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For conservationists, crowdfunding sites raise both funds and awareness

  • A new study analyzes the use of online crowdfunding platforms for conservation efforts across the globe.
  • Low-income countries are benefiting from supplementary funds for the conservation of biodiversity as a result of crowdfunding efforts thousands of miles away.
  • As with traditional sources of conservation funding, however, much of the capital raised through crowdfunding goes toward a handful of “charismatic” species, including elephants and wolves.

The bill to train two dogs to guard a penguin colony: $18,000.

Set up camera traps in one of the world’s most remote, understudied rainforests in New Guinea: $16,000.

Build game fences to allow elephant movement between Botswana and Zambia: $560,000.

What reads like the world’s most bizarre receipt is actually several examples of successful crowdfunding for conservation projects.

Conservation measures large and small have typically been bankrolled by formal or state sources. But projects like the ones above have found a financial lifeline through crowdfunding websites, through which private citizens as well as companies or other parties can donate.

Eduardo Gallo-Cajiao, a graduate student at the University of Queensland in Australia, wanted to know more about this financial mechanism that’s supporting biodiversity conservation activities around the world.

“Clearly, conservationists have been using crowdfunding for advancing their endeavors,” he told Mongabay, “but very few had paid attention to it scholarly, as a social phenomenon.” To fill this knowledge gap, Gallo-Cajiao and colleagues conducted a global survey of crowdfunding platforms and projects for conservation and published their findings in a study in the journal Conservation Biology.

The study analyzed large data sets of crowdfunded conservation efforts. The researchers identified 72 crowdfunding websites that hosted a total of 577 conservation projects, which drew nearly $5 million in combined pledges between 2009 and 2017.

The data processing and communications technologies used to create online crowdfunding platforms have made the approach possible and widely accessible. The platform serves as a novel intermediary that, the researchers write in their paper, “can reduce barriers between the fundraiser and the crowd by providing broader reach across space and sectors of society, increasing legitimacy and enabling information sharing.”

With the power of the internet, a donor anywhere in the world can learn about a local cause somewhere far away, support it with information or funds, and receive communications, and even rewards, from that project.

A study from 2013 that analyzed conservation funding during a period just before the rise in crowdfunding (2001 to 2008) found that inadequate funding was prohibiting effective biodiversity conservation on a global scale. The study’s data set indicated that 32 percent of globally threatened species occur in the 40 most underfunded countries.

Deforestation, like the burning of Mexican rainforest, is often quantified in reference to the size of Wales. This comparison is what led Anna Harris and her team, as Welsh citizens, to their current crowdfunding organization that works to conserve swaths of rainforest the size of Wales. Image by Jami Dwyer, via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

The disparity in traditional funding sources — generally large grants from governing bodies or private foundations — exists largely as it did before the advent of internet-scale crowdfunding. However, conservation funding in low-income countries is now being supplemented by crowdfunding from abroad, where there is more capital. In the current study, the project proponents were based in 38 different countries, yet the projects were delivered to 80 different countries that were, on average, low income. The United States, United Kingdom and Australia represented the highest outflow of resources, while Indonesia, South Africa, Costa Rica and Mexico had the highest inflow, according to the study’s data set. In the study, the authors chalk these statistics up to a number of factors, including “the domestic policy framework for crowdfunding, other sources of conservation finance available in each country, democracy and public participation mechanisms, as well as ties between countries.”

The capital input provided by crowdfunding is still auxiliary to the more traditional funding mechanisms at this point. However, according to the authors in their paper, resources raised through crowdfunding can provide critical seed money to establish a research project that can then be submitted for a larger grant down the road. In addition, the benefits of crowdfunding seem to stretch beyond merely paying for these projects. Anna Harris, communications and campaigns coordinator for Size of Wales, a conservation effort to protect swaths of rainforest spanning 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles) using crowdfunding, says it’s as much about raising awareness as it is about raising money.

“For us, we haven’t looked at crowdfunding to meet a gap in funding, but as an opportunity to reach an audience, engage them on these issues and inspire them to take positive climate action,” she told Mongabay. “There is … a significant multiplier effect as it encourages people to share their actions and involvement amongst their own networks which all helps to grow our movement.”

Indeed, nearly a third of campaigns in the current study stated raising awareness as their end goal.

More than a third of the projects focused on funding research on a single species; overall, the campaigns studied sought funds to study a total of 208 species. These projects also illuminated a greater trend in conservation concerning which species are perceived to be the most appealing — and hence received the most attention and capital. Species such as the gray wolf (Canis lupus), loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) and African elephant (Loxodonta africana) were more than five times more represented in crowdfunding projects worldwide than other species.

Loggerhead turtles are a charismatic species and popular face for conservation efforts. The study led by Eduardo Gallo-Cajiao found that efforts to protect them may be disproportionately funded. Image courtesy of National Institute of Standards and Technology, via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

Despite the disproportionate representation of popular animals in crowdfunding campaigns, Gallo-Cajiao said he had high hopes for the platform as a means of funding much-needed conservation research and initiatives. “I think crowdfunding has the potential to cast the net wider when it comes to target species,” he said, “because sometimes the success of crowdfunding campaigns may rely more on the story being told and the personal and professional connections of those seeking funds.”

One of the more remarkable stories Gallo-Cajiao came across in his research was a campaign to train dogs to guard a penguin colony in Victoria, Australia. The Maremma sheepdog is an Italian breed that’s widely used in Australia to guard chickens and sheep. For a decade, two Maremma dogs have protected a colony of little penguins (Eudyptula minor) on Middle Island, west of Melbourne. Although the conservation status of the species, the smallest of all penguins, is listed by the IUCN as being of least concern, local colonies have been decimated by habitat loss and predation, primarily by foxes. The colony on Middle Island declined from 800 individuals in the late 1990s to fewer than 10 in 2005. After 10 years with the Maremmas, the colony has recovered to 150 birds.

Tula and Eudy, the first two Maremma dogs to guard the little penguins on Middle Island, Australia. Image courtesy of Warrnambool City Council, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).

As the valiant penguin-guarding dogs were set to retire, a campaign was launched to raise $18,000 to buy and train two new guardians for the penguin colony. The entire funding goal was reached.

Stories like this show that with crowdfunding as support, modest penguin colonies can receive canine protection, and swaths of rainforest the size of Wales can be preserved. “Our research was a first step in what I consider a potentially fruitful subject of empirical study,” Gallo-Cajiao said. “This topic is fascinating and undoubtedly deserves more attention.”

He called for more research into conservation and funding as it related to the more charismatic species that attract disproportionate funding. “It is then up to us, how we conservationists use those species to leverage efforts for conserving those species that receive less attention,” he said.

With the democratization of fundraising ushered in by the internet, conservation managers and researchers now know they can look beyond traditional donor organizations and governments for funding and seek support from the people themselves.