How to create a quick and easy conservation monitoring plan

Updated: Feb 17

Monitoring has become a 'must-do' for any conservation project manager. Increasingly, it's a requirement of many donors, as well within organizations because it helps to understand project progress and of course, support funding bids.

Monitoring however has a tendency to spiral out of control because, there's always something else you CAN measure. As a rule of thumb, monitoring should account for 10% of your project resources (i.e. time and money) but this will vary depending on the project. And one of the best ways to get monitoring under control is to create a monitoring plan. Here, I share my simple formula for developing a simple and cost-effective monitoring plan every time.

A woman interviews a man.
Like all of us, I've been guilty of collecting more data than I needed. Credit: V Price

1. Base your monitoring plan on your project plan

As you will know if you've read any of my other blogs, I believe every conservation project should have a project plan (a written plan). However, if you don't have this, you can also use your donor proposal or a log frame etc..

Within your document, find the project aim (there will be just one of these) and the headline outcomes or objectives (there's usually 3-5 of these). For each of these, circle or highlight anything you can measure. See my example below.

From the information you've circled select those that you need to measure as part of your project. These are now your 'indicators'. If resources are limited, you don't need to measure everything and some indicators may overlap or be duplicated.

2. Identify your baselines

Using your indicators, you now need to develop baselines (the data that shows the situation before you begin your project), So using the example above my baselines would be;

  1. Elk population size in Martin Luther Wood

  2. Area of continuous elk habitat in Dreamwood district

  3. Number of elk-related jobs in Copside and surrounds

  4. Amount of funds spent by elk community fund

Once you know your baseline data needs, you should identify a) whether this data already exists and, b) either how to access it, or how to collect it.

You should be as creative as possible about this. For example, if you want to know the area of habitat, this information might be available from the local authority or a woodland conservation NGO working at the same site. Alternatively, you could measure it yourself using Google Earth or QGIS software.

An elk lies in a woodland heath
What is your starting point? Credit: Unsplash/Aleesha Wood

Be creative about where you might be able to access and share data, it can save valuable time and money. Always think about who might be collecting this type of data already and whether you can access it. Likewise, you can reduce costs by collecting data in various ways for example using existing apps, recruiting citizen scientists, or developing partnerships with research institutions.

For some baselines (like 4 in the example above 'amount of funds spent by elk community fund') you may know the answer immediately. In this situation, the answer is zero as the elk community fund doesn't exist yet. This is ok too.

3. Do not measure anything you don't need to

It's critical now that you only concentrate on the specific things you have circled (i.e. the things you can and need to measure). Unless you need to collect extra vital information, or are writing a paper, you should not be aiming to collect any extra data. If you do, this will only cost you time and money to (most likely) sit on an unused spreadsheet until it becomes so outdated that it's useless.

Likewise, don't overcomplicate things. Keeping things simple helps you to show progress towards your goal without costing the Earth. You rarely need to (or should ) collect 'attribution' data (i.e. data that 'proves' your project alone achieved a certain result).

A black woman with a rucksack and walking boots looks out over a river at the top of wooded valley

4. Outline your data collection needs

Once you know your baselines, and have collected any information you can from other sources you need to get started collecting any remaining data as soon as possible. Sort out any training and equipment needs quickly and ensure you allocate a date and team member/s to collect the data needed. The sooner you can do this the better, and you should aim to do this before the project. In some circumstances, this won't be possible so you'll need o to seek reasonable alternatives.

Likewise, you should note down future dates when the data collection needs to be repeated and by who. The best way to ensure this is done is by embedding the wok into your team member's annual work plans as well as having a written up monitoring plan that any team member can access. A monitoring plan outlines all the things above in a table format so will outline data needs, future collection dates or frequency (e.g. monthly or annually) and names the responsible team member.

Allocate resources to data collection. Credit: Unsplash/Sarah Brown

5. Include the data collection and analysis costs in your budget

Make sure you understand your monitoring needs before you start your project. In doing so you can include any training, equipment and staff time related to monitoring in your project budget. This is completely acceptable to do and actually strengthens your proposal. As I mentioned above, aim for costs of around 10%, if they're a lot higher, check whether you are collecting any unnecessary information. Some pioneering and innovative projects may require more monitoring and vice-versa, so you can justify higher costs in these circumstances.

6. Use your results

This final step is probably the most often missed. Despite reviewing hundreds of conservation proposals every year, rarely do I see applicants demonstrating their impact to date. Imagine how convincing it would be to say to a donor; "last year we demonstrated that we increased the elk population in Martin Luther Wood by 25% and we are seeking funding to expand our approach to the whole of Bedfordshire", compared to "We will boost elk populations in Bedfordshire".

Other places you can use your results are in communications materials, donor reports and project evaluations. If you gather interim information between your project start and end dates, you can adapt your approach to improve progress.

And that's all it takes! I will make available a monitoring plan template in a future blog. In the meantime, if you want to find out more about monitoring, or need help with your project, check out 'nourish', a Vision Wild programme that develops a monitoring plan for your wildlife conservation project or programme.

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