Basic funding options for nature conservation

Basic funding options for nature conservation

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Acquiring funding seems to be the single biggest problem in nature conservation. Applying for funding is difficult because of all the questions that need answering in the right way, the paperwork that needs to be handed over, and the budgetting and organizing that needs to be done.

However, one problem precedes all this : where to apply for funding?

The problem is not that is difficult to find a potential funder, but rather the opposite : the seemingly huge amount of potential funding sources. This post/article outlines the basic possibilities for different actors : NGO’s, governments from local to national level, individuals and companies. Hopefully, it helps applicants to strategically search for and select potential funders.

Identifying basic possibilities involves grouping actual funding sources in a meaningful way. In funding for nature conservation, one can identify at least the following possible dimensions for meaningful grouping : thematic focus, geographical target region, eligibility criteria, the funder’s location, the range of funding, the funded activities, application language, application procedure, and the origin of the funder’s resources. Since no two funding sources are exactly the same for all these dimensions, identifying groups is about so-called ‘family resemblances’ : members are recognizable as belonging to the same ‘family’ or group, but there are always outliers, who, so to say, lack the family’s characteristic ‘nose’ or ‘eyes’, or both. Thus, the descriptions below discusses the – in my view – most striking and generic characteristics, but exceptions to any characteristic can exist and may be many.

This article focuses on funding that is ‘for free’, that is, grants and grant-like types of funding. Loans are thus excluded. The list does include investment in start-up companies, but otherwise excludes other forms of investment. Investments are different from grants in that the investors expect mostly a financial return on their investment, whereas funders of grants mostly expect non-financial impact. Admittedly, the borders between the two are becoming somewhat blurred.

Links to funding sources are presented as examples and should not be seen as endorsement.

Domestic Government

Perhaps one of the first stops to check, while searching for funding is one’s own local, regional, state or national government, or all of them. Subsidies or grants may be available for a project or general support for an NGO. In economically developed countries, this is more likely than in economically developing countries.

The previous states the obvious, but also serves to point out that this overview attempts to be a global overview. However because of the difference in availability of funding, both through public and private channels, this post/article has a bias to nature conservation in economically developing countries. Readers from economically developed countries could skip the following sections and continue at the sections for philanthropies, crowdfunding, direct donations, and incubators and accelerators.

Foreign government

Funding for nature conservation may be found at three different departments or ministries of foreign governments : nature conservation, international cooperation ( previously called development collaboration or aid ), and research & education.

Research funding

The ministry for research is the odd-one out here, but should not be overlooked for projects that involve research. Usually, ministries for research exclusively finance public research in their own country. However, they may finance scholarships for foreign researchers to visit or for domestic researchers to go abroad. Applying for such scholarships is open to all researchers, but an affiliation with a public or private research institution may be required, and contacts with the destination beneficial. This is one of the few funding possibilities for individuals that I know of.

Another opportunity, when it comes to funding of research projects, lies in researchers from economically developed countries who are interested in doing fieldwork abroad. An NGO from a developing country, with a research need may initiate collaboration with such researchers, so that the researcher can apply for funding with the endorsement of the NGO for a suitable fieldwork location. It may take years to develop relationships with such researchers ( perhaps through opening a biological station ), but once they exist, this ‘route’ for funding of research projects lies open.

Environment and international cooperation

Nature conservation in the global South sits at the cross roads of the ministries for the environment and for foreign affairs/international collaboration. This means that funding possibilities may be found at both locations, and sometimes even at both locations within the same government : the ministry for environment may support projects abroad, and the ministry for international cooperation may provide funding for environmental projects. For example the Japan International Cooperation Agency mentions environment under its list of grants types. At the same time, the Japanese Environmental Restoration and Conservation Agency operates the Japan Fund for Global Environment.

A distinction between the approaches of the two ministries may be that the ministry for the environment does not insist on funding so-called DAC ODA countries exclusively, whereas the ministry for international cooperation does. DAC stands for Development Assistance Committee, which is a committee of the OECD. Among other things, this committee annually publishes the list of Official Development Aid ( ODA ) countries. It is a list of the world’s economically poorest countries, which is used to measure other countries’ aid to those countries. In practice it is also used by public and private funders alike ( but not necessarily all ) to accept or reject project applications. Either the applicant has to be from a DAC ODA country, or the destination of the grant has to be in a DAC ODA country, or both. Frankly, I do not know of an actual example, but I would assume that the ministry of the environment is less concerned with DAC ODA than the ministry for international collaboration when it comes to support for nature conservation in economically developing countries.

Foreign government funding can have many shapes and sizes, ranging from project funding, to capacity building ( although this may be in kind support ) to infrastructure support. There may be permanently open programs for all kinds of applications, or thematically organized funding programs targeting not just specific themes but also geographic areas and types of applicants. Applicants can be governments or NGOs. Perhaps the greatest commonly shared characteristic is that foreign governments normally hand out grants based on applications. That is, they do not actively search, identify or develop projects and applicants.

With all applications, language is a topic. Since my working language is English, this overview has a bias to English. It turns out that the best known DAC ODA support providing countries ( the USA, UK, Germany, the EU, Japan, France, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands ; source : ODA webpage ) operate in English. For Japan and France, I also encountered funding programs that require applications in Japanese and French respectively.

Some government starting pages on development cooperation :

Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden, the European Union, the Netherlands, the UK, the USA

The OECD published an overview of development cooperation country profiles regarding ODA – also available in French. Especially helpful are the respective sections titled ‘Geographic and sectoral focus of ODA’, which provide graphs and overviews of how a country has spent its ODA support in the past.

Some government starting pages on the environment :

Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden, the European Union, the Netherlands, the UK, the USA.

International NGOs or other contacts

A government ( from country X ) may not provide grants directly to applicants from abroad ( country Y ). Instead they require applicants to collaborate with an NGO from country X. This internationally operating NGO, or INGO, may be the actual applicant or at least a co-applicant. A similar construct may apply for research grants where the applicant from country Y needs to collaborate with a researcher or research institute of country X.

The reasons for such requirements are unclear to me. It may be a way of outsourcing the administrative burden of assessing the quality and trust-worthiness of the country Y applicant. Or perhaps the donating government does not want to be involved with the intricacies of international law, taxes and money transfer when dealing directly with applications from abroad. The status and role of such and other INGO is under discussion. See for example the Ringo project.

For the applicant, the collaboration with the INGO requires additional work since it needs to build a relationship and get the approval of the INGO. However, working with an INGO may have the advantages that the INGO has much experience with the writing and submitting of applications, which increases the chances of success compared to direct application. Secondly, if there is a language barrier, the INGO may function as a bridge.


There are literally thousands and thousands of philanthropies in the USA only, and more in the EU and other parts of the world. Not all of them support nature conservation, but that still leaves overwhelmingly many that do, either in their own country or abroad. The problem is to find them, identify the ones that support the exact topic for which one searches funding under conditions that one can fulfill.

There are two basic solutions to this problem : search on the internet, which takes a lot of time but at otherwise little costs, or pay for access to a funding database or databases. The latter sounds easy enough but starts with identifying the right database(s), which is task in itself.

Philanthropies usually finance projects : time-and-resources-limited sets of activities to achieve a goal, preferably a measurable goal so that ‘impact’ can be established. Most philanthropies that I encountered do not finance structural support for NGOs, capacity building ( other than as part of a project ), or infrastructure and other large investments.

Philanthropies exist in many different sizes and shapes. They may be the personal undertaking of a wealthy individual, the philanthropic arm of a company, or foundations that attract donations in order to finance projects. They may support one topic ( irrespective of their size ), or they may have multiple programs for different topics, or they may have an open program that serves all nature conservation.

An important aspect to consider is where a philanthropy’s budget comes from. In part for due diligence reasons, but also in order to assess how long the philanthropy may continue to exists, and whether it could be a source for successive project applications. Once an NGO successfully applies, chances of success may go up for successive applications because the philanthropy is more familiar with the NGO and more trust is built up. Keeping the point about family resemblances in mind : some philanthropies explicitly do not allow follow-up applications.

The second important topic for applicants is to know whether the philanthropy is open to project applications. Quite a few, including some large ones, actually are not. They have a ‘do not call us, we call you’ policy. Then again, some of those that are not open to applications, do appreciate it if one contacts them with an idea, but promise nothing if one does. It is a curious aspect of philanthropies, which shows that even though they have the money to spend, they do need good ideas to spend it on and are dependent on other parties for that.


Compared to the others crowdfunding is a relatively new funding type, even though it already is over ten years old. Crowdfunding platforms typically do not finance projects themselves but broker on a massive scale between large and small sponsors on the one hand and projects on the other. Originally invented to finance startup companies, various other applications have been identified, including financing of nature conservation. For example 1% for the Planet, GlobalGiving and GiveTide.

The platforms perform a similar role as the international NGOs discussed above. Besides providing a market place where donors and recipients can find each other, the platforms in nature conservation also screen the applicants for eligibility and trust-worthiness. That is, not anybody or everybody can present themselves as a potential recipients. For the applicants, this is a hurdle to take, just as with direct applications at governments or philanthropies. However, it is a one-time hurdle ( well unless the platform requires updates, which I would expect ) after which the applicant can present to a multitude of donors.

The applicant will still have to present what the donations will be used for, but as far as I understand, crowdfunding platforms set no limit to that : it could be a project, but ongoing operation costs of an NGO, infrastructure, capacity building, etceteras. New types of destinations could be invented and tried out. This constitutes a freedom and opportunity that many other funding sources do not offer.

Although approved applicants gain access to a multitude of sponsors/funders, it does not mean that money will automatically appear in their accounts. Donors are selective, and may not be that actively searching for destinations. In other words, applicants may need to do a lot more than submitting a project application, as they normally would. They may have to advertise it, not just within but also outside the crowdfunding platform. Entire media and social media campaigns may have to be set up. But perhaps such advertising and campaigning might already be in place for other reasons.

Direct donations

Direct donations are perhaps not that dissimilar from crowdfunding. Just like with crowdfunding, one may have to advertise and have a social media campaign to make potential donors aware of the possibility.

Compared to crowdfunding, there is no deliberate screening stage of the applicant. However, this does not mean that one does not need to convince potential donors of eligibility, trust-worthiness and other concerns that they may have. The difference is that the applicant is free to choose how to approach this.

Depending on how the requests for donations are formulated, the recipient is free to determine how to spend the income, as long as it is spent on the stated cause. Many individual donors of small sums will probably never check how their money is spent. However, recurring donors and donors of larger sums, may at least want to see annual reports or some other form of accounting of how their and other donations are being used.

Many other funding sources exclude basic operational costs ( i.e. overhead ) from their grants, perhaps with the exception of some costs that are directly tied to the granted project. This can be a problem to the applying NGO, and direct donations may be one of the few opportunities to close these funding gaps. ( See also )

Incubators and accelerators

Incubators and accelerators are organizations that aim to develop start-up companies. Icubators support people who have a business idea and very young companies that have little more than an idea. The support consists of a training program ( typically for about 6 months or more), mentoring, access to a network of alumni, investors and other people, business services, and grants. Accelerators aim at start-ups in later stages, when they already have a prototype or product, and possibly are already selling to customers. Accelerators offer similar support as incubators, with the marked difference that they offer to invest in the ( selected ) start-up in exchange for a share. Usually, even if the start-up eventually fails, the invested money does not need to be returned. It is a risk that the accelerator takes. This is similar to receiving a grant, but since the accelerator buys a share in the start-up, it is not a donation.

The reason that incubators and accelerators are mentioned here is that in the past years, nature conservation and climate change mitigation have become seen as potential targets for investment. Concepts such as recycling, the circular economy, nature based solutions, ESG investing, are receiving warm attention, including from incubators and accelerators.

Parties in search of funding for nature conservation, do have to apply to be included in so-called incubator or accelerator programs. A major difference is that instead of a project-description, a business plan has to be presented that realistically promises a future profit. In other words, the potential impact not only has to be phrased in terms of the benefit to nature, but also in terms of ‘return on investment’. As a result of this, another major difference is that the applicant normally has to be an entrepreneur or a company, instead of an NGO. All in all, this funding source requires a drastic change of mindset compared to the others presented here.

As with other funding sources, there is a lot of variety among incubators and accelerators. I even encountered one that does not work on investment basis, but charges a fee for the training, mentoring and access to a network. It means that this particular one does not count as a funding source, but it does point to the variety. It pays off to search for the best fit, or wait for a better opportunity later on : incubators and accelerators come and go. Some exist for only one year, others last longer and work with subsequent cohorts.

Supra-national funding, United Nations Global Environmental Facility

Perhaps the biggest funder of nature conservation projects is the UN’s Global Environmental Facility or the GEF. Established in 1992, as a result of the Rio Earth Summit, it grants on average about 0.8 billion US dollars per year on environmental projects in developing countries. The GEF also funds projects under other UN conventions, such as the conventions on biological diversity, climate change, sustainable forest management, food security and sustainable cities.

The majority of the GEF-funded projects are supporting governments who have to apply in collaboration with one of GEF’s agencies. The majority of these agencies are the world’s development banks, but they also include the WWF and the IUCN. The procedures are lengthy but projects are in the million dollar range.

Non-governmental actors seeking GEF funding basically have to options. One is to initiate contact with their government and convince their government to apply. The other is to use the small grants program, which the GEF runs in collaboration with the UNDP and which is open to civil society actors and community-based organizations. As the name indicates, grants in this programs are considered small for GEF standards, but can in the magnitude of tens of thousands of USD.


This articles sketches ten basic funding opportunities for fund seekers of various kinds in nature conservation, both in developed and developing countries.

Knowing these basic opportunities, hopefully helps in choosing an application strategy for a project or organization. Perhaps it can even help re-defining the target for funding ( the project ), when it turns out that the originally intended basic funding opportunity is not suitable. For example, some conservation efforts, could be better shaped in the form of company than a project. Or an NGO realizes discovers that most philanthropies offer levels of support far below their needs and needs to ‘gear up’ to the GEF.

The article is based mostly on English-language material. When it comes to actual funders, that may be bias. However, since the focus is on basic funding possibilities, the bias may be negligible. Still, it might be that other possibilities do exist outside the world’s English language area. Please do let me know if one comes to mind.

About this article

This article is based on two desk-research projects. One concerned the updating of a list of about 200 funding possibilities for nature conservation, which is part of the Grant Writing course offered by WildTeam. A version of the list is available via the WildHub community site ( for free and no login required ; See under ‘About this room’ )

The other project was a paid commission for the IUCN’s Plastic Waste Free Islands project for which I searched for and compiled short descriptions of funding opportunities for plastic waste combating on small island development states in the Caribbean and the Pacific. For this work I visited about 400 websites, including about 200 websites of potential funders.

My PhD research was about public funding of scientific research.

Photo by Lukas Hartmann, Pexels

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Go to the profile of Grace Alawa
over 1 year ago

Thank you Frank, very detailed.

Go to the profile of Nguyen Van  Kien
over 1 year ago

thank you for nice instructions

Go to the profile of Frank van der Most
over 1 year ago

You're welcome @Grace Alawa  and @Nguyen Van Kien ! Please do let me know any feedback when you're applying!

Go to the profile of Nguyen Van  Kien
over 1 year ago

we hope that you could take time to revise our draft proposal before applied?

Nowadays, more than 50% global GDP is originated from nature so that nature based solutions is critical one so that we must protect them for our future generations as well as see this is a livelihood .

it is better if we could cooperate and work together.

Thank in advance

Go to the profile of Frank van der Most
over 1 year ago

I am terribly sorry, Nguyen, but I can not spare the time. I do one day pro-bono work per week and it is already overbooked.

Moreover, I am not a field specialist in any nature conservation, so I would not be of much help. The only thing I would do is what you can do yourself : check if your application addresses all the criteria of the funder ( they do not list them for nothing ), including the ones that are not about the content.

Another tip : WildTeam and others provide grant writing courses for which one needs to pay. However, I noticed that WildTeam's coursebook can be downloaded for free. It seems helpful to me.