To deliver conservation commitments, funding practices need to change


Fred Nelson and John Kamanga


The past year has witnessed a surge of global financial commitments to support biodiversity, protected areas, ecosystem restoration, and related conservation efforts. Public and private funding is rapidly growing for ‘nature-based solutions’ to climate change, out of recognition that forest conservation and other land use issues comprise roughly 25 per cent of the overall global carbon emissions problem.

Private philanthropy has been stepping up with unprecedented commitments targeting this convergence of the biodiversity and climate crises, such as the $5 billion pledge made at the UN Biodiversity Summit last year, supported by the Bezos Earth Fund and seven other organizations.

A key element of these new financial commitments is an increased emphasis on locally driven solutions and organizations, in recognition of the central role of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities (IPLCs) in protecting and restoring ecosystems. For example, the COP26 Climate Summit in November also featured a pledge of $1.7 billion from northern government aid agencies and private foundations to support stronger indigenous land tenure, as a key investment in forest conservation and hence reduced carbon emissions.

The growing focus on grassroots conservation efforts builds on decades of work by scientists and policymakers that document the central importance of community-level action for nature conservation, and a recognition that for climate change and biodiversity loss to be addressed, IPLCs must be at the forefront of action and effective support. For example, the UN FAO and WWF both released major reports in 2021 highlighting the scope and effectiveness of conservation efforts by Indigenous Peoples and local communities all around the world. The WWF report notes that over 90 per cent of all IPLC lands – which make up at least one-third of the total global land area – are in good ecological condition. Roughly a quarter of all the land in the Amazon Basin is legally controlled by IPLCs, and the forest on those lands is often in better condition than in adjacent private lands or even state protected areas. In African countries such as Kenya and Namibia, where the majority of wildlife resides on community and private lands rather than in national parks, local conservation areas community conservancies now help protect roughly 11 per cent and 20 per cent of the total land area in those two respective countries and are at the fore of national conservation policies and commitments.

During the past two years, the Covid-19 pandemic has further stressed the critical importance of local leadership and capacity for conservation, as organizations with grassroots presence, capacity and constituencies have been able to sustain community-level responses and support, while many international initiatives faced greater constraints on their ability to operate.

From commitments to impact

While this new focus on local actors, and the accompanying commitments of greater resources, are welcome trends, it will take more than pledges to convert funding into scaled up action at the community level. Funding commitments for IPLC conservation based on territorial rights and stewardship need to be accompanied by improvements in how funding is designed, structured, and managed, and how local organizations are supported.

The overarching set of challenges revolves around how to get significantly more funding to the local scale, in ways that are appropriate and supportive of community-level actors. Only about 1 per cent of all humanitarian aid funding goes directly to local organizations in the global south, and the situation is similar for global conservation financing. In Africa, a recent report from the Bridgespan Group and African Philanthropy Forum finds that only about 14 per cent of total philanthropic funding from outside the region is directed to African organizations, with the vast majority flowing to international organizations. The Rainforest Foundation Norway also recently released a report finding that IPLCs get less than one per cent of all climate funding from overseas development aid (ODA).

There is a tremendous opportunity, with increased global recognition of locally-led conservation models and organizations and emerging interest in shifting more funding closer to the point of impact, to transform the way conservation funding is structured and utilized.

There are a host of administrative, legal, cultural, and social barriers that can prevent funding from reaching the most effective community-level groups in the Global South. Tax rules and financial reporting requirements in northern countries make it more difficult for private philanthropies to support overseas organizations, and local organizations struggle for the kind of visibility and brand credibility that international NGOs enjoy. Most development aid and many large foundation grants are simply too large for local organizations in relation to their overall budget size, while larger funders often discourage smaller and more manageable grant sizes because of their own transaction costs in administering numerous smaller grants.

Even when local organizations and community groups can access funding, most grants tend to be structured around short-term, project-based timelines. These often use prescriptive frameworks, requiring detailed budget allocations that limit critical investments in core organizational functions, take up a great deal of time in proposals, reporting, and compliance; and constrain recipients’ flexibility to respond to both crises and opportunities. As Kathy Reich, who leads the BUILD program at the Ford Foundation, has observed, one positive outcome of the pandemic has been a broad move by many funders to relax their typical restrictions on grants, which may augur a wider trend towards more flexible, unrestricted organizational funding in philanthropy.

Converting the new pledges into effective support for local organizations requires developing better mechanisms for getting the right kind of funding to local civil society leaders so that they can invest in their efforts and long-term missions. Grassroots leaders and funders need to work together to make funding more accessible to local organizations, reduce the transaction costs that make so many grants impractical or even potentially harmful for local organizations, and introduce greater agility and flexibility into the overall conservation funding ecosystem. Local groups also need more long-term investment into their core organizational functions and capacity, with more multi-year and unrestricted or flexible core funding that allows them to develop their capacity, teams, and internal systems as the key components of building successful and durable organizations.

Innovative funding models

Fortunately, there are signs of new funding models starting to emerge to address these barriers and provide more enabling and supportive ‘growth capital’ to the local and community level. Some notable emerging examples include:

  • The Tenure Facility was established roughly five years ago, with the support of funders such as the Ford Foundation and the Norwegian and Swedish governments’ development agencies, to improve the security of indigenous and community land and forest tenure. Since then the Facility has supported local and national civil society organizations in Latin America, Africa and Asia to secure title over 3.4 million hectares of land and advance collective security over an additional 11 million hectares. In 2020, 66 per cent of their funding went to indigenous and community organizations directly; they aim to disburse at least $10 million annually over a ten-year period.
  • The Legal Empowerment Fund, hosted by the Global Fund for Human Rights and supported by several private foundations and Namati, a social justice organization, was recently launched to provide multi-year core funding to the frontline, grassroots civil society organizations. The fund, which aims to mobilize $100 million over 10 years, launched with a call for proposals offering 2 years of general operating support, with an option to submit proposals orally.
  • On a more geographically focused scale, the Maasai Landscape Conservation Fund is pooling funds from several private philanthropies to provide multi-year support to local organizations leading community-based conservation efforts in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania (disclaimer: our two organizations are both involved with this fund- with Maliasili managing the fund and SORALO one of the grantees). This funding has been explicitly designed to scale up the strategic priorities of local organisations while providing flexible and responsive funding that enables investment in internal capacity required to expand key areas of work.
  • ICONIQ Impact launched a $50 million Climate Equity Co-lab in late 2021, with the aim to invest in a portfolio of ‘overlooked and underfunded’ grassroots organizations working at the intersection of climate change, gender justice, and poverty.
  • Larger public funders are also exploring new mechanisms to get funding more directly to the point of impact, with IUCN and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) launching a $25 million Inclusive Conservation Initiative supporting an initial portfolio of 11 indigenous organizations to advance their stewardship and governance across roughly 7.5 million hectares of community lands and territories.

These and other emerging examples provide useful examples and insights that can contribute to bringing much-needed disruption to conventional conservation funding practices. Conservationists also have important opportunities to draw on lessons from the wider social sector, where calls for greater unrestricted, long-term organizational funding and new models of funder collaboration that are geared towards systems-level change are more widespread.

The rapid increase in funding and increasing interest in supporting indigenous and locally-led conservation efforts are arguably the two most important trends in nature conservation today, at a critical time for people and planet. But getting conservation funding to effectively support local conservation efforts and interests requires rethinking how conservation funding gets managed, disbursed, and allocated, with new models and practices that can get funding closer to the point of impact. There is a tremendous opportunity, with increased global recognition of locally-led conservation models and organizations and emerging interest in shifting more funding closer to the point of impact, to transform the way conservation funding is structured and utilized. Local organizations, funders, and intermediary organizations need to work together to develop new models and partnerships that can shift more funding to the local scale. This needs to be a key part of emerging plans for scaling up conservation efforts around the world in a more inclusive and effective way.

Fred Nelson is CEO of Maliasili, an organization that works to advance community-based approaches to conservation by strengthening leading local organizations in Africa and Madagascar. John Kamanga is Executive Director of the South Rift Association of Land Owners (SORALO), a community association that works across over one million hectares of Maasai land in southern Kenya, and the winner of the 2020 Tusk Conservation Award.

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