common sense and Common Ground are surprisingly uncommon
There are many ways to work toward conservation.
The Institute does "New School" conservation.
New School incorporates applied sciences, innovation, strategic collaboration, human behavior and common sense, because each of these is “necessary but not sufficient” for successful conservation. Many past conservation efforts missed an element and many present efforts continue to do so, which has led to many less-than-optimal results.
The Institute does not participate in the "old school environmentalism" characterized by litigation, polarized discussion, and posturing. If old school worked, we wouldn't be still arguing over the same resource management issues that first came up in the 1970s.
Certainly we need all the tools in the toolbox. There is a time and place for litigation for example. But the Institute believes that litigation is a significantly overused tool in the conservation field. Litigation and similar adversarial techniques have the goal that one side wins and the other loses. The first problem is that there are rarely just two sides - usually, there are many. The second problem is no one wants to be the loser. So an issue may be fought over for years or may be just buried. Temporarily. These outcomes are not sustainable. And isn't that ironic, when "sustainability" is a professed goal everywhere in conservation?
Conservation, restoration, and responsible use are not pie-in-the-sky. If done well and applied wisely, they can work. They can work to ensure that local places and local people keep their economic options as well as their unique and beautiful resources.
What the Institute does dipherent
Our work is based in strong science and ideas from many fields. We review the existing science through literature or expert consultations for every project before we take it on. No point in reinventing the wheel, or even worse, misguided efforts that waste scarce resources and time.
We eschew "preaching to the choir." It is easy to communicate with those that already agree with you. But what happens when we reach out to new partners–especially those that aren’t traditional conservationists? Developing new partners from among those that traditionally have not been interested in conservation, or are alienated by past adversarial experiences, is more challenging but brings far larger conservation results. Usually. We focus on "best communication practices" We listen a lot. We learn a lot.
We are highly strategic in our use of volunteers. Volunteer programs can be "feel good" and are often considered cheap labor. But many volunteers don't get much done, while costing high levels of maintenance, staff time for training and elevated insurance. We seek the 20% of volunteers that get something done, and let the other 80% drive/hike/swim off into the sunset.
We are highly strategic in our partnerships. Collaboration consumes time, so we want to get the most bang for our hour. We rarely work with other organizations that are doing stream restoration, for example, because there is little net gain for either organization. Instead, we focus on individuals, agencies and organizations that bring expertise or resources to our projects that the Institute doesn't have - and vice versa, that we bring something needed to their work.
We put the greatest possible amount of funds into conservation work. We do not maintain offices, but rather "locations.” Whether staff, volunteers, or contractors, everyone works from home. We do not throw parties for our donors; however we are delighted when donors want to visit project sites and see the impact of their gifts. Or even participate.
We categorically reject the evaluation of nonprofits based on overhead ratios.
We do more on-the-ground work. It is more difficult and more expensive, but has greater impact and helps move us toward our goals of new partnerships, new tools and new information.
We take on difficult projects and risk trying new methods, bringing a "can-do" attitude to all of our work. Sometimes these are issues that other organizations have given up on. Sometimes trying to build new partnerships doesn't work. Sometimes even the best volunteers flake out. Sometimes restoration work takes longer to complete than expected or gets hit with big weather events mess up our "best laid plans." We expect to fail sometimes - it is an important part of the learning process. Many funders and donors are uncomfortable with this. But this is precisely how innovation, learning, creating, progress, ingenuity - all those words we adore - happen. Ingenuity is something that our society prides itself on. We walk the talk.
In sum, innovation is more than a buzzword at the Institute. We put innovation into sturdy boots and go out into the world listening to people, getting our hands dirty, wading into beaver ponds, whatever it takes.
The Institute plans to remain a relatively small organization. As such, the Institute has the flexibility to innovate, to develop and test new techniques in search of greater impact. Yes, we plan to grow, to develop new programs and to expand our work, but always remaining nimble and practical.
* Dipherent. Not a typo. We borrowed this from the city of Santa Fe which calls itself “The City Dipherent.”