Why founder-led conservation charities can be a great investment

Why founder-led conservation charities can be a great investment
28 December 2018

This article summarises my experience in supporting a small(er), founder-led conservation charity. It’ll show you why – and under what circumstances – such organisations can be surprisingly impactful and effective, and why smaller conservation organisations that are led by a founder (or a similarly engaged manager/CEO) should be given more attention.

It contrasts with last week’s article, in which I took a look back at my time as CEO of the Charles Darwin Foundation, a medium-sized, conventional conservation NGO in the Galapagos Islands. I described why these kinds of conservation NGOs, despite all the good work they undoubtedly do, will never anywhere near have the impact to protect our precious planet earth that we’d like them to; and why some types of donors can end up feeling dissatisfied with the effect their money achieves at such organisations.

After my work in the Galapagos Islands, I started to work with and co-fund a small conservation charity in the UK. Since I am passionate about nature conservation, I wanted to give it another go and see if a different kind of organisation could perform in a way that was more to my satisfaction as a donor and active advisor.

Lo and behold, it did work out well!

Who should read this article

The following thoughts are likely useful for:

  • Anyone considering to donate to conservation and/or provide any other kind of support to such organisations (e.g., joining as a board member or providing any other type of hands-on advice).
  • Donors wondering where best to deploy their funding, i.e., where to get the most impact for their money.
  • Younger people considering a career in conservation organisations and wondering what kind of employer they should seek.

If you are considering to set up your own conservation organisation, you’ll also find this article useful. After all, it specifically speaks about founder-led organisations! The article contains some clues how you can make your own organisation more successful and avoid widespread mistakes.

One man fighting for sharks

As a keen diver, I have had the privilege to go on dozens of dives in areas that still feature large numbers of sharks. However, I have also been on dives in areas where visitors barely get to see small fish anymore, never mind sharks. Anyone who has had the luck of getting to dive in various locations around the world will have realised that our oceans are indeed in a perilous state.

I watched the first Sharkwater movie when it came out; I contributed to the funding of Sharkwater II, and I am fully signed up for ocean-conservationist Sylvia Earle’s mantra: “If the oceans die, we die.”

Anyone who has had the luck of getting to dive in various locations around the world will have realised that our oceans are indeed in a perilous state.

Sadly, one day when walking through my old neighbourhood in London, I noticed a Chinese restaurant that was openly advertising shark fins on its menu. Seeing shark fins openly advertised on a menu made me research how this could still be possible (and legal!) – in 2016, in an affluent Western European country.

My research made me come across Bite-Back Shark & Marine Conservation, a UK-based charity led by its founder, Graham Buckingham.

What I learned about their work impressed me. I checked its financial reports on the British Charity Commission website and wondered how they could have done so much on a shoestring budget. My interest was piqued, and I emailed the founder to ask him to meet with me, both to discuss how he had achieved what he had accomplished, and to discuss if there was any way I could come in to help. Subsequently, I became involved and also drew in the support of a few friends.

Fast-forward another 18 months from there, and Bite-Back can look back onto a year that achieved the following:

  • Record amount of donations.
  • Unprecedented media reach, and a number of resulting impacts.
  • Move towards financial sustainability and stability.

I have analysed what contributed to this success. Here are the seven major points I believe led Bite-Back to the next level.

1. Authenticity

In last week’s article, I placed authenticity last on the list and lamented that it was lacking from many conventional conservation NGOs. In the case of Bite-Back, I made a conscious decision to place it first in the article.

There is an ingredient in every successful organisation that can’t be described easily. A medical handbook can sum up all the individual parts of a human body, but it can’t tell you how human qualities make all of them come to life and have a character as well as a personality.

Authenticity is an organisational trait that goes beyond an organisation’s individual parts, and it usually very much hinges on its leadership.

When I met Graham, it was immediately clear to me that he has his heart in the right place and the necessary skills to take the organisation forward:

  • Background of working in media and TV, where he worked with celebrities.
  • He left his well-paid, secure and even glamorous job for the badly-paid, risky world of setting up his own conservation charity.
  • 12 years later, he seemed as committed as only a founder can be.

His personal passion and commitment were obvious. Anyone living in or near London has no shortage of job opportunities. Someone who has been in a position for 12 years when they could have pursued much better-paid, easier jobs elsewhere, is beyond doubt very deeply and genuinely committed to the cause.

Authenticity is an organisational trait that goes beyond an organisation’s individual parts, and it usually very much hinges on its leadership.

Us humans instinctively know whether an organisation has it, or doesn’t.

In the case of Bite-Back, my assessment of this point was the starting point for everything else. Had it not been there, I would have walked away.

Authenticity? Tick!

2. Simple governance structure

Governance may be a boring subject, but it is important. Governance is the backbone that keeps an organisation stand upright. Fudge on governance and you’ll eventually watch the roof come down on you, often sooner rather than later.

However, as described last week, excessive governance can paralyse an organisation. That’s why I am a big advocate of Peter Thiel’s mantra that an organisation shouldn’t have any more than three board members; not until it becomes a huge organisation, by which I mean something in the hundreds of millions or even billions in revenue.

A quick check of Bite-Back’s annual report showed: Three board members were taking care of governance.

Lean, agile governance? Tick!

3. Focus

This is the last time I’ll refer back to last week’s article. However, this point is just too important not to look at it from the opposite perspective as last week. How does it look like when an organisation gets the issue of focus right rather than wrong?

Mission drift is all too easy a trap to fall into. Eventually, you end up being spread so thinly that nothing of what you do really works. We have all done it, right?

It’s all too easy to lose focus. Life’s journey places all sorts of shiny objects by the road-side, and we are tempted to stop and pick them up. While we marvel at them, more focused people are overtaking us, and they’ll long have arrived at the finishing line while we are still distracted by the roadside.

Mission drift is all too easy a trap to fall into. Eventually, you end up being spread so thinly that nothing of what you do really works. We have all done it, right?

What attracted me to Bite-Back was its apparent focus at the time:

  • The organisation only ever picked one (or maximum two) essential projects to work on.
  • The team worked on the existing project(s) until the goal had been achieved.
  • Only then did it move on to the next project, with the successful conclusion of the previous one providing wind under its wings and enabling it to gradually become more ambitious.
  • When I asked Graham what he felt had contributed to his organisation’s success, he recognised that himself: “Concentration on doing one or two things well.”

I’d be happy to debate if an organisation of a certain size or financial strength should do three or five projects. It all depends. But I can guarantee that virtually any organisation in as challenging and underfunded a field as conservation will struggle to ever deal effectively with more than a handful of big challenges at a time. I’d usually make the case that one, two or three projects are the sweet spot to focus on; provided these have the right degree of ambition.

Focus? Tick!

4. Simplicity in funding

Running an organisation is hard. Any founder/CEO will have learned how a leadership position places more demands on you than any human being could possibly ever fulfil. If you are at the top of an organisation, people will (almost) expect from you that you know everything about anything.

That’s not even to speak of the insane difficulty of raising funds. Convincing other people to part from their money to support you is what I rate the single most challenging task in management. Bar none.

As if mobilising money wasn’t difficult enough, the world of conventional charity funding has a habit of keeping things difficult even after funding is agreed. The majority of donors attach all sorts of strings to funds. Donations and grants are given as so-called “restricted funds,” i.e., with precise instructions what these funds can and cannot be used for. Often, these restrictions are planned with a lead-time of 6-18 months, i.e., there are incredibly long planning and funding cycles.

The problem is, this is not how the real world works.

In the real world, you’ve got fast-moving, changing organisational needs. To keep up with them and to have an effective organisation, you need a manager/CEO who has the power to make decisions on how money is spent.

If an organisation deserves funding only if a plethora of conditions are placed on them, then there is probably something fundamentally wrong with that organisation.

To counter-balance the decision-making power a manager/CEO has over funds, you simply set up an organisational structure that ensures that funds aren’t misspent. These safety mechanisms include:

  • Accounting
  • Auditors
  • A board that can replace the manager/CEO if required
  • Reports to donors

If an organisation deserves funding only if a plethora of conditions are placed on them, then there is probably something fundamentally wrong with that organisation.

Personally, I would never again donate anything to an organisation that gives donors too much influence in how an organisation is run. I have seen it from the inside, and it’s the most inefficient, counter-productive and outright insane funding model one could dream up. It produces jobs for bureaucrat-type people who are too afraid to jump over their own shadow, and hinders those who primarily care for achieving maximum impact for the cause.

Due diligence, discussion, negotiation, and reporting – yes!

Overly close involvement in what the organisation does or how it does it – no!

Luckily, I managed to establish that Bite-Back was operating on the back of 100% unrestricted funding. There was one single outstanding grant to the organisation that had some strings attached to it, but these were so reasonable and flexible that they didn’t worry me. In essence, all of its funds were put at the disposal of its founder.

Simplicity in its funding and empowering the manager? Tick!

5. Understand the power of (digital) media

I accept that the following point may be more down to personal preference than objective need and that there will be some organisations for which this wouldn’t work or apply.

Outside of those exceptions, I claim that without an effective, innovative use of media, PR, and marketing, no conservation organisation can be nearly as impactful and successful as it needs to be; or at the very least, it leaves plenty of unused potential.

The mainstream media are desperate for exciting, engaging content. A conservation organisation that can play to this need will be able to utilise this to its advantage in more ways than I can even begin to list out.

With that I primarily mean:

  • High-engagement web platform aimed at the public.
  • Presence in national or international media through PR (i.e., editorial written about the organisation).
  • Digital communication specifically aimed at engaging people who are already interested in or supporting the organisation.

Why am I so keen on this?

Because nothing is as powerful as getting your organisation endorsed by a third party that also acts as a multiplicator, such as a journalist in a major publication writing about you. I recognised that myself when I was working in the sector, e.g., I received valuable new leads to potential donors when the Financial Times’ weekend magazine published a 3-page article about my work. Anyone working in PR will tell you that the “Advertising Equivalency Value” (i.e., the cost it would have taken to place similarly effective advertising) would have been in the six figures (!) for a single such article.

The mainstream media are desperate for exciting, engaging content. A conservation organisation that can play to this need will be able to utilise this to its advantage in more ways than I can even begin to list out. It doesn’t even cost much to do and is primarily a matter of mindset combined with a few relevant skills.

An engaging web platform enables you to address virtually an entire country’s population (or the whole global audience – now 3.9bn people online!) for hardly any incremental cost at all.

Sending regular, engaging digital communication to your existing supporters is another godsend. Printing and postage used to cost a lot. Now, it’s just the “cost” of an email!

With my own experience in digital and conventional media, I could quickly spot that:

  • Bite-Back had a web platform that had been created at low cost but still in the best possible way.
  • It had signed up major publications to write about it, which was helped by having signed up a major British TV personality.
  • Bite-Back understood the word “authentic engagement”, as is evident through its emails campaigns and social media presence.

The results of this? I will get back to this at the end of this article.

Effective use of conventional and digital media? Tick!

6. Perseverance

Here is a bit of career advice. I have come to believe – passionately – that it takes at least two, more likely three years to truly learn how to be a leader of a specific organisation.

At the grand old age of currently 43, I can look back at having run a half dozen organisations.

I can now see a pretty clear pattern:

  • In the first year, you learn the basics (and you really are an overpaid, annoying idiot in the eyes of most staff).
  • In the second year, you start to become effective (some staff begin to have a bit of respect for you).
  • From the third year onwards, you can steamroll forward because you truly know what you are doing.

I have seen too many cases where organisations saw their leader resign in the third year, as part of what many say is a relatively normal corporate cycle of employee-types changing positions to keep their CV interesting. This means that just as he/she started to become truly effective, that person moved on. Even worse, the third year was often spent on writing job applications and doing interviews for the next job. An employee who has mentally checked out already loses much of his/her effectiveness.

Given that most relationships with prospective major donors take two or three years to start to blossom, the value of someone staying onboard for the long-haul cannot be over-emphasised.

Turn this matter onto its head and look at it from the perspective of someone who has been in a leading job for five, ten or even more years!

That person will have seen and experienced A LOT.

Provided the fire of passion is still burning brightly inside that person, he/she will be the single best leader for an organisation you can imagine. As a donor to such an organisation, you get many years of leadership experience and sector expertise for free, and this then goes a long way to ensuring your funds are spent in the most impactful way.

Someone with many years of experience can also score more easily in what I outline under point (5), and probably also under point (3).

By the time I met Graham, he had been running Bite-Back for 12 years. He is now up at 14 years.

Given that most relationships with prospective major donors take two or three years to start to blossom, the value of someone staying onboard for the long-haul cannot be over-emphasised.

Stability, tenacity, accumulated skills? Tick!

7. Spectacular “ROI” (Return on Investment)

I want any support I give to a conservation organisation to have a high return on investment. What exactly constitutes a return and how to best measure it will vary from organisation to organisation. Call it impact, call it result, or call it whatever you like. I want “bang for my buck.”

My initial assessment of Bite-Back’s return on investment for its funders looked too good to be true.

With an annual budget that barely reached GBP 65,000 ($85,000) during the preceding years, Bite-Back had managed to:

  • Convince several of the UK’s largest supermarket chains to remove shark meat; leading to several hundred thousand portions (!) per year (!!) not being sold anymore.
  • Have Britain’s largest chain of health stores remove all products containing shark cartilage from its 580 stores. Again, a large-scale impact that, once achieved, would continue to take place each year.
  • Get more than 50% of shark fin-serving restaurants in London alone to change their menu.
  • Generate massive amounts of media and PR about the subject of protecting sharks, which raised awareness among the population and in turn helped to achieve some of what I mention above. This exposure amounted to an advertising equivalency value that I would estimate was worth a high multiple of the organisation’s annual budget – and doing so consistently each year!

There were actually further outcomes and impacts, but these big ones were enough to convince me that with very little money, Bite-Back was achieving impacts that were significant in overall size; of a lasting or recurring nature, and with stepping stones towards future projects coming out of all this work as a free bonus.

Putting a precise return figure to such outcomes is difficult. However, I know an excellent return on investment when I see it! All the more when an organisation is so focussed (see point 3) that I can easily correlate the funding to the outcomes.

High return on investment? Tick!

Where did it all lead?

Because Bite-Back was relatively small and quickly reacted to my request for a meeting and further information, it was relatively straightforward to put together a support package to help Graham in his work.

Together with friends, I provided:

  • A GBP 18,000 ($25,000) donation for the year 2018, which was the amount needed to give Bite-Back that crucial extra bit of financial breathing space it required at that stage.
  • Some strategic advice on how to move certain aspects of the organisation forward, e.g., support towards their launch of a membership programme.
  • Help to arrange some additional PR for Bite-Back, reinforcing that virtuous cycle of raising awareness in the public, increasing the visibility and credibility of the organisation, and this then feeding back into the organisation’s fundraising and impact.

We did all this without any of the following:

  • No restricting of the donation to any particular use. We put the funds at the sole discretion of Graham.
  • No overly cumbersome funding agreement.
  • No specific reporting requirements, other than asking Graham to come back to us and inform us in a format of his choosing about how he fared in using our support. He had a proven track record for successfully telling his story, so why put more shackles on him?

I’d be far from claiming credit for the following because it is ultimately funded by ALL funders of Bite-Back. I am listing it to show how, with the combination of its existing and its additional funding, Bite-Back moved on to deliver impacts and outcomes that very much tied in with my criteria for funding such an organisation:

  • It launched media guidelines aimed at making British journalist change their – often sensational and factually incorrect – reporting about sharks. This campaign reached 29m (!!!) people and it will have a longer-lasting effect through changing the reporting of at least some UK journalists. Never mind the fact that outside of existing staff costs, this only led to expenses of a grand total of GBP 750 / $900. Effective use of media and based on that a huge return on investment – tick!
  • It launched a new membership programme aimed at generating donations that are both unrestricted and (provided these members extend their annual membership) recurring. Membership sales were off to a good start anyway, and the organisation experienced a small windfall when it appeared on the BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show with Chris Evans. The number of memberships doubled overnight. Protecting the simplicity of the funding model and (once again) being clever in utilising other peoples’ media channels – tick!
  • It helped secure the salary for Graham Buckingham, the indispensable staff member who is driving all this forward. His salary being secure gives him the necessary peace of mind and freedom to think about his organisation’s next focus area and how to gradually scale it up further – tick!

Some of these results are what you’d expect much bigger organisations to achieve, and at a much higher cost. Bite-Back is a great example how a very small team, if structured and managed properly, can have results that belie the organisation’s overall size. For a donor, it means huge bang-for-the-buck, very efficient processes and no drama, as well as a high degree of satisfaction about having moved the needle.

Next time, consider supporting smaller organisations

As you can see from this article, it has been both a rewarding experience (as well as fun!) for my friends and myself to support Bite-Back.

We were part of the supporters that helped make 2018 the financially most successful and operationally most impactful year in Bite-Back’s 14-year history. The organisation is finishing this year with more financial reserves, higher recurring income, and a yet longer track-record of achievements. With what the organisation has in place, it’s likely that it will grow further in 2019 and beyond.

It was all done on the back of relatively few, clear criteria on our check-list that anyone could use when assessing such organisations.

Bite-Back is a great example how a very small team, if structured and managed properly, can have results that belie the organisation’s overall size.

Founder-led, smaller charities can be incredibly effective in their field and punch way above their weight. They are probably not always getting the attention they deserve, and they can offer a great alternative to the “BINGOs” (Big International NGOs) that soak up most of the public donations.

Graham Buckingham of Bite-Back Shark & Marine Conservation will undoubtedly have many more years of successfully running and growing his organisation. And we do indeed need conservation heroes like him! Which is why I hope this article will inspire others to also become active with a smaller organisation, by setting them up, helping operate them, fund them, or providing other kinds of input.

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