By Lynda Mansson, MAVA Director General
‘It seems the forces lined up against this initiative are insurmountable. Chances of success are very low, but given the importance of the site, the pay off will be huge if we do succeed. It is worth trying.’
These were the comments from Luis Costa, the MAVA Programme Manager responsible for MAVA’s freshwater work in the Mediterranean. The setting was May 2017 in the MAVA allocation team meeting – the place at which we debate project proposals and decide what to recommend to MAVA’s President on how to best invest our resources and achieve the objectives in our strategies.
Luis was referring to the Ulcinj saltpans in Montenegro, which was identified as one of the most important sites in the Balkans for migrating birds. After some debate about the risks, we decided to go ahead. This launched the #SaveSalina campaign run by CZIP (the Birdlife partner in Montenegro) and Euronatur, both trusted MAVA partners, with support from many others. We anticipated a long battle with little chance of protecting this important site.
A mere two years later, much sooner than the planning anticipated, we were overjoyed to receive word that Montenegro had designated the Ulcinj Salina as a national protected area and stopped the planned development of the site. Imagine how satisfying to have this risky bet pay off.
But of course we don’t always have this kind of happy ending. Like all funders willing to take risks, we hope for a good outcome, but more often than not, the result is less than satisfying. Every donor dreams of the big payoff to risks but not every donor is willing to take the risk and accept when the risk doesn’t work out for the best.
This says something about the important role of family foundations. Other types of funders can have a much lower tolerance for risk due to their governance structures or public scrutiny or other reasons. Family foundations, due to their special positioning, have the ability – and I would argue the obligation – to support riskier ventures, to experiment and sometime to back crazy ideas. This fulfills an essential niche in the ecosystem of funders.
MAVA is fortunate to have the backing of a family that is willing to invest in what is important, regardless of how risky it may be or how ‘unsexy’ it may seem. Communications profile is never the point. This has allowed us to support innovation and experimentation over the years – sometimes with a big payoff and sometimes not.
What has allowed us to do this? Several cultural elements account for it:
⇒ Understanding and backing from the board who need to forego the expectation that every project funded delivers exactly what was planned.
⇒ Staff willingness to take risks and a management that doesn’t punish staff for risks that don’t pay off.
⇒ Partners willing to work on high-risk high-impact outcomes and trust that the relationship with the donor is strong enough to withstand the ups and downs of such investments.
We all love the prize when it comes, but to get that prize, funders need to be willing to accept the risk involved in backing hard-to-win battles.
As for the Ulcinj Salina, the challenge continues with the need to ensure effective management of the site and to continue to repel future attempts at development. The work goes on.