By: 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 has published a series of blogs to highlight the findings on these topics as part of the learning outcomes from this important piece of work. This one will close the series of such blogs; so far, blogs on Research and monitoringCapacity building and Partnerships and alliances have been published. Our hope is that these learnings will nourish the work of our fellow practitioners in philanthropy and conservation.

What is flexible funding?

One of the current debates in the philanthropic world lies in how to provide funds to organisations for increasing their impact: should it be through projects and targeted funding to tackle specific topics? Or should it be provided as unrestricted funding at an organisational level, whereby organisations could become more resilient and sustainable, with a positive impact on their conservation agenda?

Whilst MAVA has provided much of its funding in grants for projects within programmes’ strategies, considerable funding has been granted to reliable organisations in some different formats.

  • Programmatic funding, defined as flexible funding granted in the context of the existing strategic plan of an organisation – either at the level of a programme or the whole organisation- allowing it to be more strategic in its conservation work.
  • Core funding, defined as flexible funding for organisational administration and development, to increase the overall financial security of organisations – not to be confused with targeted organisational development grants.
  • Emergency funding in the event of a crisis (e.g., COVID-19) for organisations to be more resilient and able to overcome the crisis.

At MAVA, we have always believed that supporting key partners with flexible funding makes a difference in their capacity to deliver lasting conservation impact. The analysis of our 28 years of experience and of data from the wider literature through the Conservation Learning Initiative allowed us to research the evidence for this belief, by asking concrete questions for each of the three types of flexible funding we have used.

In our view, understanding the effects of dispensing flexible funding is as relevant for the conservation community as for the philanthropic sector.  Knowing how to obtain the maximum conservation impact from the funding at hand is critical in a context where funding for conservation is scarce and conservation challenges daunting.

The donor strategy behind providing flexible funding is that it ensures financial security for organisations, thereby improving conservation practice. In this context, CLI tested the following 3 questions:

  • Do organisations receiving programmatic funding work more strategically?
  • Are organisations receiving core funding more financially and organisationally sustainable?
  • Does emergency funding help organisations overcome unforeseen challenges in moments of crisis?

CLI research found evidence that supports positive answers to all 3 questions.

Do organisations receiving programmatic funding work more strategically?

The analysis of 75 questionnaires sent to MAVA partners who had received programmatic funding and 20 examples from the wider literature, revealed that the organisations receiving programmatic funding were more likely to work strategically and to fully implement their plans.

Programmatic funding allows the donor and the partner to align their strategies for deciding how to best use the funds granted. When both agendas match, the funding becomes more effective as donor and grantee are working with a common understanding. The grantee can make the most of this funding by having the ability to hire new staff and restructure departments; the freedom and flexibility to be fast and adaptive; the ability to maintain independence and be critical of the external context – governments/companies; and to have the potential to bridge the financial gap between conception and implementation of new ideas.

When the allocation of the funding is agreed upon strategically at the beginning, there is reduced pressure to align with the funder’s agenda giving the grantees the ability to focus more on their mission.

Are organisations receiving core funding more financially and organisationally sustainable?

When giving core funding to reliable organisations, the evidence suggests that they often use flexible funds to invest in organisational development and maturity. In some cases, unrestricted funds are also used to acquire additional funding. Further investigation is needed to determine whether this consistently leads to greater financial sustainability.

The data shows that in some cases, recipients of flexible funding are able to acquire additional funds. This seems to be the case in particular for MAVA grantees. More widely, there is a general lack of evidence available to test this assumption, and further research may provide significant opportunities for learning.

MAVA strategically invested in the development of key partner organisations. For more information about that, we recommend the learning product Tips of the Triangle. In our view, investing in the organisations’ sustainability, by giving them the resources for adequate and solid organisational development, provides the foundation for their long-term work and impact.

In MAVA’s Mediterranean Programme, eight partners have benefitted from a combination of programmatic and core funding. Whilst participating in the process of defining the last strategy of MAVA for 2016-2022, they got funding for delivering on their own strategies, contributing to MAVA’s strategy, and raising their internal capacity. Such a mixed funding approach proved instrumental in reinforcing effectiveness and sustainability of critical conservation NGOs in the region, advancing the overall context in which MAVA’s strategy was embedded, and fostering strong leadership to build on MAVA legacy.

Responses from MAVA grantees showed that when core funds are allocated to Organisational Development this will be spent on improving administration, hiring staff, reporting, fundraising, communications, and capacity building and training. The rationale is that if organisations don’t have the proper skills for running projects and ensuring their long-term follow-up, then grants for short-term conservation projects will not be effective. Granting core funds to good organisations can make all the difference as these funds are seldom available from most donors.

If our partners recognised most of the benefits of core funding highlighted above, one advantage they mentioned to us recurrently was the capacity to use our funding to leverage more funds. Granting large amounts of core funding to our most trusted partners over the last ten years allowed them to position themselves regionally as leaders in their respective fields of activity.

Does emergency funding help organisations overcome unforeseen challenges in moments of crisis?

Crisis occurs sometimes in an organisation’s life, causing disruptions in their activity and putting their impact at risk. The recent Covid pandemic was a clear example, as well as the severe financial crisis that hit some countries in recent years, for example in Lebanon. Some evidence from CLI analysis suggests that providing flexible funding in emergency situations can play a role in increasing the resilience of non-profit organisations. In addition, findings show that quick, non-bureaucratic funding may be an essential lifeline during times of crisis.

MAVA grantees’ responses from CLI analysis confirmed that the flexible funding received during the pandemic helped them to overcome that crisis. The funding was used for a range of things, including filling financial gaps created by the crisis; ensuring fundraising could continue; helping with Human Resources; and shifting the focus to capacity building while field activities were prohibited. They also highlighted how important emergency funding had been for retaining in-house knowledge and experience, ensuring stability in the face of major “hits” or in unpredictable situations, and keeping financial reserves for difficult times.

In extreme situations, emergency funding has helped our partners overcome a crisis by avoiding making redundancies, going bankrupt, or shutting down all or part of their activities. Grantees also used emergency funding to increase their fundraising efforts for reaching out to other donors to help them out of the crisis.

Our takeaway messages about flexible funding

Flexible funding was essential for bringing more effectiveness to our partners’ work and allowing them to make more sustainable and strategic contributions. Concerns about flexible funding leading to less efficient use of funds may be outweighed by the benefits those funds produce, though this may require further investigation. While a particular type of funding may be most useful for a particular purpose, a shift towards a greater proportion of flexible funding may lead to improved delivery and effectiveness of conservation organisations

A prerequisite for providing flexible funding is having trust in the partners and a good assessment of their capacities; this is not a funding mechanism to apply to any organisation. It was possible with some of our partners because we had long-term relationships with them and knew their strategic approach and their track record of conservation success.

While providing flexible funding, dependency on the donor can become an issue. We were particularly vigilant about this as MAVA’s closure was approaching, requesting partners to provide matching funds and supporting their fundraising efforts from other sources to reduce the risk.

If you are a donor, we strongly encourage you to contact the Conservation Learning Initiative at! 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: