The startup culture of conservation entrepreneurship

I’ve written about the need for self-started conservation initiatives on this blog before. And now I am pleased to boast that some of these ideas have just been published online in Conservation Biology. (If you don’t have subscription access through the publisher’s website, feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll forward the article to you as a PDF).

It’s a short opinion piece that is mainly intended to introduce the concept of social entrepreneurship to an audience of conservation scientists. The article should definitely not be considered as a how-to guide to conservation entrepreneurship, nor is it a comprehensive review of all the ways entrepreneurship can help to protect biodiversity. Instead, I hoped to convey three key points:

(1) there are conservation problems that are especially amenable to small, fast bootstrapped solutions;

(2) there are new ways of funding conservation initiatives that weren’t available 10 years ago; and

(3) most early-career conservation biologists in the current employment landscape will, at some point, be unemployed, so self-started conservation initiatives could become a necessity.


1. Conservation problems amenable to entrepreneurial approaches

The number of conservation-relevant scientific publications is increasing every year. We know more about nature now than at any point in human history. Unfortunately, this increase in information has not resulted into improved conservation efficacy.

There is certainly a need for someone to sift through this mountain of information and repackage it into meaningful, information-rich snippets to aide conservation decision-making, scientific communication and environmental education.

In my opinion (and I’m not alone), this necessitates reviews, meta-analyses, the evaluation of past conservation interventions and the development of new decision-making tools.

I see no reason why this can’t be done by any inspired individual with the necessary skills, regardless of there current employment. Moreover, the open science movement is eroding data barriers for anyone who is interested in it.

A note of caution: I am not suggesting that large, centralised conservation organisations should be replaced by small startups – that would be ludicrous. Instead, these large organisations should focus of the problems that they alone can tackle with their centralised structure and critical mass (conservation planning and reserve design is a one example of a conservation issue that should remain exclusively in the hands of these centralised, coordinated organisations).

Real world example: Decision Point is a monthly online newsletter published by Australia’s Environmental Decision Group, which summarises the latest advances in conservation science for a general audience. There is definitely a niche for anyone interested in starting a similar project for their own region. The costs involved will be tiny compared to the value added to local conservation.

The more profit-orientated might even find a way to monetise such a project: either by selling advertising or by charging a subscription rate. In fact, the clever folks at Sciworthy have already done this: they provide a platform for authors to publicise their research and sell advertising space to third parties.

2. New sources of funding

Different forms of crowdfunding could be a good way to gather funds for a small once-off project or to provide the initial capital to get the ball rolling. I‘ve written about ways crowd-sourcing funds for conservation previously, so I won’t dwell on the intricacies again here.

Currently, less than 15% of investment assets of charitable foundations in the USA are donated annually. Conservation startups can potentially be leveraged to attract the other 85% by mixing-and-matching funding mechanisms and attracting investments from mainstream portfolios. For example, social enterprises obtaining donations from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation have used donated funds as loan-guarantees in order to access commercial debt.

An entrepreneurial approach also has the advantage over convention conservation organisations in that it is not limited by tax regulations associated with non-for-profit organisations.

Real world example: The Wildlife Conservation Network acts as a philanthropic venture capital fund by actively seeking out and investing in the most promising external conservation startups. Unlike conventional funding agencies, they actively offer advice and expertise towards the startup and introduce entrepreneurs into their network of specialists. Furthermore, they distinguish themselves from other conservation agencies because they essentially outsource most of the conservation work to the conservation startup. By doing so, they don’t need to maintain many full-time staff members and they avoid big and costly bureaucracies. As a consequence 92% of all their funds directly support conservation programs in the field.

3. A future career in conservation will probably require an entrepreneurial approach

Conservation jobs are scarce! Conservation organisations have always relied on unpaid volunteers and interns. It is reasonable to work for a conservation agency without pay if there is a possibility that it might turn into full-time employment. Unfortunately, this seems less and less likely since conservation organisations are reducing the number of full-time scientists in favour of part-time consultants. This change saves money and allows organisations to respond to new challenges more rapidly, but it also means that a lifelong career at one organisation is only realistic for a tiny minority of early-career conservationists.

Most of us should prepare ourselves for a career where employment means maintaining a portfolio of independent projects, each with a predefined start and end date. Someone has to create all these new projects, so why not just create them ourselves?

Some last thoughts

Some of you might be thinking: “What is he going on about? Self-employed ecologists already exist. Why is he re-inventing the wheel?

Conservation entrepreneurship is more than self-employment. It is the use of innovative solutions to solve pre-existing conservation problems more effectively. A self-employed environmental consultant is usually a businessman (businesswoman) first and a conservation biologist second; they will only initiate a project if someone hires them to do it. Contrastingly, a conservation entrepreneur’s first aim is always to solve a conservation problem, regardless of the resources they currently control. If they can make a profit later on, then that’s just an added bonus!

This post, like my article, is hopefully the first step into a new entrepreneurial culture in conservation. If you think I’m barking up the wrong tree, please let me know: maybe we can come to a better solution together. If you generally agree with me and want to share your thoughts, please don’t think twice about contacting me. I’d love to hear your views.

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12 thoughts on “The startup culture of conservation entrepreneurship

    • No problem, I’ll send it via email.

      By the way, I followed the link to your website for the Resources First Foundation. Very impressive! I wish I had known about before I wrote the article, yours is the perfect example of what it is I am trying to promote.

      We definitely need more examples like yours if we hope to push entrepreneurship into mainstream conservation.

  1. Am I glad to have found your space! I am starting my M.S. research in conservation entrepreneurship and am integrating it with transparency in supply chains. I could not find anything on conservation entrepreneurship in the startup ecosystem (need to look more), so finding your space is just awesome. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Regards,
    Leticia | My blog: Thought Arena @ http://www.cafreal.blogspot.com

    P.S. new to WordPress;)

    • Thanks for the kind words, Laticia. I’m really pleased that you found something useful here.

      Perhaps, if you’re into conservation entrepreneurship, you should visit James Borrell’s website (http://www.jamesborrell.com.). He has started his own social enterprise to help aspiring conservationists (http://www.discoverconservation.org.com.), which embodies many of the ideas I highlight in my post.

      Your research sounds interesting, but seems to be focused on making business more sustainable (rather creating business primarily for conservation). While this distinction is certainly important in the ideological sense, I’m still not sure if it makes any difference in practice (maybe to shareholders, but not necessarily so). If you know more about this, would you please let me know – if not, then I think it certainly something worth looking into as some sort of feasibility analysis into conservation-themed social entrepreneurship.

      • Thanks for the links! Googled James Borrell and found the website;)

        I apologize for not being clear the first time around. I had started a low-impact, educational travel venture in the hopes that I could contribute toward the conservation of Western Ghats (Goa, India); however, I did not learn fast enough and had to stop the venture from threatening what I set out to conserve. Since then, I have been learning how to restart correctly so that I can conserve the ghats and make a living.

        I am looking for a way to integrate conservation entrepreneurship with transparent supply chains so that I do not repeat the same mistakes. I read your post on creative capital. My current organization follows the profit-for-a-purpose model, but I am planning on using my M.S. research as a stepping stone to collaborate with others working for the conservation of Western Ghats. Your description of the purpose-for-a-profit model spoke to me!

  2. This is an amazing read. As a recent conservation biology graduate, I am really inspired. Keep up the good work and kindly send the pdf file.

  3. Pingback: Startup for Nature: showcasing innovation in conservation | The Solitary Ecologist

  4. Pingback: Startup for Nature: showcasing innovation in conservation | The Solitary Ecologist | WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

  5. Great Article … I am encouraged to look into your other articles. I am currently thinking of shifting my career path and thinking of using my tech skills of conservation related work. It is the need of the hour. Could you please send me the PDF as well?

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