factor in limiting conservation impact. They make it harder for newer entrepreneurial organizations to secure funding and become established, and to take promising models to scale.

Common zebra (Equus quagga) in South Africa. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Better Funding for Greater Impact

Funders and local conservation groups in Africa need to collaborate to promote better ways of doing business. This will require a shift in funding approaches that aligns impact with investment, and channels more funding to the organizations that deliver the best results.

One key measure is to focus on funding organizations, rather than projects. That means investing in an organization’s core strategic goals and outcomes, and providing flexible or ‘growth capital’ that an organization can invest in delivery of results and building its internal capacity. Some large private funders operating primarily outside the conservation space are increasingly calling for and adopting these approaches. For example, the Ford Foundation’s new BUILD program is investing $1 billion over five years to support core capabilities and development of 300 grantees.

For their part, conservationists need to foster this kind of core investment by providing clear goals, priorities, and metrics in their strategies and plans. Funders and practitioners need to agree on key outcomes and metrics that are most appropriate for tracking and evaluating results.

A second priority is to become bolder and more ambitious in the provision of long-term funding. Funders need to address the ‘missing middle’ in conservation funding by providing effective young organizations with the kind of capital they need to grow. This often means core and unrestricted funding on the order of $100,000 annually, significantly larger than the typical small grants available for much conservation work.

Beyond that mezzanine-level funding, is the importance of making even larger ‘big bets’ in organizations that have a strong track record and are positioned for greater impact. An example of this is a grant announced earlier this year by the Wyss Foundation, of $65M to African Parks- perhaps the largest private grant ever made in African conservation- for them to expand their successful protected area management model across Africa.

The growth of new financing models, such as trust funds, across the conservation field also provides a range of opportunities. These new long-term funds can potentially be directed at effective local organizations as a source of long-term support. This is part of the thinking behind a new Community Conservation Fund being developed by WWF and other local partners in Namibia. These kinds of long-term mechanisms for conservation funding stand in contrast to the relatively reactive, crisis-driven nature of much of African conservation funding.

Dune 45 in the Sossusvlei area of the Namib Desert in Namibia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

African conservation funders and practitioners need to work together to develop a shared vision, reporting metrics, and partnership models that will enable both to achieve greater impact. To overcome communication barriers and reduce transaction costs, funders and practitioners need new virtual and physical spaces to come together and overcome existing barriers to communication and market fragmentation. An example of bringing funders and local conservationists from Africa and elsewhere together in new ways is the Wildlife Conservation Network’s annual Exposition events held in a number of US cities.

Ultimately meeting African conservation challenges requires funding directed towards effective local organizations. New conversations and communications mechanisms – a better conservation marketplace – can more efficiently connect conservation funders and practitioners on the ground and result in better conservation outcomes. Funders and practitioners need to work together to build a conservation field in Africa that delivers greater impact, attracts more funding, and can tackle a world of growing threats.

Fred Nelson is Executive Director of Maliasili Initiatives.

Leela Hazzah is co-founder and Executive Director of Lion Guardians.

John Kasaona is Executive Director of Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation in Namibia.

Scott O’Connell works with the Acacia Conservation Fund, a philanthropic initiative supporting conservation organizations around the world.

Peter Riger is Vice President of Conservation and Conservation Educa­tion at the Houston Zoo.

Bernie Tershy is Adjunct Professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz and an advisor to the Mulago Foundation.