Understanding How Conservation NonProfits Interpret Success
Many undergraduate students pursue internships in their prospective fields in order to gain some real-world experience, but very few undergrads from southeastern Pennsylvania get the opportunity to spend a summer in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem conducting a research project. Never having been farther west than Pittsburgh, the trip out to Jackson was an adventure in itself, but after settling in with NRCC, the real experience began. I have always been interested in conservation, and my project this summer truly allowed me to gain an understanding of how conservation organizations operate in practice. Essentially, my job was to determine the criteria that conservation nonprofits use for evaluating the effectiveness of their work. To me, this type of research is critically important, especially during the recession, because a tremendous amount of time and effort is being exerted on responding to environmental issues in the GYE. Without a shared understanding of what merits success, collective progress in the region cannot be adequately assessed. At the outset, this task appeared to be nearly impossible due to the number and variety of organizations in the GYE, but with the guidance of Jason Wilmot, Lydia Dixon, and David Cherney, the project quickly began to take shape. First, I conducted several interviews with directors and staff of conservation organizations in the Jackson area. Using the information from these meetings, I worked with Dave to generate objective statements for a survey designed to harness varying perspectives. In order to accurately assess the views of conservation professionals regarding effectiveness, these statements included a variety of beliefs about things such as the link between the quantity of money or staff and effectiveness, the importance of passion in achieving environmental success, the necessary skills for operating a nonprofit, and many others. By having participants prioritize these effectiveness-related statements, some considerable conclusions can be drawn for the region as a whole.
With this foundational aspect of the project consuming more than two full months of the summer, the task of contacting and meeting with representatives from a variety of organizations was unexpectedly challenging. Most staff members at local and regional organizations were interested in meeting with a student, but the scheduling conflicts and the rigors of everyday work prevented some professionals from having time to discuss the general criteria for evaluating overarching conservation success for the entire region. Despite the challenges, I continued to contact various organizations from Moose to Bozeman, and by the day that I started my drive back to Pennsylvania, I had collected data from more than 25 conservation professionals.
Overall, the participants in my survey were genuinely interested in my project, and despite a few individuals that questioned the need for this type of study, I feel confident that the results will provide useful insights to improve the effectiveness of nonprofit work in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in the near future. While conclusions are still being drawn and the results of the study are not yet complete, the preliminary results are interesting. The compilation of survey responses has shown that there are multiple, significantly different conceptions of how effectiveness should be measured. Almost all participants agree that utilizing innovative strategies and including a wide range of participants is important, but specific strategies and priorities of action vary immensely. Thus far, it seems that while shared goals exist, there are opportunities for GYE conservation nonprofits to align strategies and activities.
My internship with NRCC taught me many things about the conservation community, but most importantly, I learned that people are willing to discuss their experiences in order to help others and conservation in general. If an effort is made to work together, clarify shared goals, and improve conservation strategies, I truly believe that many of the seemingly irresolvable issues surrounding Yellowstone can be reconciled in a timely and unanimously beneficial manner.