Latest On The Conservation Gateway

A well-managed and operational Conservation Gateway is in our future! Marketing, Conservation, and Science have partnered on a plan to rebuild the Gateway into the organization’s enterprise content management system (AEM), with a planned launch of a minimal viable product in late 2024. If you’re interested in learning more about the project, reach out to for more info!

Welcome to Conservation Gateway

The Gateway is for the conservation practitioner, scientist and decision-maker. Here we share the best and most up-to-date information we use to inform our work at The Nature Conservancy.

Partner or Perish 2.0? Towards a Strategic Approach to Science Partnership

*Dutton, Ian 2/22/2012

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of spending a week in the Australian outback with the TNC-Australia team. We were there to assess the Conservancy’s options for establishing new conservation programs in the various major habitat types that were the reference frame for TNC’s global-scale planning. Those were heady days — how much fun was it to think at continental scales? How cool was it to go to a new place and learn all the things that were not being done, or to identify which skills and experiences TNC could uniquely bring to the table?

But, as with any fun activity, our dreams quickly became entangled in the pesky details necessary to pass the “Leiman test”** — answering who, what, when, why, how much… many of which were also required for the various spreadsheets that became organization shorthand for communicating conservation strategy.
To our surprise, answering the “who” question was one of the most difficult. To make a compelling case for resources, we had to clarify who would be included (and perhaps even justify who wouldn’t) in the “with others” part of the conservation solution. But how well prepared were we to make that assessment? In most new international geographies (and even in many relatively familiar domestic geographies), Conservancy staff are about as well prepared as Marco Polo was before he made his grand journey — they rely on an unrefined blend of reputation, instinct, politeness and even intimidation to navigate the many different cultural and political landscapes they encounter.
That journey to Central Australia bought home to us on the team just how inadequate those navigation skills are for most scientists. In my experience, few have much formal exposure to socio-cultural values or institutional capacity assessment; almost none have background or training in cross-cultural communication; and very few have any training in political negotiation and bargaining. When you combine all those factors with the often narrow disciplinary perspectives of most scientists, you can quickly appreciate why many scientists feel “out of their element” engaging in a strategic conservation conversation with prospective partners. Few conservation scientists view partnership as a key strategy, despite many recent advances in conservation planning methods as well as a growing emphasis on situation analysis and results chains in CAP that demand a more transparent approach to partnership strategy. Even fewer have the skills or motivation to treat partnership as a critical variable in an adaptive management experiment.
(Conversely, potential partners often have a mixed perception of the Conservancy — or a gross misunderstanding. I recall helping fund one partner to attend an international conference — he had worked with our staff for more than five years — who wrote our program staff after returning to thank “The Transnational Corporation” for supporting his travel!)
These internal and external factors combine to form a very complicated decision environment about partnership, with much confusion of expectations, potential roles and responsibilities. Selecting what to work on and with whom are some of the most difficult decisions that any conservation strategist has to make. And the pressure is compounded because of the consequences of a poor start and the lofty expectations of senior managers and even donors.
There is clearly a need to build knowledge tools to help scientists (and managers) be more comfortable with the kinds of partnership uncertainties that are a normal conservation business risk. At the end of that journey to Central Australia, Kerrie Wilson (who was then director of conservation science for the TNC-Australia program) and I batted around some ideas for ensuring that partnership would be more effective from the outset of any new joint venture. We proposed a framework for a more systematic approach to partnership over a project’s life cycle (Wilson et al 2009).
Fortunately, we were not alone in thinking more about the science-partnership dynamic. TNC’s Asia-Pacific program had for many years been developing a systematic approach to conservation partnership — much of which underpinned major conservation initiatives at large scales such the Micronesia Challenge. But the two major issues with that regional approach to partnership capacity development were that 1) it didn’t adequately engage the broader TNC science community, and 2) it was not an organization-wide priority.
It is therefore pleasing to see both those limitations being overcome as the Conservancy’s global programs evolve and move forward. Since leaving TNC, I have become more engaged in science partnerships at a regional scale in the Arctic, a rapidly changing environment where new partnerships form, morph and adapt rapidly in response to fast-moving environmental, economic and political changes. As a result, I have begun to appreciate even more acutely the need for a greater emphasis on partnership capacity building. Indeed, I have learned that the lack of that skill is one of the major impediments to action — more than a lack of scientific data, and far more than the mere lack of funding. Partnership alignment, trust and agility may be ultimately the key factors in program success. Anyone seeking to “move the needle” for whatever any conservation-related purpose has to be adequately prepared in this cornerstone skill area.
As the following survey results indicate, many of you share this belief and my concerns about the adequacy of your preparation. Although there are increasing partnership skills throughout TNC, there is still much to be done to help Conservancy scientists and managers become more effective conservation partners — partners of first choice. As the Conservancy’s conservation agenda broadens and evolves to reflect a more pluralistic approach (Kareiva 2011), I am increasingly optimistic that partnership will become an ever more valued organizational strength. Through the efforts of the Global Partnership Practice Team, I hope scientists at TNC will become to be less reliant on instinct and reputation when it comes to partnerships and more competent in strategic partnership engagement — with all the skills and subtleties that engagement entails.

*For this issue, we asked Ian Dutton, one of TNCs most historically active partnership builders, to help us frame the topic of scientists and partnerships. Over an eight-year career with TNC, Ian led one of the Conservancy's most complex global programs in Indonesia, pioneered the measures and audit program that helped build out the Conservation Measures Partnership and then as Deputy Director and Regional Scientist for the Asia Pacific Region, facilitated major new regional programs and initiatives including the development of the Australia and Mongolia programs. He left the Conservancy at the end of 2009 to pursue his interest in Arctic ecosystems, but continues to serve as CAP coach and mentor for TNC staff.

**Russell Leiman (the just-retired regional managing director for the TNC Asia-Pacific region) was a legendary "challenger of conventional conservation wisdom" and so often asked the very tough questions that demanded a thorough level of preparation — if you could pass muster with Russell, then you knew your case was strong! 
Image credit: mfhiatt/Flickr.
Kareiva, P. 2011. Conservation in the real world (presentation), Marines Theater, San Francisco, June 27th, 2011. Available: conservation-real-world/
Wilson K., I. Dutton, P. Foreman, F. Kearney, and I. Watson. 2009. Partner or perish or perish through partnering? Ecological Management and Restoration 10(2): 166-168.*