- The multifaceted nature of most conservation projects means that many factors need to be monitored and evaluated using a range of metrics to determine whether a real impact has been achieved and can be sustained into the future.
- One of the organizations at the forefront of efforts to measure impact in conservation over the past twenty years has been Foundations of Success, which developed its roots in the 1990s out of a need to develop ways to gauge the success of U.S. government-funded conservation projects.
- From his position as the co-founder and Executive Director of Foundations of Success, Nick Salafsky has seen firsthand how organizations and institutions are responding to the growing preponderance of data and the emergence of new technologies and tools in the conservation space. He says that an organization’s receptiveness to change when more effective pathways are identified is important to achieving conservation success.
- “Perhaps the most important predictor of success is the attitude of the people in an organization – whether they are ultimately interested in merely perpetuating their programs and their jobs versus being open and willing to critically examine and learn from their work,“ he told Mongabay’s founder Rhett A. Butler in a recent interview.
Determining the success of a conservation project is rarely as simple as measuring how well forest cover has been maintained or the headcount of an endangered species. The multifaceted nature of most conservation projects means that many factors need to be monitored and evaluated using a range of metrics to determine whether a real impact has been achieved and can be sustained into the future.
Approaches for measuring impact in conservation continue to evolve, especially with the emergence of new ideas, practices, and technologies. One of the organizations at the forefront of these efforts over the past twenty years has been Foundations of Success, which has its roots in the 1990s when Richard Margoluis, Nick Salafsky, and Janice Davis identified a need to develop ways to gauge the success of U.S. government-funded conservation projects.
Today Foundations of Success works with actors across the conservation sector to develop mechanisms to measure the effectiveness of conservation projects and strategies. These efforts help achieve a range of objectives, from improving conservation outcomes to making a case for conservation investments.
From his position as the co-founder and Executive Director of Foundations of Success, Salafsky has seen firsthand how organizations and institutions are responding to the growing preponderance of data and the emergence of new technologies and tools in the conservation space. He says that an organization’s receptiveness to change when more effective pathways are identified is important to achieving conservation success.
“Perhaps the most important predictor of success is the attitude of the people in an organization – whether they are ultimately interested in merely perpetuating their programs and their jobs versus being open and willing to critically examine and learn from their work,“ he told Mongabay in a recent interview.
Salafsky says that smaller organizations or “teams on the periphery of the larger organizations” tend to be more nimble than “the center of the larger organizations” when it comes to adopting evidence-based practice.
“There’s some interesting new research by the sociologist Damon Centola that shows that adoption of innovation is not led by the so-called ‘influencers’ in the center of a network, but rather by people in smaller nodes on the periphery of the network,” he said. “I wish we had known this twenty years ago because we spent a lot of time and treasure trying to get large organizations and funders to adopt evidence-based practice.”
Salafsky also identifies some persistent gaps in the conservation sector, including expanding the stakeholder base and persuading supporters to “appreciate and support quality conservation work, rather than flashy feel-good stories.”
“One obvious area in which the conservation sector needs to make major improvements is our ability to reach out and involve all segments of society in our mission and our work,” he said. “It’s a bit of a mystery to me when I encounter conservation board members and funders who, when wearing their day-job business hats, would never ever consider an investment opportunity that didn’t have a solid business plan and good performance metrics. Yet, they seem perfectly willing to back conservation programs that are no more than the germ of an idea and some wishful thinking.
“We desperately need these leaders to ask tough questions and reward those programs and organizations that demonstrate the willingness to do the analytical thinking needed to create solid conservation efforts – and that then effectively communicate this thinking through powerful stories that are supported by the underlying evidence.”
Salafsky spoke about these issues and more during a conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
An interview with Nick Salafsky
Mongabay: What inspired your interest in conservation and nature?
Nick Salafsky: I grew up in a suburban Chicago environment that seemed fairly insulated from nature. But my parents must have done something right because, in addition to me becoming a conservationist, one of my two sisters grew up to be an organic farmer and the other became a raptor biologist. I also became actively involved in my high school outdoors club, thanks to an inspirational biology teacher.
In college, I became intellectually interested in dabbling across many disciplines. I remember going on a biology class field trip in which the professor picked up a rock with some ants on it, brushed the ants into a box, threw away the rock, and lectured about the ants. And then going on a geology class field trip in which that professor picked up a similar rock, brushed away the ants, and then pontificated about the rock. Meanwhile, in both cases I found myself wanting to think about how the ants and the rocks and even the professors interacted with one another.
I ended up majoring in anthropology, primarily because it seemed to provide the best avenue to travel and see the world. I talked my way into a gig as a research assistant for a rainforest research project at a remote field station inside a national park in Indonesian Borneo. The privilege of spending a year living in the cathedral of the primary rainforest while studying monkey foraging behavior certainly sparked my interest in conservation. But I also met local community members who were working in unimaginably grueling conditions to cut down trees on the edge of the park to feed their families and pay their kids’ school fees. Like many people at that time, I realized that conservation would not take place in the forest. Rather, conservation necessitated understanding and working with the people in the communities around the park and the human socioeconomic system that influences their values and actions.
So I went back to do a graduate degree in resource economics and spent two more years living in those communities around the park, writing a highly interdisciplinary dissertation about the local land-use system which had been shaped by everything from the ecosystems, soils, and topography of the location, to the colonial and national history that brought successive waves of migrants to the region, to the global demand for and price of plywood. I was fortunate to be able to put together a thesis committee that was tolerant and even encouraging of this interdisciplinary work – one committee member memorably told me, “You don’t just want to straddle the fences, you want to dance on the fences!” While up on those fences, I learned about both the challenges and the rewards of thinking about natural resource management using a systems thinking approach. In the end, I think I’m spending my career in conservation not just because it is one of the most important issues of our time, but also because it is the ultimate interdisciplinary systems problem. Everything else seems boring by comparison.
Mongabay: What prompted you to start Foundations of Success?
Nick Salafsky: In the 1990s, I worked for the Biodiversity Support Program which helped USAID to fund and implement conservation work in the tropics. I was initially hired to help our partners to develop biological monitoring plans to test the efficacy of their interventions. I have a vivid memory of running a workshop with my colleague Richard Margoluis in Southern India in which we were supposed to help our partner project teams articulate a prioritized list of monitoring indicators – and failing miserably at our task.
At first our group couldn’t think of any indicators – and then with a bit of prompting, the group rattled off the kitchen sink of every possible measure. So Richard and I took a step back and asked them to describe the objectives of their work – and we failed again. No one in the room was able to succinctly state what their projects were trying to accomplish. Finally, in desperation we asked them to try to describe the situation in which their project was taking place. Once we did this, then they could start to define their objectives. And once we did that, then the priority indicators suddenly became obvious. This was the moment when we realized that monitoring really only makes sense in the context of a project’s design and ongoing management and learning – what we now call the adaptive management cycle.
Richard and I went on to write up our approach in our book Measures of Success with a vision of having all conservation practice being based on good analytical thinking and evidence. We were inspired by Robert Pirsig who wrote in his classic 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
A man conducting a gee-whiz science show with fifty thousand dollars’ worth of Frankenstein equipment is not doing anything scientific if he knows beforehand what the results of his efforts are going to be. A motorcycle mechanic, on the other hand, who honks the horn to see if the battery works is informally conducting a true scientific experiment. He is testing a hypothesis by putting a question to nature.
Our aim was to provide conservation practitioners with the analytical framework and tools they need to effectively design, manage, monitor, adapt, and learn from their projects and programs. When the Biodiversity Support Program came to its natural end, a niche to continue this work opened up. So we started Foundations of Success (FOS) to try to meet that need.
Mongabay: How has Foundations of Success evolved over its history?
Nick Salafsky: When we started FOS, our main approach involved trying to establish ‘learning networks’ in which project teams using similar conservation strategies could share and exchange information to learn about the conditions under which their approach might work and why. Our original strategic plan had an objective of creating a dozen or more of these networks. After a couple of years, however, we found we only had one or two prospects. But while there was not much demand for ‘learning networks,’ there was great interest from teams and organizations that wanted support in the analytical thinking needed for doing project-level strategic planning and adaptive management. So we went on a two-decade long detour that involved developing the framework and systems needed to support good conservation practice as encapsulated in the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation (aka Conservation Standards). In this work, we lean heavily on our partners in the Conservation Measures Partnership (CMP) and the Conservation Coaches Network (CCNet), two communities of practice that share a similar mission and theory of change. Interestingly, I think we are now collectively getting to a point of baseline analytical thinking about projects where we can start to revisit the learning network approach.
I also think that our own theory of change has evolved over time. Early on, we aspired to create a world in which every conservation practitioner would have the knowledge and skills to do all of their own analytical thinking – they would be freed from having to get someone from the scientific ‘priesthood’ to bring the power of analytical thinking to their work. In hindsight, I think that we have learned that, while it is essential for all practitioners to appreciate and use good analytical thinking, there is still a role for ‘barefoot’ scientific priests who can use their training and skills to support teams in the field and in applied programs. Thus, our strategy has become to help organizations and the wider community to build our collective capacity to support this vital analytical thinking.
Mongabay: What has been the biggest effect of technological innovation on your work and the broader evidence-based approach to conservation since you started Foundations of Success?
Nick Salafsky: When we first started FOS, the web itself barely existed! Probably the most exciting development has been the burgeoning ability for individual project teams to share their experiences and findings with not only other members of their organization, but also the rest of the world. Many conservation strategies are too complex to study through experimental methods. But if we can develop the ability to document and share the specific experiences of different project teams using a similar strategy while working in varied conditions, then we can develop a ‘generic’ theory of change that describes the assumptions behind this strategy and determine both the conditions under which these strategy can work as well as those under which it is unlikely to work. This requires both a common framework and info sharing platform to document the conditions and results of each project, as well as incentives for practitioners to participate and report both their success and their failures. To this end, we’ve invested heavily in developing Miradi, an online platform that supports practitioners in going through the steps in the Conservation Standards. In particular, Miradi has enabled us to create the Conservation Actions and Measures Library (CAML) which facilitates development and dissemination of generic theories of change for key conservation actions. Tailoring these generic conservation action templates to a project’s conditions can then be used to jump-start the creation of specific conservation strategies.
I’m also really intrigued by the ability of platforms like eBird and iNaturalist to crowd source data collection about the natural world and allow for the incorporation of citizen science and Indigenous/local knowledge into analytical practice. And another often overlooked key innovation to support all of this information sharing has been the development of open source and copy-left licensing agreements (e.g., GPL Software and Creative Commons licenses). These agreements enable communities of practice to collaboratively develop and share their intellectual property for the greater good.
Mongabay: Over the span of your career, have you seen organizations move towards more evidence-based conservation? And if so, which type of organizations have been faster at moving towards evidence-based conservation?
Nick Salafsky: There’s some interesting new research by the sociologist Damon Centola that shows that adoption of innovation is not led by the so-called ‘influencers’ in the center of a network, but rather by people in smaller nodes on the periphery of the network. I wish we had known this twenty years ago because we spent a lot of time and treasure trying to get large organizations and funders to adopt evidence-based practice. And yet in hindsight and per Centola’s findings, we had much better uptake working with smaller, more specialized organizations or teams on the periphery of the larger organizations, rather than from the center of the larger organizations. Going forward, we need to adapt our strategies accordingly.
Perhaps the most important predictor of success is the attitude of the people in an organization – whether they are ultimately interested in merely perpetuating their programs and their jobs versus being open and willing to critically examine and learn from their work. I call this the ‘Snow White Effect’ because by promoting evidence-based thinking, we are forcing teams and organizations to look into the analytical mirror at the logic and outcomes of their work. Often, what they see reflected back at them are programs that range from “not the fairest of them all” to even “downright ugly” – conceptually flawed work that is not likely to achieve its desired outcomes at any meaningful scale.
Many teams who look into the analytical mirror and see all the flaws and challenges in their work react by first blaming “that damn mirror” and then throwing it away and continuing business as usual while claiming success. A few teams, however, look in the mirror and realize that they have to change their work to be more effective if they really want to accomplish their mission and goals. In my mind, these self-reflective people and organizations are the ones who are going to make conservation happen.
Mongabay: What is one recent example that demonstrates a project using evidence to make changes or improvements, which may have been missed otherwise?
Nick Salafsky: We’ve just completed two projects with Parks Canada which showcase how to make the right level of investment in evidence. One project involved a management decision to undertake an expensive and high-profile conservation breeding program for the last remaining woodland caribou populations in Jasper National Park. Here, the park staff invested substantial effort in laying out the key claims underlying the logic of their proposed interventions and then assembling and assessing both the local and generic evidence for each of these claims. We then assembled over 30 experts to review and assess the Park Service’s assessment of the evidence. The second project involved assessing the evidence for several examples of much lower profile restoration work, such as rat eradication efforts designed to protect endangered seabirds on small islands. Here again, we worked with park staff to lay out the key claims behind the logic of their interventions and then assembled the available evidence to assess each of these claims. In this case, however, we focused much more on local and indigenous knowledge as sources of evidence for this work.
In both projects, by putting evidence in the context of a program’s strategic plan, we were able to collect and share it in a way that made it useful for management decisions. The key is to make the right level of investment in evidence collection and analysis to inform the critical management decisions you are facing. If you are in a low ‘burden-of-proof’ situation, then you don’t want to spend tons of time and treasure on evidence collection. But if you are in a higher ‘burden-of-proof’ situation in which you are dealing with the last population of an endangered species or you are likely to affect many human stakeholders, then you want to make sure you have the best evidence available to inform your decisions. The other intriguing lesson is that evidence is the flip side of monitoring – if you lack evidence for a claim, then this is a strong signal that you need to invest in prospective monitoring to collect and analyze the data needed to fill these information gaps.
Mongabay: What do you think about evidence in conservation becoming more commercialized? For example, for-profit organizations and consultants offering products to measure things like carbon, deforestation, and biodiversity where previously this may have been done by scientists or NGOs? Do you think it could make measuring effectiveness more standardized and widespread, or could it have a negative effect?
Nick Salafsky: I’m enough of an economist to appreciate the potential but also the risks of trying to harness the power of market forces to achieve social change. We are unlikely to get to the scale needed to combat biodiversity loss, climate change, and other global problems if we are only relying on scientists doing monitoring work on meager academic and NGO budgets. We need to get to a world in which both producing and verifying commodities that are deforestation-free, carbon-free, and biodiversity-friendly (as well as child labor-free and providing other social values) becomes the routine way of doing business.
There are plenty of precedents in other sectors that we could learn from. For example, in the mid 1800s, small private entrepreneurs in Scotland established a set of accounting standards for how companies should structure their financial bookkeeping and then charged those companies to certify that their books met these standards. This system evolved to become the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) standards that are now used to certify the books of companies and organizations around the world. It’s hard to imagine a world in which something like GAAP would exist purely based on publicly financed investment and government regulation.
The challenge of course is that when for-profit companies get involved in a sector, they can change the playing field in non-desirable ways. For example, over the past decade or two in the US, many large agribusinesses have aggressively moved into organic farming. This has the benefit of making organic food available to many more mainstream consumers, but it has also cut small producers out of the sector. On a personal level, once the government codified the standards for organic production, my sister’s small family-run organic farm could ironically no longer afford the costs of organic certification. Furthermore, for-profit companies can develop and promote standards that don’t have any real teeth and that can compete with more effective standards, thus confusing consumers who want to do the right thing. For example, the timber industry’s Sustainable Forest Initiative (SFI) standard competes with the more rigorous NGO-promoted Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standard.
At the end of the day, as with any powerful tool, corporate involvement in assessing effectiveness can be used for both good and bad purposes. Our collective challenge will be to develop and deploy this tool to maximize the former and minimize the latter.
Mongabay: What do you think about large corporations (Microsoft, Amazon, Google, etc.) being increasingly involved in conservation data collection and processing? Do you see potential ethical issues and if yes, how can we prevent them?
Nick Salafsky: As I said in response to the previous question, at some level, the conservation community absolutely needs to bring these powerful corporate actors into our world if we are going to scale up our conservation efforts. Rather than try to re-invent their systems, we need to leverage the power of their data platforms and analytical tools. For example, in our Miradi platform, we are not trying to recreate complex data visualization tools. Instead, we want to connect to and make use of the rapidly improving suite of analytical tools found in Microsoft’s Power BI and Salesforce’s Tableau systems. In addition, I think it would be truly transformational if we could figure out how to get these IT companies to apply their considerable expertise in marketing and behavior change to our conservation challenges.
That said, over the years, we’ve tried to engage with various tech companies in our conservation work. Honestly, it’s mostly been a frustrating experience because the tech company reps often seem to see these engagements as an opportunity to showcase their latest cool innovations in feel good conservation stories – for example, using artificial intelligence to identify individual animals in photos or to create drone networks that track elephants. In effect, they are focused on gee-whiz tech solutions in search of a problem, when what we really need is their help in adapting and applying their core data collection and analytics skills to the basic analytical work of conservation programs. The conservation community clearly needs to figure out how to bridge this gap and engage the tech companies in our work because they could bring massive resources, tools, and brainpower to help solve the real albeit less glamorous challenges that we are actually facing.
As one specific example, a few years ago the Conservation Measures Partnership approached a number of tech companies with the idea of creating a set of information technology standards to put all relevant conservation information on shared global map platforms. Imagine the power and the efficiency gains if all conservation species and habitats, threats, and actions were all mapped as points, lines, and polygons in data layers that could be publicly shared so that everyone would know who was doing what work where! Unfortunately, however, we failed to pitch this work in a way that was able to hold their attention.
Regarding the ethical issues, obviously any time you get into data collection and sharing, we need to be hypervigilant about ensuring that truly confidential data are protected (for example, the specific location of species that could be poached). In addition, it is critical that intellectual property rights are clearly delineated and respected (including in particular, the rights of indigenous and traditional knowledge holders). To this end, it’s good practice to develop the appropriate intellectual property rights agreements at the outset of any data collection and management process. The open-source licensing agreements I alluded to above are a good starting point for this work.
Mongabay: Greater inclusivity is a growing priority in the conservation sector. What do you see as ways to gather and incorporate data and evidence into decision-making around that issue?
Nick Salafsky: Both FOS and the wider conservation sector clearly need to figure out how to address issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice so that all people have an opportunity to join, contribute to, and lead our field. But, as with any other action we might take, I think we really need to unpack and understand the specific mechanisms involved in this approach. Hopefully this analysis would give us insights into how to more effectively take action to incorporate diverse perspectives and skills into conservation as we go forward.
More specifically related to data collection and evidence for decision-making, one of the big takeaways from our recent work with Parks Canada that I described above is that good evidence-based practice incorporates all relevant sources of evidence. And that starts with making sure that you have a diverse and inclusive set of people involved in the team that is framing and making the decision, including Indigenous and traditional resource managers. Your team should then start with what you and your partners know locally about your conservation situation. The evidence community emphasizes that decision makers should focus on the reliability of their sources of evidence – that systematic reviews or replicated controlled experiments should be given more weight than one-off observations. But in doing so, people often overlook the relevance of these sources – which is in many ways, even more important. At the end of the day, if your team is managing a specific island park in the Arctic, would you want to base a decision to trap rats on a peer-reviewed systematic review of evidence for generally managing problem animals on tropical islands, or advice from a trusted local Indigenous naturalist who has extensive experience at your specific site? Hopefully it’s obvious that this is something of a false dichotomy – ideally your team would want to consider both of these sources in arriving at your final decision.
Mongabay: What do you see as a major gap that the conservation sector is still not addressing well?
Nick Salafsky: Following on from the previous question, one obvious area in which the conservation sector needs to make major improvements is our ability to reach out and involve all segments of society in our mission and our work. A second major gap involves getting our supporters and funders to appreciate and support quality conservation work, rather than flashy feel-good stories. It’s a bit of a mystery to me when I encounter conservation board members and funders who, when wearing their day-job business hats, would never ever consider an investment opportunity that didn’t have a solid business plan and good performance metrics. Yet, they seem perfectly willing to back conservation programs that are no more than the germ of an idea and some wishful thinking. We desperately need these leaders to ask tough questions and reward those programs and organizations that demonstrate the willingness to do the analytical thinking needed to create solid conservation efforts – and that then effectively communicate this thinking through powerful stories that are supported by the underlying evidence.
Mongabay: What’s next for Foundations of Success in terms of its direction?
Nick Salafsky: Richard Margoluis and I just completed a sequel to our original Measures of Success book from 25 years ago. In this new book, Pathways to Success, we’ve tried to tee up a number of topics that are going to require additional thinking and innovation going forward.
One of these topics involves the need to figure out how to scale up conservation efforts so as to deal with climate change and some of the other pressing global-scale problems that we are collectively facing. For example, can we deploy nature-based solutions such as restoring wetlands to sequester carbon at the scale needed to meaningfully contribute to the global warming problem? To this end, FOS has just recently identified an initial framework that outlines five basic approaches for taking pilot projects to scale. Each approach has its own distinct theory of change pathway. We are now launching an initiative in collaboration with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to test the conditions under which different combinations of these approaches might make the most sense. This work also involves thinking practically about how to roll up projects and/or grants into higher-level programs as well as how to incorporate recent advances in behavioral economics and network analysis into promoting adoption of innovations. Ultimately, we hope to build this thinking into the next iteration of the Conservation Standards and Miradi.
A second topic involves continuing to think about how to better structure our analytical thinking about conservation strategies so that we can seamlessly integrate both existing evidence and future monitoring efforts into the overall evidence base needed to inform conservation decision making. In particular, we need to help practitioners make the right investment of their scarce time and treasure into the analytical thinking needed to maximize their success.
And a third topic involves thinking at a meta level about how we can better scale our own work at FOS. We’ve always deliberately chosen to be a relatively small but hopefully catalytic organization. And we’ve been fortunate that most of our staff seem to be willing to stick around for the long haul. But now we are thinking about how we might increase our impact, both by expanding as a collective of similar organizations around the world and by recruiting a more diverse set of people who can take our organization and the broader conservation movement into the coming decades.
Mongabay: Do you have any advice for someone who’s either considering, or just getting their start, in evidence-based conservation? This could be skills, mindset, etc.
Nick Salafsky: Even though I’m a huge proponent of being interdisciplinary, I think it’s important to think about preparing yourself for a career in conservation with a ‘T-shaped’ set of skills. At the end of the day, to get hired in your first job, you need to be able to go deep in one field so that you can ‘sell’ yourself as a particular ‘something’ – a biologist, social scientist, statistician, GIS analyst, etc. – this depth is the vertical line of the T. But to do your job well, you will also need to have a curiosity about and skills in a wide-range of adjacent fields that form the crossbar of the T.
At FOS, we tend to hire generalists who, more than anything, are able to work with teams to help them conceptualize and frame problems and then develop, implement, and adaptively manage appropriate solutions. Some people certainly have a more innate ability to do this work than others – but like any art or skill, it’s something you can practice over time to get better at it.
Going back to one of my earlier answers, I think it is essential for any conservation practitioner to be willing and able to look in the analytical mirror at your own work and when you see the inevitable flaws and challenges, be inspired to use the mirror to make your work better over time. We have to be able to practice what we preach!