Does capacity development lead to tangible impact in the practice of conservation?

Salla Ba, Luis Costa, Paule Gros and Charlotte Karibuhoye Said

MAVA’s work throughout the years has covered a variety of geographies, species and ecosystems, using different approaches and involving a number of stakeholders from a diversity of sectors and backgrounds. This pool of data provides a rare and valuable opportunity to extract evidence-based lessons on conservation.

Which strategies have produced results and which have not worked as well? Does research improve conservation practice? Do people who have participated in trainings implement better strategies and practices?  Does working in partnership lead to better impact? Does flexible funding allow organizations to be more strategic and resilient? Questions such as these are part of the challenges in conservation projects and programmes, and MAVA aims to contribute to finding answers that could be shared with the conservation community.

To achieve that, the foundation commissioned Foundations of Success and Conservation Evidence to investigate and the result of this collective effort is now available on the Conservation Learning Initiative website.  The Initiative presents the findings of the analytical work carried out on the themes of capacity building, partnerships and alliances, research and monitoring, and flexible funding.

MAVA is publishing blogs to highlight the findings on these topics as part of the learning outcomes from this important piece of work. This one follows the blog on Research and monitoring ; others on Partnerships and alliances and Flexible funding will follow. Our hope is that these learnings will nourish the work of our fellow practitioners in philanthropy and conservation.

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MAVA set itself the task of accompanying its partners on their conservation journey beyond simply funding them, in particular, by helping them to develop the skills they need and strengthening their capacity to deliver, by respecting the local culture. A capable and vibrant conservation community is an important pillar of the legacy the foundation wishes to leave after its closure.

Today it is widely recognized that any sustainable solution to conservation challenges must be locally rooted. Ownership requires the existence of local people and institutions with the information, skills, experience and resources necessary to address the problems adequately. Another burning issue is the need to accelerate conservation impact worldwide, which requires cranking up the transfer of proven technical solutions and know-how.  This is why we support a number of conservation initiatives and programs implementing capacity building actions aimed at individuals and/or organisations.

This was especially important during the last phase of MAVA activity, as we decided to invest in the capacity and the sustainability of our partners together with their conservation action, as our funding is coming to an end.

This is the time to reflect on this investment on capacity building and we did this through the Conservation Learning Initiative by responding to some key questions about its impact:

  1. Whether trained people implement better strategies and practices
  2. Whether people trained apply their skills in their work
  3. What skill deficits conservation organisations typically identify
  4. Whether trained people stay with their organisation so they can bring their skills to good use in the relevant practices and actions

An essential aspect of capacity building is the change that is supposed to take place not only at the level of knowledge but above all at the level of mindset and practice over time. Thus, the thorny question that arises is whether training and other capacity building actions lead to a tangible impact in the practice of conservation.

 

Do trained people implement better strategies or practices than untrained people?

Findings based on the portfolio of MAVA-funded projects confirm that training often leads to improved practice, although the success of training interventions can vary greatly from case to case. Well-designed training results in more effective action at various levels, from individuals to teams to whole organisations. Overall, it is worthwhile noting that often there is a lack of formal assessment of the impact of training interventions. However, data from published literature show that tremendous progress has been made in understanding how to design and deliver training interventions effectively and how to accurately measure their impact.

 

Do trained people apply their skills in their work? If not, why?

Evidence from MAVA-funded projects shows that trained people often apply learned skills in their ongoing work. Findings from decades of training research suggest that putting learning into practice depends on several factors, including the profile of the those trained, the work environment and the quality of the training programmes.

To have a clear view on the influence of these factors, it would be necessary to assess the proportion of trained staff using skills, assess how the conditions before, during and after training helped enable the application of new skills and assess whether the goals of training interventions were reached. In any case, to measure the impact of training it is important to determine clear objectives of the learning and define concrete measures to assess the learning outcomes.

At MAVA we supported the concept of learning-by-doing through funding a number of small-grant programmes such as the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund and FFEM Small Grants Initiatives Programmes in West Africa and the Mediterranean. In these programmes emerging NGOs are closely accompanied by specialised staff as they implement their first projects developing their organisational and technical skills along the way- a clear example of those supported applying their skills in their work and implementing better strategies and practices.

Another important aspect to consider is that, sometimes, our partners themselves deliver capacity building. Indeed, delivering training to civil society organisations and governmental agencies is one of the main focuses for regional networks of practitioners and large international NGOs. Therefore training key capacity providers in these organisations can have a sizeable ripple effect on the effectiveness of capacity building in the region where we fund. A related point is to highlight that, in some cases, partner organisations choose to develop capacity building modules inspired by training that they had received from MAVA. A recent case is the Mentoring for Effective Nature Conservation run by EuroNatur, through which our effort to develop leadership in the conservation community in the Mediterranean will outlive our foundations’ closure.

 

Which skill deficits do conservation organisations typically identify?

The study found that MAVA grantees are investing in delivering training to a range of different audiences, targeting a diversity of topics. The top learning topics were ecosystem/biodiversity management or conservation, monitoring methods and tools and climate change. The main target audiences were: protected area managers and staff; environmental NGOs; and civil society organisations or community-based organisations.

From the available evidence it was not clear to what extent those investments met previously identified capacity deficiencies of individuals and their organisations. Topics chosen were  obviously perceived as very relevant  for the identified audience; however, this study’s findings underline the importance of prior analysis of training needs, which can provide an opportunity to improve the adequacy and therefore the effectiveness of training interventions.

Examples from our experience at MAVA show the crucial importance of adopting a tailored approach when designing and delivering capacity-building actions. In collaboration with Common Purpose and Mowgli Mentoring, we have implemented a leadership programme, the MAVA Leaders for Nature  Academy, to develop the leadership skills and personal resilience of our partners. Prior to launching the programme, thorough preparation work was done to identify and understand the needs before designing the content of the training programme.

At the organisational level, we supported about 20  partner organisations directly through Organisational Development (OD), and indirectly by funding organisations to provide OD support to more partners. An example of the latter is  the Hatch capacity building programme of BirdLife International targeting BirdLife’s partners across Africa and the Mediterranean. In the case of HATCH , for each of the selected partners, a preliminary assessment allowed them to determine what type of OD support was needed and to develop a specific plan tailored to the organisation’s needs.

Another good example of tailored capacity-building intervention is the training programme implemented by one of our partners,  IUCN PAPACO, with an approach that combines on-site Master’s degree and university diploma training with online MOOC and Essentials training targeting distinct audiences with specific and different needs.

 

Do trained people stay with their organisation or in the sector?

Finally, based on available evidence from both the MAVA project portfolio and the wider literature, it was not possible to conclude whether trained people are likely to stay in their organisation or not. We witnessed during the last years a very visible turnover in many organisations. However, it is not easy to tease apart the influence of training as the most important factor that impacts staff turnover. Other factors may include job satisfaction, working conditions and hours worked, salary, and opportunities for progression, all of which can play an important role in the conservation sector.

The types of skills being reinforced may also matter: while improving some skills will increase trained staff’s prospects in their current job, others will increase their chances to successfully apply to the broader job market. It is also important to make a distinction between those who leave their organisation but keep working  in conservation (which would mean that the conservation sector would potentially still benefit from the improved skills) and those who leave the conservation sector altogether.

 

Our take away messages

In the last years, a considerable number of different training initiatives were carried out by MAVA partners ranging from ecosystem & biodiversity management or conservation, to monitoring, communication, fundraising and leadership for a variety of audiences including protected area managers, environmental NGOs, academia, governmental administration, young professionals and local communities. The impact of those capacity-building activities on MAVA partners has been multidimensional, with notable progress on the individual level but also at organisational and contextual levels.

The importance of clearly identifying performance gaps and training needs cannot be overstressed. The more adequate the training offered (in terms of content and quality of trainers), the higher the probability for those trained to apply their new skills in their practice. A related issue that is sometimes overlooked is the selection of relevant staff who will be able to make the best use of the training and to apply the skills where needed while staying with their organisation.

There are increasingly relevant and accessible tools that conservation organisations can use to appropriately design the content and assess the effectiveness and impact of training and capacity-building interventions.

One of the key lessons we have drawn from our journey in philanthropy related to capacity-building is that investing directly in individuals and organisations has not only been an essential part of our role as a donor, and one that has been much appreciated by our partners, but also something that we see as being critical for all donors in developing solutions and securing lasting change.

The Conservation Learning Initiative proposes a powerful approach to investigate the effectiveness of conservation strategies. Eventually, findings could serve as a reference to practice and fund evidence-based conservation.

To dive deeper into the key insights on capacity-building, join CLI webinar on 30 January 2023!  Details and registration here

 If you are a donor, we strongly encourage you to contact the Conservation Learning Initiative at info@conservation-learning.org ! The larger the grant database, the more pertinent questions can be asked and the more robust the answers will be!

Here is the link to contact CLI coordination team so you will be informed about future events around the initiative: https://conservation-learning.org/about-us#contact

Stay tuned to the 3rd blog of the series on Conservation Learning Initiative: Partnerships and alliances.

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