The success of wildlife conservation projects can be assessed by the measured achievement of direct and indirect results. Together, these results make up a project’s conservation impact.
Assessing project success is essential for conservationists and donors to learn and adapt fast enough to meet the challenges facing the natural world. This article illustrates the importance of measuring project success and provides links to resources to help conservation practitioners and donors learn about and apply a standardised approach that can transform how projects are planned, implemented, and reported on.
Why is measuring project success so important?
Every day thousands of pounds are being spent on wildlife conservation projects all over the world, but how many of these projects are successful and how many fail? Until now there does not seem to have been a standardised way of measuring the success or failure of a wildlife conservation project. Without a standardised measure of success, conservationists, donors, and other stakeholders will learn slowly, if at all, and continue to carry out and fund well-meant projects that may lead to no discernible impact, and sometimes even make the situation worse.
From my own career I have a stark example of how, without a way of assessing project success, well-meant efforts can lead to slow learning and continued failure. Back in 2004 I started planning and running projects to help save tigers in Bangladesh. My whole plan rested on the classic old-school notion that I would collect important information about tigers and the threats they face, publish those findings in journal papers and pass them onto the government so that they could improve measures to protect the tiger.
I worked with a wide range of government officials to carry out the work so that they may also feel ownership of the findings, and motivation to do something about it. Together we collared tigers to find out how they lived in the mangrove swamp, counted tiger tracks along river banks to estimate the relative density of tigers across the Sundarbans, found out that these tigers had different skulls from any other tiger subspecies, and documented the tragic large-scale loss of life from tiger attacks. I was proud of my findings, and made (what I thought were) evidence-based recommendations for conservation action. Each time I finished one of the activities I would write it up, make recommendations and raise another grant. I probably helped raise and spend about $80,000 from about 3 different grants in total. Each time I spent the money efficiently and produced detailed reports to account for the expenditure. Although they often took far longer than originally envisioned, I considered the projects to be successful in the sense that I had carried out the activities and spent the budget as planned.
But nothing else happened. The government did not carry out a single one of my recommendations. Did they not read conservation biology journals? What was wrong with them? I thought perhaps that they needed more information and more ownership, so together with a local NGO our growing team worked with the government to make the first ever Bangladesh Tiger Action Plan. As the name suggests it was packed full of actions and the government had helped create and owned those actions. It was a great plan if I do say so myself, and became a kind of model for tiger action plans from other countries.
You can find a link to it here in case you also like looking at action plans.
After 4 years of hard work I thought my job may be done. Nothing happened. Well nothing positive happened. In fact things began to get worse and worse as reductions in protection efforts coupled with a surge in poaching decimated the tiger population. All of the projects I had worked on had been focused on helping to protect the tiger and now it was disappearing before my eyes. I blamed the government.
Over time, however, it slowly dawned on me that the success or failure of my projects had always been in my hands. It was me that had failed. I had continued to carry out projects that failed to make any difference for the tigers that I cared so much about.
Over time I began to realise that project success was all about the difference it made, and not how it made that difference. I was focused too much on how to make the difference (what activities I was carrying out) rather than what difference (impact) I was achieving. If I had focused on the impact and used that as the measure of project success, I would have learnt after the first project that the plan (gather information - publish information - make recommendations to government - government carries out recommendations - tiger populations increase) did not work. Instead I repeated the same failing plan again and again in different forms, and the kind donors repeatedly gave me precious conservation funds to continue those failures.
What resources are there to help assess project success?
I did eventually learn from my mistakes and just before it was too late. I learnt from the conservation coaches network training how to focus more on the impact I was making and that helped transform our work and helped the tigers recover from the brink of being wiped out. We used that learning to create a best practice and training in Strategy Development for Wildlife Conservation that enables conservationists to create impact-focused plans that have a greater chance of success. You can download this best practice from here and gain skills in this key skill set here.
While the impact-focused strategy gave a general direction of travel for a project, we realised that we needed to come up with a standardised, measurable way of defining and reporting on project success. So we created a new best practice and training called Monitoring and Evaluations for Wildlife Conservation. This guidance showed how a project can define both:
Implementation success, measured in the direct results achieved by the project
Strategic success, measured in the achievement of indirect results.
Together, strategic and implementation success combine to give a measure of overall project success.
This guidance also describes how to capture how the results were achieved, and what other unexpected positive and negative effects were produced.
With these measurements in place, donors, and conservation teams now have a way to both learn, share and adapt in response to project successes and failures.
If this standard measure of success is widely adopted then together we can develop a shared culture that drives innovation and transparency across the sector. This improved culture would help increase donor confidence and so increase the availability of conservation funds. More importantly, we would be able to achieve more measurable impact quicker, perhaps at a rate that can match the immense challenges the natural world is facing. The focus will not be on failure being bad and success being good in a simplistic sense. Instead the focus will be on was that project successful or not? Why? What are we going to do differently next time to make it better?
You can download the Monitoring and Evaluation for Wildlife Conservation best practice for free here. Even better still, you and your team can get trained in this key skill set here, to transform how you carry out your projects for the rest of your career.