Advisory board guides collaborative conservation grants


Summary: A regional environmental funder conducts research and consults with an advisory board to help conserve more land at a faster rate and accelerate collaborative conservation efforts.

A regionally-focused family foundation wanted to help conservation organizations in New England protect more land at a faster rate.  Over the years, the foundation had observed that the collaborative conservation groups were more successful than organizations that worked alone, but the groups struggled with ways of working together and dreaming big.  When the family trustees decided to launch a capstone initiative to close 35 years as a leading supporter of large landscape conservation in the region, they consulted with experts in the field. The funding initiative would have to build on its legacy of supporting local land trusts and leverage funding to conserve the region’s most important wildlands and woodlands.

Interviews with stakeholders help test an idea

The trustees began exploring with the idea of a revolving loan fund to help land trusts close more conservation deals with private landowners.  We encouraged the foundation to conduct a feasibility study to test the idea.  The foundation contracted the Highstead Foundation to interview leaders of land trusts and other experts about the idea.  Highstead is a national leader in the field of collaborative conservation and knew all of the key leaders the region.  They quickly discovered that access to loans was not the main problem for land trusts in closing deals with landowners.  The experts from Connecticut to Maine told us that what the field really needed was funding to cover transaction costs – the hard-to-fund legal, assessment, mapping, and other “extra” expenses that can prevent a landowner from donating property or conserving their land.

An outside advisory board brings diverse expertise

GMA Foundations worked with staff of the Highstead Foundation to design a funding initiative.  The goal would be to help members of conservation coalitions cover transaction funds that would close deals on donated easements or land.  The feasibility study confirmed that not all coalitions were ready to launch big conservation campaigns that could benefit from the transaction fund, so the foundation also created a smaller innovation fund to help them test new ideas and build capacity.  We hoped that both programs would give conservation organizations opportunities to build trust, learn together, and get ready for bigger and better opportunities.  Finally, we recommended that the foundation create an advisory committee of conservation experts to review proposals, make grant recommendations, and guide the funding program.  The experts came from land trusts, government, universities, foundations, and national networks that were familiar with local contexts of the proposed projects.

Results of collaborative conservation

RCP’s in New England

The three-year $1 million funding initiative contributed to the protection of over 60,000 acres of critical habitat, increased collaborative conservation in the region, and supported the development of new tools and practices that help conservation organizations protect more land.

The transaction funds helped stimulate donated easements and land in value that far exceeded the grant amount.  Most importantly, the funds helped conservation coalitions get into position for much bigger land protection campaigns in the future.  The foundation that helped advance New England’s land trust movement succeeded in playing an important role in helping usher in a new era of collaborative conservation in the region.

Keys to success

  • Don’t go it alone.  Collaborative grantmaking helps reduce risk, generate insight, and increase opportunities to focus resources.  We rarely see a downside to working with others or asking for advice.  All of the advisors were generous with their time and were invested in the success of the foundation’s initiative.
  • Listening pays off.  Field scans, expert interviews, and feasibility studies are essential for major grant initiatives because they test assumptions and identify new opportunities.  Good strategy emerges from great questions.
  • Seek diverse expertise.  The diversity of expertise and the enthusiasm of the grantmaking advisors led to lively deliberation and confident investments in organizations.  We have found that working with highly opinionated and intellectually curious outside advisors is not for the timid, but it may be one of the most effective and satisfying ways to support high-impact grantmaking.

Prentice Zinn leads GMA’s practice in grantmaking for the environment.