- Rare, a conservation group that has run programs in more than 60 countries since starting in the 1970s, puts behavior change at the center of its work, combining design thinking and social marketing to drive conservation outcomes.
- Brett Jenks has helmed Rare since 2000, helping greatly expand the organization and launching initiatives like the Center for Behavior & the Environment.
- Jenks says Rare’s approach sets it apart from other conservation groups: “Rare is decidedly different from other conservation organizations: We are highly focused on one thing — inspiring behavior change so people and nature thrive,” Rare president and CEO Brett Jenks told Mongabay during a recent interview.
- “We work directly with local leaders and communities, advocating for giving them rights to their resources, equipping them with data for decision-making, connecting them to the formal economy, and empowering them with knowledge and skills to sustain change,” Jenks said. “We are steadfast believers in the cumulative power of individual and collective action as a vital pathway to safeguarding and restoring our shared waters, lands and climate.”
Efforts to maintain protected areas and safeguard wildlife can at times feel futile given the persistent onslaught of encroachment, poaching and extractive activities. At the extremes, top-down conservation approaches may tend toward militarization, while bottom-up conservation can seem to lack the scale needed to have meaningful impact. But at the root of many conservation challenges, big and small, is the need to change behavior, whether it’s throwing plastic in the ocean, consuming products that drive deforestation, or fishing unsustainably.
Rare, a conservation group that got its start as an outreach campaign to persuade people on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia to save an endangered parrot in the 1970s, puts behavior change at the center of its work. Rare combines design thinking and social marketing to drive conservation outcomes.
“Rare is decidedly different from other conservation organizations: We are highly focused on one thing — inspiring behavior change so people and nature thrive,” Rare president and CEO Brett Jenks told Mongabay. “So, while we might be working on fisheries or agriculture or climate change, our approach is behavior-based — appealing to people’s emotions, shifting social norms, or redesigning the environment in which people make decisions to make the green choice the easy or default choice.”
Jenks got his start working as a journalist and then in film production, before becoming an ecotourism entrepreneur in Costa Rica. It was in Costa Rica in his mid-20s when he was first introduced to conservation.
“I never studied conservation,” he said. “I didn’t even know what a conservationist was until I met some people from Rare and the Rainforest Alliance in Costa Rica when I was about 24 years old. So, I’m not a technical expert. What I am is a self-taught generalist who leans on lots of other people with far greater experience and expertise.”
Jenks took the helm of Rare in 2000 and helped grow it into an organization with operations in the Americas, Asia and Africa.
Rare says it has now run campaigns in more than 60 countries, spanning issues from overfishing to combating climate change. It has also launched the Center for Behavior & the Environment to apply behavioral insights and design thinking approaches to environmental challenges.
“We work directly with local leaders and communities, advocating for giving them rights to their resources, equipping them with data for decision-making, connecting them to the formal economy, and empowering them with knowledge and skills to sustain change,” Jenks said. “If human behavior is behind the major environmental challenges we face today, that’s a problem. So, we pair expertise within our programs in physical sciences like marine biology or agronomy with the social sciences: What makes people tick? How might we motivate more sustainable ways of doing things? We are steadfast believers in the cumulative power of individual and collective action as a vital pathway to safeguarding and restoring our shared waters, lands and climate.”
Jenks spoke about Rare’s approach, the need for driving change at scale, and a number of issues during a recent conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
An interview with Brett Jenks
Mongabay: What inspired your interest in the environment?
Brett Jenks: Like many people my age, I spent much of my childhood outdoors, collecting frogs and snakes and tadpoles, fishing with my father and my grandfather. I never thought of this as a future career interest. As a kid, I just assumed I’d be a fireman or a schoolteacher or a pro soccer player. I didn’t know what a conservationist was until I met one in Costa Rica at age 24.
Mongabay: Before you joined Rare, you were a journalist, filmmaker and ecotourism entrepreneur who also had experience in marketing. How did that lead you to working on conservation? And how does that background influence how you approach your work today?
Brett Jenks: As a journalist, I learned to ask questions and to cold call anyone I thought could help flesh out the story. That’s certainly helpful to me now. As a filmmaker, I learned to appreciate the value of storytelling. In ecotourism, I learned that nature without a business plan was unlikely to survive. So, I’m sure those formative years influenced how I work today. I am not a trained scientist. I never studied conservation. I didn’t go to grad school for it. I didn’t even know what a conservationist was until I met some people from Rare and the Rainforest Alliance in Costa Rica when I was about 24 years old. So, I’m not a technical expert. What I am is a self-taught generalist who leans on lots of other people with far greater experience and expertise.
Mongabay: You’ve been working in conservation and rural development for nearly 30 years. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in the space since you got your start?
Brett Jenks: Global recognition of the problem is probably the biggest change. When I graduated high school, no one I know set off for college thinking about becoming an environmentalist. That wasn’t really a thing. It’s so inspiring today to see how many young people grow up wanting to be environmentalists.
Mongabay: How would you describe Rare’s approach? What makes it distinct from other conservation groups?
Brett Jenks: Most conservation groups now talk about prioritizing people. This is a relatively new development for most. Rare has been focused on people from the very beginning. It’s all we’ve ever done. By that, I mean we work directly with local leaders and communities, advocating for giving them rights to their resources, equipping them with data for decision-making, connecting them to the formal economy, and empowering them with knowledge and skills to sustain change.
Another difference is that many conservation groups have deep expertise in the physical sciences. But you don’t see that depth with the social sciences. And if human behavior is behind the major environmental challenges we face today, that’s a problem. So, we pair expertise within our programs in physical sciences like marine biology or agronomy with the social sciences: What makes people tick? How might we motivate more sustainable ways of doing things? We are steadfast believers in the cumulative power of individual and collective action as a vital pathway to safeguarding and restoring our shared waters, lands and climate.
Rare is decidedly different from other conservation organizations: We are highly focused on one thing: inspiring behavior change so people and nature thrive. So, while we might be working on fisheries or agriculture or climate change, our approach is behavior-based — appealing to people’s emotions, shifting social norms, or redesigning the environment in which people make decisions to make the green choice the easy or default choice. This focus means we’re getting better and better at fomenting change.
Mongabay: Rare has grown tremendously since you took on a leadership role at the organization in 2000. What has driven that growth?
Brett Jenks: We’ve been really fortunate to attract great people. Great staff, a terrific board of directors, and a network of supportive and risk-taking donors. We’ve worked hard to identify gaps in the sector and then establish proof points that make it more comfortable for others to chip in or join. Rare is constantly changing, and yet in some ways it’s just like it was back in 2000: Rare is a close-knit group of highly collaborative and entrepreneurial people inspired to make big change, but willing to do the real work necessary to bring it about.
Mongabay: Could you point to a project that best characterizes or represents Rare’s impact and how it evaluates success?
Brett Jenks: In 2012, we launched a program from scratch. It’s called Fish Forever and the goal was simple: Reduce overfishing by coastal fishers in the world’s most biologically diverse coral reef systems. This is critical for several reasons. First, these coastal waters are where more than 80% of marine biodiversity is found. Second, they are critical for global food security: they feed about 1 billion people their main supply of animal protein. Finally, nobody was funding this work despite its ties to top priorities like biodiversity, food security, or jobs — about 200 million people’s livelihoods globally are tied to small-scale fisheries. At the time, not many were taking this on. So we designed a series of pilots to prototype the solution. That helped bring aboard Bloomberg Philanthropies, which helped us scale it to 41 coastal communities in three countries. Over five years, we collected literally millions of data points underwater before and after the pilots and what we saw was a 110% increase in fish populations where the fishers decided to fish more sustainably and 390% increases where they decided not to fish in order to boost recovery. And this evidence helped encourage a group of now 20-plus foundations to support this work. Today, Fish Forever is operating in eight countries, has engaged fishers in more than 1,000 communities, and has helped put nearly 4 million hectares (10 million acres) of ocean under sustainable management.
Mongabay: One of Rare’s recent initiatives is the establishment of the Center for Behavior & the Environment. What is the aim of the center?
Brett Jenks: We built the Center for Behavior & the Environment to build the field of what we call “behavior-centered design.” The goal is to fill a number of missing links in our field’s theory of change. For decades, conservationists have used three principal tools: information, legislation and economic incentives. There’s nothing wrong with these per se, but it’s an incomplete toolkit. It doesn’t necessarily reflect how people behave and actually make decisions. So, we added some new tools based on behavioral insights: emotional appeals, social influence and choice architecture. We’re working to build an evidence base, to train a slew of new change agents, and to build demand for these approaches. Twenty years from now, we imagine that every conservationist will be well-versed in behavioral economics and social psychology and human-centered design and our capacity for change will be far greater than it is today.
Mongabay: Conservation organizations are sometimes faulted for its slowness to embrace change. What do you see as the key elements to drive change within organizations?
Brett Jenks: Leading with why is key. Driving change in an organization begins with making sure everyone knows why change is needed, and why now. The best changes build their own internal momentum by inspiring belief that working together we can build something better for the world and the people and nature we serve.
People seek purpose when they join conservation groups and so any real change has to tap into purpose. A great example was Marshall Ganz’s training course for all the Obama campaign volunteers a few election cycles ago. Every volunteer went through an orientation during which they personalized why they supported Obama. There was an overarching campaign platform and strategy, but every single staffer had a personal vision for why they were going to work their tails off to get Obama elected. I think this is a great test for organizations in conservation. What percentage of staff can describe the strategy at a high level and then name two to three personal reasons why they are jazzed and what they are contributing?
Mongabay: Conservation is often criticized for its lack of inclusivity and the lack of representation of historically marginalized communities in positions of power and decision-making. Do you see the sector taking serious steps to address this concern?
Brett Jenks: Yes, but slowly. We’re not moving quickly enough. I’m not sure anyone is. Because Rare has always been about community empowerment in poor, remote rural areas of the developing tropics, I think we gave ourselves a pass on some of these really pressing questions. And I regret that. There is so much more we can do, and I am not ashamed to say that we are now beginning to work in earnest on these questions.
Part of the challenge is structural. In the nonprofit space, doing new things requires new money. Some donors are still more focused on the overhead charged on restricted grants they offer. Part of the challenge is inexperience: conservation leaders are used to trying to fix what’s broken outside their organizations, not inside them. And this requires not only a new skill set — creating inclusive processes for increasing inclusiveness — but it also requires some soul searching. The most provocative question a DEI consultant asked me last year was, “What power are you willing to give up?” I think that’s a pretty good starting point for leaders.
Mongabay: Beyond what we’ve covered so far in the interview, what do you see as the biggest gap (or gaps) in conservation? Or in other words, where does conservation need to do better?
Brett Jenks: Conservation has ample room for growth. We work hard and we’re a creative bunch, but let’s face it: we’re losing. We have to do better. There are two things we can do right away: first, boost accountability. Second, improve philanthropy.
How is it possible that there’s so little data from conservation projects to let you assess the efficacy and efficiency of conservation solutions? We can do better. Modern medicine is built on experimental design. How can we heal nature without a similar ethos?
Mongabay: What has been the impact of COVID-19 on your work and the communities you serve? Do you think society will retain any lessons from the pandemic?
Brett Jenks: COVID-19 has brought massive changes for us. All of sudden, we couldn’t deliver programs in the intensively hands-on way we always have. So, we had to design a massive pivot. This meant doing lots of new things virtually: everything from training local leaders to engaging networks of municipal leaders. We also took advantage of the all the time alone in our home offices to accelerate a host of exciting new developments. We worked virtually to establish a 20-year vision and a five-year strategy. We started piloting our first-ever U.S.-focused program. We initiated a multi-year participatory DEI effort. Some of the changes we’ve made during COVID have the potential for massive impact in the years ahead. But we have a long way to go.
Mongabay: The scale of environmental challenges we face are daunting. What do you see as the key levers for driving the kind of systemic change required to transform humanity’s relationship with the natural world?
Brett Jenks: This is literally a question of humanity’s survival in the millennia ahead. And there are two key levers in my mind.
One: Make nature more salient. Most people don’t think it matters to them; we’re an urban species spending much of our day staring at screens. We need to evolve. We need to make nature feel way more important to the average citizen and we need to do that very soon. Only 3% of philanthropy last year went to conservation. Fifty percent went to religious institutions.
Two: Create a myth of inevitability. The most powerful lever for change is social norms — when people sense norms are changing, two critical things happen: we question whether we too should be changing, and we assume that change is easier than we thought. So, what we need is a sense of momentum, a sense that people are actually starting to do something. Five fishers embracing change inspires the local mayor to get on board, and five mayors attracts the attention of a minister, and once you have a few ministers, you can set a national agenda. Individual actions matter way more than we think.
Ultimately, we need to learn how to move people. And then we need to learn how to SCALE what works. And this is the second Achilles heel for conservation.
What would you say to young people who are distressed about the current trajectory of the planet?
Brett Jenks: Whenever I was unhappy as a kid my mother asked me, “hey, you’ll feel a lot better if you go do something nice for someone else.” Following that advice always got me out of the funk. So, to people stressing out about climate change or the extinction crisis, I’d say, do something. Take action.