Boot Camp Personal Narrative: My First Time Exploring Conservation Finance

In Brief

Mastering the lingo of conservation finance normally takes time. These are not normal times. 

In this essay, a research fellow who's been working with the Highstead Foundation recounts her crash course in 2021's Conservation Finance Boot Camp. 

Along the way, the author raises questions and concepts that once struck each of us as new - and that all of us can usefully reexamine. 

Becoming expert in conservation finance begins with a succession of mental steps.

Boot camp can mean the start of a long, uphill financial journey. 

I’m someone who has always seen conservation as the work done by field biologists on restoration properties and in wildlife rehabilitation centers. As I sat through sessions on debt and ratios, I couldn’t help but think to myself “are all these numbers really that important?” It turns out: yes they are. 

That’s the main lesson I registered as I dove into my internship at the Highstead Foundation by joining the virtual 2021 Boot Camp. It felt worlds away from the work I did as a biologist in college. Green bonds, carbon offsets, private equity investors, conservation easements, corporate social responsibilities, and voluntary surcharges were swirling through my mind as I stared at my computer screen seeing presenter after presenter. Each was giving me new vocabulary, but more centrally, each was giving financial advice to dozens of other conservation organizations. I now know that these terms drive strategies and that these strategies drive the capital that enables research and restoration projects to continue. 

That’s a profound lesson for me. I have always envisioned myself as the wildlife field biologist who camps in the woods or sleeps on a boat for months on end observing the ways the natural world works. The idea of crunching endless numbers in the effort to come up with the money for a project was a side of conservation I had brushed away as if it were somebody else's job. But while attending the boot camp, I found that there was a difference between fundraising and financing and this difference seemed to reflect in whether an organization could bring in enough capital to sustain its projects. This clarity came from Peter Stein, Managing Director of the Lyme Timber Company and co-founder of the Conservation Finance Network, when he stated, “Fundraising is money you do not need to pay back while financing is money you do need to pay back - often with interest.” The field of conservation finance, he said, is “an emerging sector that seeks to find new financial vehicles and approaches to attract funding for conservation.” 

As I found myself in this year’s conservation finance boot camp, voluntarily committing to understanding what seems like a completely different language,  asking questions, and scheduling clarification interviewees I couldn’t help but wonder how I got here. Two years ago, I applied to the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program in Michigan because the position promised me fieldwork on The Great Lakes and I wanted to gain experience in marine biology research. Once Covid-19 hit the world, the internship changed a lot. Everything went online, and the internship moved to the Yale School of the Environment. 

This is my second of two summers in the program, still online.  As interns, we’re able to choose the organizations we worked with and I matched with the Highstead Foundation. Since I knew from the start that my online role would be a lot different than my in-person role would have been, I committed to learning as much as I could and being open to experiences I would not otherwise have had. This led to me sitting in front of my computer trying to wrap my head around financial jargon and wondering: how is this what saving the world looks like?

Everybody who enters the conservation field wants to save the world. The passion for this field always grows from the idea of becoming a building block to saving the world from climate catastrophe. And everyone knows, intuitively, that world-altering projects such as algal transplants in the ocean or planting billions of trees across the globe can only happen if they are funded. As someone who is more field-oriented I wanted to apply the financial terms I was learning to projects and conservation efforts I am passionate about. Connecting this newly discovered financial world to my professional interests affirmed its importance as it turns out that building financial skills means building the ability to make projects real. 

I want to build my visibility as an advocate for ecotourism, so when the conversation surrounding voluntary surcharges came up I made a point of learning this term. A voluntary surcharge is a small additional charge added to a customer’s bill for things like open space and agricultural conservation.”Voluntary surcharge programs differ from typical voluntary donations that are common in places like grocery store checkouts in the fact that they require the customer to opt out rather than opt in. A fee is automatically added to a customer’s final bill”(CFN). Learning that businesses address corporate social responsibility by paying fees, or that people can help cover ecological costs when they spend like tourists, meant learning new paths to the future I committed to on the lake. 

The last important strategy I learned in this context involved green bonds. I had never heard of this method of funding projects, in which a company or government issues a bond explicitly for an ecologically healthy outcome, and I was interested in whether there was a marine equivalent since many of the financial strategies discussed in the boot camp were solely connected to land conservation. I found that the marine equivalent is called a blue bond.  

At this stage, far from the water and absorbing different colors of bond, I sought a technique for analyzing finance as a whole. I reached out to Margaret Bowman who was a presenter at the boot camp and is the founder of Bowman Consulting. Her main advice was to use these strategies to envision how to gain the interest and trust of a payor. The investor wants a conservation outcome and “pays” for it with financing: the seller, or project manager on land or in water, provides interest or other capital to compensate the investor for accepting the risk that the project will fail. 

Margaret advised, “Find out what drives the payor and form your project around their interest and drive”. While this advice seems like common sense, I had never truly thought about funding projects this way until attending the boot camp. I have seen a lot of passionate conservationists design their dream projects purely around scientific targets. This rigid approach de-incentivizes an investor, who may need help to see the benefits in every single aspect of the project. This is why Margaret suggests treating the payor as a partner in the project, and to bring his/her/their priorities into contractual and public focus.

From these lessons, I sat with a fact that shook me even as it inspired me: a lack of finance might constitute the barrier to the work of “saving the world” that serves as my north star.  Older conservationists have always told me that my generation is the future, which is why I encourage young professionals like myself to step out of the woods for a second and try to bridge the comprehension gap between “field” and “finance” early on in our careers. Will we save the world? We sure can preserve pieces of it.

***

These resources from the World Wildlife Fund and Morgan Stanley brightened the links from finance to my biologist work. 

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