Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Why Small Grants for Conservation?
by Beth Armstrong
ZACC – Chair
Former Field Conservation Coordinator for the Columbus & Brevard Zoos

Every zoo comes to its conservation commitment in its own way. In 1990 the Columbus Zoo began to build its support of in situ conservation through a series of small grants. Our philosophy was based on a commitment to action - of building relationships, on being proactive, of being a true partner by being responsive to the ever changing needs of any given field project.

Researching for a project I am currently working on I came across a paper I had written in 1998 or 1999 for presentation at an AZA conference - 20 years ago. When I took a moment to read it, I was struck that although much has changed over the last 28 years, i.e. many more zoos providing start-up and long-term grants; more diverse zoo conservation models and partnerships with field people; and field researchers on staff at zoos and aquariums - the philosophy and formula that built the Columbus Zoo’s conservation commitment was still relevant today – especially for those zoos that are just initiating their own conservation commitment. 

Our Formula - 1990:
  • be humble, recognize we are not field researchers
  • recognize that zoos have an infrastructure to offer
  • empower your staff and volunteers to be actively involved
  • approach the project from a holistic standpoint 
  • contact a researcher
  • offer some support, but don’t make promises you may not be able to keep
  • start with a small sum of money
  • take your lead from the person in the field, don’t presume to have the answers for what is best for that particular project
  • build the relationship over time, remember your institution is proving itself as much as the field researcher.
1. We never limited ourselves to only supporting species we housed at Columbus Zoo – the thinking was it was too narrow a scope. We recognized that by supporting a project even if the focus was on a species that we did not house we were also supporting all the species that fell within the umbrella of that particular ecosystem.
2. Eventually we added a dedicated “Emergency Funds” fund to our list of funding priorities. We also allocated a certain amount of our annual conservation budget to support membership fees for a variety of conservation organizations.

Our small grant philosophy served several purposes especially in the early 1990’s when few North American zoos were actively supporting fieldwork with the most notable exception being WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) who was way ahead of the curve.
  • many field projects had yet to become established - they were looking for financial support to get their projects up and running.
  • small grants allowed for Columbus to take the chance of what were then many unknown field researchers with little financial risk if the project failed due to any number of factors. (*see below)
  • most importantly small grants acted as the building blocks for developing long-term relationships  - resulting in larger grants over a multi-year funding cycles.
  • the solidifying of relationships over a period of time gave Columbus the knowledge and ability to act as a facilitator for our field partners. Our job was to connect our partners with other zoos and additional sources of funding – we could speak for the field folks because we had built trusting relationships with them.
*This formula is not perfect but what it allowed us to do is take chances – to go with unknowns and if a project folded because of personnel changes on the ground, political or civil unrest, natural disasters, change in government, security issues – we did not take a huge financial hit. 

The types of grants that we allocated were as follows:

  • small start-up grant opportunities for unknown projects & researchers
  • Emergency Fund - enabling us to respond to emergencies on the ground immediately without making those projects jump through endless hoops
  • a commitment to certain partners over the long-term

We also strove to make the process easy for field researchers:
  • we kept our application form simple – 3 pages.
  • we kept our reporting simple as well, i.e. just requested that they send us a copy of the report they provided to their other funders - a year to the date of receiving their CZ grant.
  • we requested that our logo appear in all presentations and in publications when thanking or listing funders. 
  • and because we believed in the power of anecdotal stories we requested a couple of short updates via email accompanied by a few photos throughout the year - which we would share with staff, board members, volunteers and our visiting public. This served two purposes, anecdotal stories can inspire and move us to action unlike pure data, and as the spokesperson for the field researcher this allowed me to continue to inform and get buy-in from our funding sources - the zoo's conservation committee, staff and  board members. 

Infrastructure and initiatives:
Something I think that was incredibly important was that we empowered our staff and volunteers to be proactive. We solicited the artistic talents of both docents and staff artists to create artwork for NGO logos, educational posters, project t-shirts and football (soccer) uniforms, and coloring books. We sent maintenance people into the field when requested. We brought veterinarians over from other countries for further training, and sent our vets to a variety of projects – again when requested by the field project. We supported staff initiatives such as Partners in Conservation (PIC), started by my fellow gorilla-keeper Charlene Jendry and three Columbus Zoo docents. PIC is now in its 26th year and is heralded as the zoo’s signature project. 

We gave staff and volunteers the creative room to come up with alternative and additional fundraisers. We had their buy-in because they were true partners, they had a stake in sharing their talents because we guaranteed that the money raised went directly to the field. I often hear from staff at other zoos a frustration that they cannot initiate fundraisers or that they have done fundraisers and their zoo once realizing this was money-maker take over and the money mysteriously disappears into the general fund. I would urge zoos to let your staff have creative license, let them be empowered, let them be inventive. And I would argue not only is it good for the field projects but it is good for staff morale. Because if your staff does not have a sense of ownership, or a belief that affirms that they can truly make a difference, then you will lose them. I have seen volunteers and staff drop all interest when all control has been taken from them. Their goodwill and commitment are some of your very best assets – let them be a partner in this.

Our criteria for providing funding focused on a common-sense approach to conservation – less about data collection and more about action. We gave priority to and selected projects that engendered a holistic philosophy and approach to their field conservation project - that included the following:
  • a solid research component coupled with an on-the ground conservation programs
  • involvement and employment of indigenous /local people
  • partnerships with indigenous/local people
  • an education component
  • projects that included heath benefits to local communities - fresh water, community clinics, schools, libraries
Where did we get our conservation dollars?
  • A percentage of our annual operating budget – i.e. a portion of gate receipts, food vendors, gift shop sales, etc. In 1990 the Columbus Zoo’s in situ conservation budget was $25,000, by 1999 it was $280,000
  • Panda dollars - we had access to a large fund generated from the Giant Panda loan agreement (we housed 2 pandas for a number of months in 1992). The deal was as the host zoo we were required to set aside a percentage from gate receipts and place in a restricted fund to be used for Panda conservation and research with approval from USFWS. Although we found that the USFWS to be quite open, allowing us to fund other projects as well - such as the northern white rhino project in Garamba National Park in DRC in the mid to late1990’s.
  • Coin drop walls built in the 1990’s – for every new exhibit we installed a coin-drop wall.  All dollars raised from each of these walls were restricted to species within the ecosystem/region represented - i.e. African Forest wall/ field projects in Africa; Manatee wall/ manatees or species in manatee ecosystems.
  • In 1998 the Columbus Zoo was approached by a donor who when on a trip to Uganda was inspired by our support for several projects at the time. These included the Kibale Chimpanzee Project and the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (UWEC), as well as training of Ugandan veterinarians. This donor committed to donating $50,000 per year for the next five years, a total of $250,000.  My only concern/stipulation was that this money would not in any way replace what the zoo was already committed to (annual percentage of operating budget, coin drop walls, etc.) but would instead always be in addition to our commitment.
The benefits to our organization were numerous, by committing our resources to in situ conservation we were recognized as a credible conservation organization, we developed lasting relationships with our colleagues in the field that allowed for the exchange of information concerning various species and habitats – i.e. we had compelling stories to share with our visitors on zoo signage, in our newsletters and on our website. And we honestly could say to ourselves and to the visiting public we were “walking the walk.” We had credibility both in the zoo world and the field conservation world.

The donor I mentioned earlier in this essay, stated upon their return from Uganda: “I was impressed, very much impressed with the presence of the Columbus Zoo wherever I went. With very few dollars the zoo was impacting the lives of local people and wildlife. I saw posters and t-shirts produced and distributed by the zoo, appreciation plagues and met guides, rangers and veterinarians who know and had worked with Zoo staff both in Africa and at home. I returned to Columbus believing I wanted to assist the Zoo in expanding its work in field conservation.”

National Geographic photographer Michael “Nick” Nichols sent me an email on June 15, 2000 when he heard I was leaving Columbus to start a new job at Brevard Zoo,  “Columbus Zoo has always been a leader in giving support to conservation projects in Central Africa. I have seen hard working field people stay alive with funds that Columbus Zoo provides. Always carefully and thoughtfully directed, the Columbus Zoo grants make a difference. The researchers at Mbeli Bai and the chimpanzee pilot study at Ndoki National Park (Republic of Congo) just might not exist without the support of the Columbus Zoo. Both are very important to science and conservation. Columbus Zoo is doing what all zoological parks should be doing – making a difference before it is too late.”

These accolades came from modest beginnings - awarding small grants. 

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