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Woman in warm clothing planting trees, mountain and village in the distance.
Planting a forest near Mikhaylovka Village in Lori, Armenia.
© Armenia Tree Project

How to Achieve Conservation Results That Last

One of the most important components of a conservation project is creating change that endures

Conservationists often equate sustainability with funding, whether it be through additional donors or via endeavors such as ecotourism and payment for ecosystem services. “Grantees can get trapped into thinking that they have to put a business slant on sustainability,” said CEPF Grant Director Dan Rothberg. “What makes results sustainable varies according to the specific circumstances and conditions.”  

What exactly does sustainability mean? Grant Director Michele Zador has a succinct answer: “Making conservation results, processes and impacts resilient over the long-term.”

There are three main types of sustainability:

  • Financial: The project and your organization continue to receive funding. For example, you receive a grant from another donor to keep planting trees. 
  • Institutional: Local and/or national governments support and sustain conservation efforts. For example, you document the importance of a local river for biodiversity and local people and then a state law is passed that protects that river from destructive fishing practices.
  • Social: Local stakeholders take ownership of conservation goals and outcomes. For example, you show community members the value of protecting an Endangered monkey and they no longer hunt the species for money or sustenance.

“Grantees can confuse the activities that employ staff on the ground with sustainability,” said CEPF Managing Director Jack Tordoff. “Sometimes the results from a project can be sustainable without you needing to do very much at all. In fact, that’s the very best solution."

“[Sustainability means] making conservation results, processes and impacts resilient over the long-term."Grant Director Michele Zador

CEPF grantees have achieved sustainability in a range of ways, among them:

Developing Partnerships

By joining together stakeholders to create partnerships and networks, you can substantially increase the chances of long-term success. 

In South Africa, CEPF gave funding to the Wilderness Foundation to create a corridor between two protected areas. To do this, the organization needed to convince multiple landowners to set aside part of their land. The Wilderness Foundation formed relationships with the park authorities who, in turn, offered to have park rangers protect the landowners’ sheep from predators as a benefit to providing their land. 

The Wilderness Foundation helped develop enthusiasm among the landowners for the initiative by creating a sense of community—awarding certificates and hosting parties for participants and park staff. 

“The effort became sustainable because of the local social context,” Rothberg said. “People believed in it, and so the project outlived the CEPF grant.”

Documenting Successes

It’s typically easier to attract funding for a project after you’ve shown that the idea is already working. “CEPF often can help to do a proof of concept by investing in those early steps so that you have tangible results to show,” Zador said.

In Albania, the organization PPNEA received CEPF funding to develop an ecotourism model for the Adriatic coastline. Through this pilot project, they successfully showed the nature tourism potential for the area and, as a result, regional funders came on board to offer additional support.

"The 'Land of Eagles and Castles' project enabled us to bring life to our initial ideas and sharpen our skills and understanding of the environmental challenges that we were targeting," said PPNEA's Mirjan Topi. "Generally, it is easier to receive additional funding compared to receiving funding for the first time. However, this works only in the cases when you have demonstrated an outstanding commitment and the project reflects a distinguishing success."

Building Sustainability into Strategy

“I tell everyone the day to think about sustainability is day one,” said Zador. “We don’t want CEPF projects to only last while we are funding them.” 

But this can be easier said than done. Many conservation issues are immediate and people, understandably, want to focus on these urgent problems, which can make big-picture thinking difficult.

Another impediment to the long-term success of a project is that many organizations develop proposals based on open calls from donors. According to Tordoff, this isn’t usually the best tactic. “It’s understandable because this is a competitive environment, but the approach isn’t conducive to sustainability,” he said. “The strategy has to come first, and the funding then has to fit the strategy, not the other way around.”

Creating Links to Other Issues Donors Care About

The benefits of a project often extend beyond conservation—human health or enterprise support, for example. When this is the case for your project, use it to your advantage by creating those links and apply for funding from donors who focus on these issues (while staying true to your central goals, of course).

In Nicaragua, grantee Bluefields Indian & Caribbean University (BICU) worked to develop ecotourism for communities living in the buffer zone of Manogany Wetlands. However, they were also able to leverage US$200,000 from the American Red Cross for medical and disaster prevention work. The organization worked to enroll adults in educational activities, too.

“Locally, BICU is seen as an organization that is keenly interested in helping the community improve its quality of life and not just as ‘environmentalists.’” Zador said. “It built their credibility.”

Diversifying Funding

In Antigua and Barbuda, CEPF grantee Environmental Awareness Group raises money by selling calendars to the island’s many tourists. The organization is also paid by the local education ministry to take schoolchildren on boat trips to outer islands. 

In Panama, CEPF helped fund a three-story building for FUNDICCEP. The organization uses one of the floors for its offices and rents out the other two, providing additional income for conservation initiatives.

“These grantees are piecing together different revenue streams,” Zador said. “CEPF is usually only in a hotspot for five years—we don’t want grantees to be overly dependent on us—so diversification is really important.”

Increasing the Organization’s Credibility

In the Dominican Republic, CEPF paid for an audit of El Consorcio Ambiental Dominicano. When the audit came back clean, the organization became eligible to receive funding from the European Union.

In addition, improving your financial management can go a long way in a donor’s eyes. "The institutional capacity building [enabled by a CEPF grant] allowed for the preparation of a strategic plan, funding plan as well as accounting and procedures manual," said Ingrid Parchment, executive director of the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation in Jamaica. "In addition, the process and having the documents is viewed by others (e.g., donors) as growth for the organization."

Sustainability is, unquestionably, one of the most challenging components of conservation, but only when it’s realized is true change achieved.