The Future of Conservation NGOs

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Redesign the operational, financial, and governance models.
Challenge dominant Global North narratives, embrace different and plural voices & knowledge.
Dismantle racist and discriminatory structures, decolonise conservation practices.
Embrace a more inclusive approach, collaborate & engage with a diverse range of actors.

Four broad themes provide a guide to the areas where change is most needed in conservation NGOs. The challenge is seeking innovative ideas that address these themes, but also welcome those that do not fall neatly within the themes. 

In phase one of ‘The future of conservation NGOs’ initiative that started in December 2020, the institute facilitated a series of bilateral consultations and a convening where a diverse set of thinkers and leaders helped identify the areas that are impacting conservation effectiveness.

The issues and challenges shared by the participants were clustered into the dominant and recurring themes where change is most needed.

The Four Themes

1. Power and Legacy

Future of Conservation NGOs: Power & Legacy

There is a need to address and dismantle racist and discriminatory structures, rebalance the power, move away from neo-colonial conservation approaches and address the consequent disparities in the distribution of financial aid and resources.

Keywords: Shift Mindset | Decolonise | Rebalance

Sub themes:


Principles & Values

Education & Learning

Power & Funding


Innovations could offer solutions in one or more of the following:

  • Addressing and challenging the existing power structures between
    • Urban and rural areas
    • Global North and Global South
  • Decolonising mindsets and behaviours
  • Decolonising education 
  • Decolonising communication 
  • Decolonising funding practices

How might we embrace collective and shared leadership?

How might we create equitable representation across boards and management to dismantle top-down/hierarchical models?

How might we decolonise conservation practice and actions?

2. Interdependence and Inclusivity

Future of Conservation NGOs: Interdependence and inclusivity

The conservation sector must embrace a more inclusive approach to external collaborations and engage with a diverse range of conservation players. The scale of the challenge – encompassing climate change, the sixth mass extinction, water scarcity, pollution, inequality, poverty, and more – means that solutions require new and unexpected forms of cooperation among different actors.

Keywords: Diversify | Include | Integrate

Sub themes:

& people

& interdependency

Innovations could offer solutions in one or more of the following:

  • Mainstreaming the inclusion of different and alternative perspectives, realities and knowledge in nature and conservation work.
  • Challenging Global North ideas and concepts of conservation action for impact at the expenses of valuable local indigenous knowledge.
  • Finding innovative partnership models and collaborations that can improve conservation effectiveness.
  • Facilitating cross-sectoral integration of biodiversity conservation, climate problems and socio-economic issues for collective action.

How might we design hybrid models where global-issues are addressed in a systematic manner instead of siloed?

How might we create equitable representations across boards and management?

How might we mainstream alternative strands of evidence-based knowledge?

3. Communication and Narratives

Future NGO: Communication and narratives

Conservation’s dominant Global North narratives need to be questioned, challenged, and reframed. They need to bring together not just different narratives but, crucially, different and plural voices embedded in shared knowledge, values and vision.

Keywords: Challenge | Listen | Reframe

Sub themes:

Communication methods & tactics

Power & Communication

Changing narratives

Innovations could offer solutions in one or more of the following:

  • Communicating and engaging with non-traditional players.
  • Adopting more modern systems and tools of communication and engagement.
  • Challenging and reframing dominant ‘Global North ideas and concepts’ of conservation impact.
  • Providing voice to alternative perceptions, realities and knowledge about natural resources.
  • Improving collaborations and engagement with social movements such as Me Too, Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion.

How might we effectively reach specific groups in the places where they reside?

How might we better frame narratives and steer away from a victimised narrative?

How might we harness social movements to maximise impact?

How might we value nature across different social systems, cultures, beliefs?

4. Operational and Funding models

Future NGO: Operation and funding models

The conservation sector is constrained by a traditional linear approach to solving problems and a short-term project-based approach. This often leads NGOs to miss the big picture and to struggle for limited short-term financing. With a multitude of interdependent and complex social, environmental and economic challenges, the conservation sector needs to reimagine and redesign its operational, financial and governance models.

Keywords: Simplify | Cooperate | Reimagine

Sub themes:

Funding models & partnerships

Operational & governance models

Innovations could offer solutions in one or more of the following:

  • Addressing the power imbalances encountered during planning, governance and implementation of projects
  • Improving engagement with non-traditional partners
  • Increasing the availability and diversity of long-term financing for conservation
  • Addressing the uneven distribution and access to available finances
  • Mainstreaming need-based funding approaches.

How might we restructure/ reorganise governance and operational models for greater inclusivity?

How might we better engage non-traditional partners to deliver the envisioned biodiversity and social impact?

How might we reimagine new models of philanthropy/ funding mechanisms that could provide long-term sustainable financing?

Return to the Innovation Challenge landing page

Related Resources:

Read our report Exploring possible futures for conservation NGOs

Discover 15 bold ideas for how conservation NGOs could transform

The White-Savior Industrial Complex
A March 2012 article in The Atlantic that provides an overview of the problematic ‘White-savior narrative/victimised narrative’ by Teju Cole.