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How wildlife conservationists can find innovation in old projects

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

Some of the World’s most renowned conservation projects are sometimes the hardest to fund. That is because conservation is often blighted by an odd juxtaposition; the need to fund long-term routine activities, versus the continual drive to appear new and innovative to donors. This is driven by each funder's desire to have their own thing to rave about and as such, some are reticent to fund routine and well-known approaches.

Credit; Andreas Haslinger/Unsplash

In addition to this conundrum, the longest-running conservation projects can easily get stuck in their ways. Staff can become wedded to long-term activities which were once critical, but no-one has noticed that over time, there is no longer a need for those activities; they just become routine.

These problems can lead to stagnation and make it harder to retain donors and have a meaningful conservation impact. Here, I walk you through a few quick exercises to help you to breathe life into older projects and avoid the pitfalls described above.

What were your key actions this year?

It’s often the case that older, more successful projects have baggage. After years of funding and support, there may be side projects with schools or other activities that once complemented your project but have become hard to resource or simply no longer contribute to your goal. It's useful to be aware of this and to take an unbiased approach to evaluate your current activities.

When looking for innovative new approaches or perspectives I would often recommend taking a minute to compare your project activities to what you initially laid out in your conservation project plan. Don't worry if you don't have one, I often find that the more established projects are those that are guilty of not working to an up-to-date plan. We tend to continue to implement old activities over and over again, as if on auto-pilot. This is how projects can get stuck.

Take five minutes now to think about the last 12 months of your project – what happened? Write down what you and your team actually did this year only in bullet points.

Reflect on where you are

Once you’ve got a list of everything you and your team did in the last 12 months you can take time to reflect on how well each activity worked (or not). Mark some asterisks against those activities in your list that worked well and circling those that really could have gone better. Try and be honest and objective with yourself, as this will help you make the next phase of the project better.

Now, I’d advise sketching out two of columns; one titled ‘helped’, one titled ‘hindered’ – think about what helped and what hindered your delivery, and crucially add ‘why’ that was the case. Again, be honest, these notes will be personal to you but should be true to life, even if it’s difficult to write down.

It’s also worth paying particular attention to your core activities (i.e. those that are routine or take a lot of resources). Ask yourself what they achieved this year. What was their impact, and do you have any evidence of that impact? Evidence is really critical in longer-term projects because this is an area which needs funding in truth often isn't innovative or new, so we have to prove that it really delivers results. And if it doesn’t – why are you doing it?

Learn from the past

‘Learning’ is a current conservation buzzword, so much so that it’s described separately from monitoring and evaluation (M&E). People are now talking about ‘monitoring, evaluation & learning’. It’s key that we continue learning from our experiences year on year.

Thinking about the last 12 months, did you learn anything new? A new insight? Did new threats or questions arise? Or indeed, was anything that you already suspected confirmed? Write them all down.

Taking the time to think about what you’ve learned and actually writing down makes it so much easier to see the progress you’ve made from this point last year. You should give yourself (at least) a full ten minutes to think these through (even if you’re drawing blanks) because these questions are the most revealing. Jot down any new insights and questions no matter how obvious or unsure you are about them.

I also think it’s useful with longer-term projects to think about how the activities you are doing currently, compared with those the project implemented in the past. So once you’ve listed your insights and emerging questions/threats take five minutes to cast your mind back. Pick an appropriate comparison year (anything from four, five or even ten years ago) and ask yourself; how have your project activities changed, and why did they change?

Future plans

The last step is to integrate all your notes from the above to shed light on your future work. Looking again at your learning from the past year think to yourself how this could inform next year’s activities. Is there anything you need to adapt or even stop doing? Is there something you should continue doing, or increase?

Finally, referring again to your list of insights and new questions, is there anything else you could be doing that might help with these, or shed more light on them? Think about this creatively, even if you don’t have the funding for it, what could be done in an ideal world? This is where to find that new innovation and the fresh perspective that will lead to developing new activities that appeal to new (and old) donors.

What next?

I hope the above has given you the opportunity to reflect on your achievements to date and develop new ideas and insights. There is however a danger that without a little extra work all of this will simply stay in your own head – definitely a project risk! Therefore I would suggest now might be a good time to take your new ideas and learning to develop a new three-year project plan (see this blog for an introduction to creating a simple project plan). In doing so you will be able to share your learning as well as resource your new ideas.

A new project plan is a great way to re-energise a project team and set new goals, so don’t be afraid of lopping off the deadwood and trying new things where needed. We all know resources are limited so put the investment of time and energy into things that work and don't be afraid of taking some considered risks.

You can also use your conservation plan to fundraise for your ongoing activities alongside your new ideas to attract donors. The three-year time period I've suggested is intended to keep your project on track and ensure you stay in line with your own priorities.

So, If you truly want to re-energise an old project you have to learn from the past, reflect on what works and to continue to be bold. This will lead to the results you want and, more importantly, will keep your project fresh, innovative and impactful.

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