This commentary was published in the October 20, 2023 online magazine, Mongabay.
I have worked as a grant writing professional for about 24 years and am also the part-time co-director of a small, U.S.-based wildlife conservation nonprofit called One Earth Conservation (OEC) that focuses on the conservation of wild parrots in the Americas. As a grant writing consultant, I serve nonprofit clients in a variety of fields, such as animal welfare, the environment, arts, youth education and development, health, and serving people with disabilities.
With this unique perspective, and at a time of massive biodiversity loss, I believe it’s urgent that small and nimble wildlife conservation nonprofits receive more support. Yet, I have noted many striking things about the wildlife conservation field. It is, arguably, one of the most important issues needing attention in a world where a sixth mass extinction event is already underway.
Yet, funding in this sector is pathetically paltry, with limited numbers of foundations and corporations supporting conservation as a way to halt and reverse biodiversity loss. Even government funding is mostly restricted to grants from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and small departments within local state environmental agencies, with very few exceptions. The silver lining is that government grants can provide substantial funding that most other funders do not offer.
In addition, Allison Smith of Neon One wrote the following about how much individuals in the U.S. donated to environmental and animal welfare organizations in 2021:
“Giving USA found that just 3% of all giving went to environmental and animal welfare organizations in 2021. Other research suggests that environmental nonprofits — which include land conservation, land trusts, and wildlife protection organizations — received about 2% of charitable donations.”
This is the second lowest percentage of giving of all categories (just above giving to individuals) that includes arts, culture, and humanities; international affairs; health; public-society benefit; grant making foundations; human services; education; and religion.
I have also noticed that there is little to no capacity building support for smaller wildlife conservation organizations, which is in sharp contrast to, for example, small arts organizations. Throughout the U.S. there are many local arts councils that provide small grants, training, and other capacity building resources in support of small arts and culture nonprofits. This type of support, whether financial or not, can help small arts groups to grow and become self-sustaining. Unfortunately, I have encountered nothing of the sort for wildlife conservation organizations such as OEC.
When funders do provide financial support for wildlife conservation, the vast majority of that funding goes to larger, more established organizations. Small groups barely stand a chance of getting even a meager grant from many funders. And government applications require a great deal of sweat and tears to complete and administer, which is more difficult for small organizations with few staff members.
Smaller wildlife conservation organizations can often be more nimble than larger organizations that usually have larger bureaucratic structures. Our impact relative to the lesser dollars we have to work with can be greater. Investing more funding into smaller wildlife conservation organizations can result in a greater “bang for the buck.”
Steve Oldenstam (left) who runs Steve-o Suriname also works with One Earth Conservation monitoring parrots along the rivers and in the forests of Suriname.
Using OEC as an example, it is important to know that wild parrots are native to five continents and they even live wild in Europe and the U.S. as introduced species. If expanded, OEC’s community conservation work could positively impact biodiversity loss globally. Our projects not only help reduce the illegal wildlife trade and habitat loss, but also improve animal welfare and empower Indigenous and other marginalized communities. With an annual budget of about $240,000, OEC currently partners with local people in six countries in the Americas.
Rev. Dr. LoraKim Joyner, the other co-director of OEC, says, “It doesn’t take much capital to invest in social capital. It’s an infinite resource that keeps giving across generations, cultures, and species.” Our emotional, social, and organizational intelligence trainings are infused with conservation theory. Implementation of what they learn inspires participants to not only want to protect their parrots, but also other wildlife and their environment, and poachers are transforming into protectors.
We have been testing for three years novel, online Parrot Conservation Corps (PCC) trainings in English and Spanish to teach our conservation methods and create mini teams to sprout new projects. Our most recent PCC engaged new leaders in eight countries and provided them with small grants for their projects and stipends when their work was completed. We have found the PCC to be a very nimble way to influence large swaths of people and seed new conservationists and projects. These activities can be replicated by reaching out to more communities, co-organizing new PCC cohorts, and training other NGOs on our process.
We often dream about what we could do with a larger budget, as many small nonprofits do, and I know we would benefit greatly from capacity building support in areas such as tracking financial transactions in the field where there is erratic internet access. If humanity wants to preserve and restore biodiversity globally, then looking to and supporting wildlife conservation organizations of all sizes is a large part of the answer. It remains an open question how to best change the global funding paradigm for nonprofits in general, as it isn’t working well in many fields, not only in wildlife conservation. I don’t claim to have the answer, but at least I can encourage more of us to discuss the possibilities.
In the meantime, the simplest and most immediate way concerned parties with some resources, whether an individual or institution, can help is to donate more to small wildlife conservation organizations and volunteer when and where it is logistically possible. OEC is doing our part by working daily to increase the capacity of our partners on the ground in the countries in which we work. As we support them financially, we also regularly provide guidance and training to strengthen their ability to eventually continue their community conservation work on their own. Ultimately, that is the best hope for staunching the open wound of mass extinctions on Earth.