Evaluating the success of conservation projects

This essay is not intended to offer instructions on how to conduct a conservation program. Decisions about supporting conservation are important and they should be made conscientiously on the following basis: "Evaluate with a critical mind, and then support with an open heart."

IT IS MOST IMPORTANT TO EVALUATE THE CANDIDATE'S OR ORGANIZATION'S EFFICIENCY AND INTEGRITY

In this day and age, almost every political candidate will claim to be a great supporter of conservation. Every "Save the Whatever" organization employs experts who design mail-out appeals that are aesthetically elegant and read as sincerely as the Sermon on the Mount. Most readers of this essay are sophisticated enough to see beyond political hype. Also, almost every U. S. state (and many national governments around the world) has a consumer advocate office that can help evaluate the non-profit organizations that solicit conservation contributions. Typically these consumer advocate offices can provide information on the percentage of contributions that go to support actual conservation activities (as opposed to paying staff personnel, for example). They can almost always warn of organizations that support outright frauds.

IT IS IMPORTANT TO EVALUATE THE PROGRAM ADVOCATED BY A CANDIDATE OR CONSERVATION ORGANIZATION

A key to evaluation is to determine whether an organization's stated objectives are meaningful and realistic. Here are four hypothetical statements of objectives that should be questioned:

• Elephants are in terrible danger, and your contribution will save the lives of countless elephants in southern Africa. The organization should offer some idea of how the promise will be fulfilled. Furthermore, words like "countless" should ring loud alarm bells.

• If I am elected, I will protect lands in such a way as to conserve functioning ecosystems in which living organ isms can interact in complex ways. Every living system—from rice fields to rainforests to urban gardens to septic tanks—meets this criterion. This is a meaningless promise, since it will automatically be kept.

• The goal of our policy is to preserve appropriate natural, aesthetic values for future generations. Both authors of this essay are teachers. Part of our job is evaluation, and we don't give tests that we cannot grade. Thus we are wary of claims that cannot be checked. We like the idea of preserving values—but we wouldn't offer our votes or our dollars until we learned many more specifics.

• The objectives of this program are to integrate economic and intrinsic wildlife values in a holistic program that recognizes human rights to sustainable development and national responsibilities for conservation of biodiversity. This statement sounds great. It uses most of the favorite vocabulary words of the conservation community. However, we have no idea what the statement means—and we wrote it. We would certainly look for specific, measurable objectives before we were tempted to support such a program.

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