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How can funders better support their grantees in measuring the impact of conservation efforts?

By Salisha Chandra, 11th December 2020

Since the early 2000s there has been an increasing emphasis on measuring conservation effectiveness, driven primarily by the need to allocate scarce resources to where they could have the most impact in tackling the biodiversity crisis. Accordingly, there has been a rise in monitoring and evaluation efforts demanded by environmental funders and conducted by conservation organisations. However, impact measurement is extremely challenging in conservation because biodiversity loss is a “wicked” problem (multiple causes, no clear solutions and beyond the capacity of a single organization to address). Measurable conservation impacts will rarely result from a single intervention, and attributing impact to a specific intervention is very difficult. The majority of monitoring and evaluation efforts have therefore focused on reporting what has been done (outputs and activities) rather than what has worked and changed (or not) as a result of the interventions (i.e., outcomes and impact). For conservation to truly be successful in stemming the ongoing biodiversity losses being experienced across the globe, we need to go beyond the reporting of outputs and make concerted efforts to credibly measure the impact of specific interventions, thereby generating evidence to inform the development of more impactful conservation strategies in the future.

In order to emerge from this proverbial vicious cycle into a virtuous circle of credible impact measurement leading to more effective conservation interventions, both funders and conservation organisations need to collaborate and overcome specific cultural challenges within the sector.

As part of an MPhil in Conservation Leadership at the University of Cambridge, I undertook a research project to generate insights into and best practices in conservation impact measurement and reporting, through interviewing organisations, experts and funders. Here are the key recommendations to emerge from my research for conservation funders to encourage better monitoring and evaluation practice by their grantees:

  1. Recognise the difficulty in attributing impact to a single intervention. Accordingly, funders could promote efforts to evaluate impact within systems rather than of specific interventions and help guide organisations to focus on how they contribute to this impact.
  2. Request an evidence-based theory of change. Impact evaluation assessments that use randomized control trials or statistical methods are considered the gold standard. However these are difficult because of a lack of funding, knowledge and time. As a more feasible alternative, funders should insist on conservation interventions being developed on the basis of a clear theory of change that articulates causal links between outputs, outcomes and impact, and presents the evidence base for these causal links (for example, using the resources collated by Conservation Evidence). Where there are gaps in the available evidence, targeted monitoring efforts to address these gaps should be prioritised.
  3. Fund monitoring and evaluation efforts. Often monitoring and evaluation activities are not explicitly funded or could be rejected/reduced by funders if they exceed a certain percentage of the overall budget. This may lead to a lack of dedicated capacity in conservation organisations to perform monitoring and evaluation tasks. Providing specific and sufficient funding for these efforts (and, indeed, insisting that they are sufficiently provided for in all project budgets) would help to build capacity and promote good practice.
  4. Understand that it takes time to create impact. Ecosystem changes can take years if not decades to manifest themselves. Recognising this and supporting conservation organisations with longer-term/multi-year funding is key to increasing conservation effectiveness.

The need for conservation organisations to understand which interventions are impactful is paramount in order to reverse global biodiversity losses. By instituting the steps described above, funders can play an important role in shifting impact reporting from a focus on project outputs to evidence of what works and what does not.

Salisha Chandra conducted this research as part of an MPhil in Conservation Leadership at the University of Cambridge; read her full research report here.

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