Lessons learned from starting my own conservation organisation

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Hi everyone, this is my first blog :-)

I was lucky to seize a unique opportunity, to build a project from scratch on an emblematic species, the whale shark, without any experience in either project management or whale sharks. I subsequently founded an NGO before I turned 30. In all honesty, I never thought I would ever get there, nor that it would ever challenge me so much, but here I am! Through my journey I wished for useful advice again and again, and now I want to share my most useful advice, to give that push to people who are still hesitating. For each piece of advice I use a personal example to illustrate it. 

-There is a lot of pressure in academia, especially from older scientists, about having prior experience in your field, having published work or years of experience on a similar project. While it may help you, it won’t be what makes you succeed. The right attitude, such as having initiative and discipline, really are the core skills you will need to pursue whatever skill or experience you need. Also, field skills in data collection are relatively easy to pick up, but interpersonal skills, like being a good collaborator and being comfortable working in remote field conditions are innate qualities.

 In my case I had no prior experience in shark research, no publications, and no designated mentor or supervisor who could help me obtain these. But I had worked in Africa, and Madagascar specifically before, I spoke the language, and I was eager to learn.

 

-You don’t have to do a PhD. Of course the salary that comes with a funded PhD research is usually what attracts people who are running a project. This way, they can continue running their project while doing the PhD. There is a big pressure to those who run their own conservation projects to do a PhD, mainly to simplify hierarchical relationships with mentors/supervisors. However, running your own project and doing PhD research don't always align; you may end up having to focus on research that aligns with your supervisor's interest, instead of what you really want to do or what is needed on the ground. On top of that, you will need to juggle your responsibilities of running the project. This may lead you to either fall being on your project or your PhD failing.

 In my case I applied to 3 different PhD schemes and each time I had to significantly alter the focus of the PhD so it would match funding/supervisor requirements. In the end I wasn’t successful and while I was initially upset, it means I can now partner with senior scientists who are experts at what they do, such as modelling for example, while focusing my time on actual conservation efforts ! Win-win!

 

-Collaboration is key. Because what we do has a scientific component, I think we tend to get sidetracked about what really matters and focus on results. And there is the ego, the pride or the reputation, sometimes from supervisors or colleagues, which are often deciding factors for us before we can even consider what to do. Very often, projects in the field can easily start without even needing funds or staff, simply by identifying common goals and initiating collaborations even with companies or organisations in other fields. An existing organisation might have access to the things you need, such as a boat, or local staff, while also having the local knowledge that you will need to learn. It is a huge asset and will fast-track your project. Plus your impact will be higher at the end of the day, as you involve others in your work.

 In my case I thrive to collaborate whenever I can, and I find it highly motivating. To start collecting data I collaborated with a boat operator, who had access to boats and the local knowledge of the area I didn’t have. Recently, I offered to share our data with another local organisation, who has direct links with the government and can use the data for advocacy directly.

 

-Be nice! Like everywhere, being nice and being a good person, are important. Being open to discussion and being able to compromise are key skills, and it is crucial you don’t let situations with partners or colleagues deteriorate. As we know being in the field is a micro-climate for relationships to flourish, and incredible work can be achieved if morale, motivation and team spirit are sustained. Yet one has to learn how to not be “too nice” but equally how to stand strongly about certain things. Closely linked to this is to practise self-care, and to ensure you are getting enough rest and time off, so you can perform efficiently and be a good human to everyone else.

In my case, it is a constant balance still to not say yes to everything and everyone, while also making sure I get my rest. I struggle to log off and take time for myself, yet I know this is vital so I can get my energy back and not turn into an irritable boss and be efficient. In the field it is difficult as the days are long and I work with friends, so we tend to bring up work discussions at random times, in addition to being on a small island where everyone knows everyone.

 

I hope these help! As you have seen these are not science-specific skills, and it is so important to remember that while we work in science, we still need to act as managers when we lead our team, while putting on different hats depending on what situation we are facing. There are a plethora of transferable skills that you can pick up easily, such as negotiation strategies, as well as management and business courses, which I find highly useful.

I am curious what your 3 top skills/pieces of advices are, those that you couldn’t have done without when you started your own conservation initiative, please feel free to share!

Stella

Stella Diamant

Project Leader, Madagascar Whale Shark Project

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Comments

Go to the profile of Lindsey Elliott
7 months ago

Hi Stella, just a note to say that I love this (first!) blog, and I think your advice is incredibly helpful. Thank you so much for sharing about your experience :)

Go to the profile of Stella Diamant
7 months ago

Hi Lindsey, thanks for your note. I am glad you find it useful! 

Go to the profile of Eva
Eva
7 months ago

Hi Stella! I don't have my own NGO but I can relate to a lot of things you say. After all these years working in the field in remote areas, I realized pure research sounds very romantic, but the challenge is to find a balance between a useful study and the goals of the NGO. Plus, keeping a humble attitude while standing your ground.


Lastly, flexibility and openness are key for me to be able to adapt to many different environments. To have this permanent learn-share state of mind is something you don't learn in the books :)


I wish you a lot of luck in your future endeavors and keep up the great work inspiring others!


Best wishes,


Eva

Go to the profile of Stella Diamant
7 months ago

Hi Eva,


Thank you for your reply! Yes, so many more things to add, but definitely I agree that having this open flexible approach is so important, while being humble and aware that we don't know much or aren't entitled to anything either!


All the best to you :)


Go to the profile of Jason Holmberg
7 months ago

These are all excellent points!