Impact Measurement in Conservation: Key Lessons

What does it take to measure the impact of conservation interventions? And why is it important? This blog highlights key research results on impact measurement based on a study conducted by Salisha Chandra for the MPhil in Conservation Leadership at University of Cambridge.
Impact Measurement in Conservation: Key Lessons

It’s no secret, the natural world is in decline – from species extinctions to deforestation and climate change – the world’s resources are being depleted by human actions at unprecedented rates. The urgent need of the hour is scalable and replicable effective conservation interventions to not only stem these losses, but to work towards reversing these trends and restoring biodiversity. But how do we know what’s effective? Especially in the wicked world of conservation – where there are no clear solutions to the problems that we face.

Interestingly, since the early 2000s there has been an increasing emphasis on measuring conservation effectiveness driven both by conservation organizations looking to adapt their strategies and by funders who would like to allocate scarce resources to where they could have the most impact. However, due to myriad organizational (e.g., lack of funding or skillset) and procedural challenges (e.g., time lags to impact) associated with impact measurement, most monitoring and evaluation efforts have focused on reporting outputs and activities as opposed to outcomes (short to medium term results) and impacts (long termed sustained changes). 

A recent study looking at insights into and best practices in impact measurement and reporting revealed three key lessons learned that conservation practitioners should adopt while developing impact measurement frameworks to help overcome these challenges.

  • Creating an enabling environment is essential. Monitoring and evaluation is difficult work that often requires a process of culture change at conservation organizations that may be primarily focused on ensuring activities are implemented (e.g., meetings are conducted, papers are published etc). Accordingly leadership involvement is crucial to motivating and facilitating the cultural change required to measure impact. Beyond the leadership push, building ownership of any framework and the results it produces are imperative to ensuring its sustainability. Moreover, results should always be shared internally as it allows individuals to understand the organization’s impact as well as their contribution to it.
  • Using systems thinking allows understanding of contribution and attribution of impact and removes barriers to traditional Impact Evaluation Assessments. Clear and agreed impact pathways allow organizations to understand the linkages between activities (e.g., a conservation education programme), outcomes (e.g., a change in behaviour) and impacts (e.g., reduction in biodiversity loss). In this regard, theory of change is a useable framework to understand and report impact as it helps organizations gain clarity on intended results by uncovering these assumptions and linkages. Furthermore, understanding how an organization or project’s activities and outcomes affect other organizations and stakeholders helps to uncover unintended consequences and allows for more effective adaptation of strategies. Overall, this type of systems-level thinking was identified as potentially the most feasible approach to understanding an organization’s impact and contribution to conservation effects.
  • Implementing simple organizational protocols and procedures can help to embed impact thinking within an organization. One of the keys to ensuring effective impact measurement is to build capacity and identify resources to coordinate monitoring and evaluation efforts together with systems to ensure all members of an organization monitor outcomes. Monitoring and evaluation should be seen as every individual’s responsibility. This does not necessitate a separate team but does require key personnel with time and space in their roles to coordinate monitoring and evaluation. It also involves including training on monitoring and evaluation methods so that every member of the organization feels they can contribute to understanding impact.

Overall, the focus of monitoring and evaluation is to improve conservation effectiveness and using a systems thinking approach allows conservation organizations to discern how their strategies are effective and enables them to adapt accordingly without having to invest in technically robust impact evaluation assessments. In fact, conservation organizations could benefit further from investing in collaborative monitoring and evaluation frameworks that would involve all organizations working in a similar geographic space to jointly map out the complexities of their operating area and how they each contribute to change in that area. This approach will not only make each organization’s contribution clear but also ensure that the broader system is being monitored for both positive and negative unintended outcomes as well as progress towards the ultimate conservation goal (e.g., change in state of biodiversity).

For a more detailed summary of results of the study, please click here.

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