- The conservation sector needs to be more strategic, inclusive, and more creative in sharing lessons and solutions.
- “If sharing lessons and formulating solutions can only be done by flying somewhere and paying for the privilege, in an atmosphere which too often presents wins and not fails, there are too many people missing out,” a new op-ed argues.
- This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
The Business of Conservation conference was held in Rwanda in August 2023. In the lead up, my social media feeds were full of NGOs I follow advertising their attendance and the sessions they were involved in.
The small NGO I was working with, only a year old, decided against attending, mainly a strategic decision around limited staff and other things to focus on, but also because of the cost. A week in Kigali, hotels, transport there and back and in town, food and extras plus the not insubstantial registration fee. Seeing the conference was not live streamed, I emailed the conference organizers and asked whether there were recordings they could share, or a conference report or papers from participants we could have access to, to benefit from all the session topics I saw related to our work.
I was told, “As you are aware, the event was a paid experience, and we are committed to ensuring that our valued guests receive the full benefit of their participation. Therefore, the final report and related videos and materials will be available but exclusive to those who registered and attended the event. We understand that you’re interested in accessing these materials, and while we would love to share them with everyone, we must respect the commitment we made to our paying participants. This decision is intended to maintain the exclusivity and value of the event for those who supported it financially.”
My entreaty, that as a small community-centered organization we simply had not been able to afford to attend this time, but would still clearly benefit from the lessons shared and from hearing how other organizations within the sector were doing things, was met with silence.
The planet, and the conservation of it, is everyone’s business, and keeping it exclusive to those who can pay not only feeds into the capitalism that is behind much of the earth’s destruction, but is also depriving the communities and organizations who genuinely need to know from having access to new ideas and hearing the learnings that may save them making early mistakes in their establishment or choosing the right methodology based on similar scenarios. Simply expanding their understanding of complex issues and having access to others who they can talk to about it would be beneficial.
The conservation sector needs to be less elitist and more strategic, inclusive, and more creative in sharing their lessons and solutions. Too often, communications and Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning (MEAL) are the first things to be dropped from program and project budgets, but absolutely shouldn’t be. Or, as projects end, some findings are shared but are simply inaccessible to those who most need to hear them. Excellent research insights are hidden in publications behind paywalls and in expensive academic scholarly books, presented at conferences and lecture theaters to a gathering of the choir.
There are a handful of websites full of case studies that few outside the usual funding agencies know to exist, which started without a strategy, budget or communications specialist for publicizing and impactful dissemination, no social media or other channel back up, and no long term real community outreach and engagement built in. And they rarely show what didn’t work, or go into detail about changes and utter failures. We should celebrate the wins, obviously, but we also need to get better at sharing the fails.
Putting case studies onto a website – and not taking the time to properly build the right audience, aggressively seeking out the communities who would most benefit from hearing what worked and didn’t and why, on the channels they are already active on and can access and in a language they can understand – is lazy, bad practice and yet par for the course.
Webinars and podcasts are stock in trade these days, with little rationalization, every medium to large conservation organization is creating their own. But again, how many people are attending or listening to these, where are they being advertized outside current supporters, who has the time for so many, who really would benefit beyond the converted, all patting themselves on their backs and having what amounts to internal conversations among an elite few? Are they the decision makers on the other side of the world, or even just the other side of the country? What of the frontline community members dealing with harsh conservation realities, the project developers and funders who need to hear and understand those very realities as well as many more approaches?
Is it our job to seek out and find the people who would do well to hear lessons and impacts? Yes! It should be. Frontline conservation is most certainly not happening in conference rooms and in corners of the web, and while good networking and conversations of course do occur, more must be done on accessibility and actual targeting so the conservation sector can get more cohesive, less competitive, and learn lessons.
We’re all in this together, and should be happy to share and invest in the infrastructure and specialist implementors who can make sure project lessons are not lost, but instead learnt and built upon.
So, who will pay for it? It should already be built into all projects, though rarely is – conservation communication is more often focused towards donors rather than others on the ground trying to implement and grow. Case studies written with a donor proof of impact lens, rather than the honesty of trial and error only tell part of the picture.
Funders should be focusing on the lesson sharing, too, investing in systems and platforms, and most importantly the strategy behind them. It’s not all about the channels, but the accessibility of the channels. And then there’s the next step – actively finding and presenting lessons and impact to those who may not even know these examples exist: doing the research, spending the time, identifying an audience and then giving them new knowledge in a helpful way. Literally find them, go to them and tell them about it. Don’t publish and assume it will be seen widely – it won’t. And don’t expect them to come to you.
If sharing lessons and formulating solutions can only be done by flying somewhere and paying for the privilege, in an atmosphere which too often presents wins and not fails, there are too many people missing out. Spending money should not be the gateway to conservation wisdom, and by admitting mistakes and being honest, that wisdom will be more tactical and useful. It’s high time we focused on real accessibility and genuine lesson sharing. We all stand to gain.
Tania Paschen has been involved in conservation communications and campaigning for over 20 years, working and volunteering for both large international NGOs and small community organizations.
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: What works in conservation? A discussion with the authors of a report released by the Conservation Evidence Group, listen here:
See related coverage: Here’s a feature from Mongabay’s conservation effectiveness series which analyzed what works, and doesn’t, in conservation: