Mongabay Features

Interview with Nick Salafsky of Foundations of Success

Determining the success of a conservation project is rarely as simple as measuring how well forest cover has been maintained or the headcount of an endangered species. The multifaceted nature of most conservation projects means that many factors need to be monitored and evaluated using a range of metrics to determine whether a real impact has been achieved and can be sustained into the future.

Approaches for measuring impact in conservation continue to evolve, especially with the emergence of new ideas, practices, and technologies. One of the organizations at the forefront of these efforts over the past twenty years has been Foundations of Success, which has its roots in the 1990s when Richard Margoluis, Nick Salafsky, and Janice Davis identified a need to develop ways to gauge the success of U.S. government-funded conservation projects.

Today Foundations of Success works with actors across the conservation sector to develop mechanisms to measure the effectiveness of conservation projects and strategies. These efforts help achieve a range of objectives, from improving conservation outcomes to making a case for conservation investments.

Nick Salafsky

From his position as the co-founder and Executive Director of Foundations of Success, Salafsky has seen firsthand how organizations and institutions are responding to the growing preponderance of data and the emergence of new technologies and tools in the conservation space. He says that an organization’s receptiveness to change when more effective pathways are identified is important to achieving conservation success.

“Perhaps the most important predictor of success is the attitude of the people in an organization – whether they are ultimately interested in merely perpetuating their programs and their jobs versus being open and willing to critically examine and learn from their work,“ he told Mongabay in a recent interview.

Salafsky says that smaller organizations or “teams on the periphery of the larger organizations” tend to be more nimble than “the center of the larger organizations” when it comes to adopting evidence-based practice.

“There’s some interesting new research by the sociologist Damon Centola that shows that adoption of innovation is not led by the so-called ‘influencers’ in the center of a network, but rather by people in smaller nodes on the periphery of the network,” he said. “I wish we had known this twenty years ago because we spent a lot of time and treasure trying to get large organizations and funders to adopt evidence-based practice.”

Satellites provide a new data point for evaluating the impact of conservation programs. Image credit: Microsoft Zoom Earth
Satellites provide a new data point for evaluating the impact of conservation programs. Image credit: Microsoft Zoom Earth

Salafsky also identifies some persistent gaps in the conservation sector, including expanding the stakeholder base and persuading supporters to “appreciate and support quality conservation work, rather than flashy feel-good stories.”

“One obvious area in which the conservation sector needs to make major improvements is our ability to reach out and involve all segments of society in our mission and our work,” he said. “It’s a bit of a mystery to me when I encounter conservation board members and funders who, when wearing their day-job business hats, would never ever consider an investment opportunity that didn’t have a solid business plan and good performance metrics. Yet, they seem perfectly willing to back conservation programs that are no more than the germ of an idea and some wishful thinking.

“We desperately need these leaders to ask tough questions and reward those programs and organizations that demonstrate the willingness to do the analytical thinking needed to create solid conservation efforts – and that then effectively communicate this thinking through powerful stories that are supported by the underlying evidence.”

Salafsky spoke about these issues and more during a conversation with Mongabay.


By Rhett Ayers Butler

Rhett Ayers Butler is the Founder and CEO of Mongabay, a non-profit conservation and environmental science news platform. He started Mongabay in 1999 with the mission of raising interest in and appreciation of wild lands and wildlife.