The Linden Trust for Conservation may not be one of the largest foundations, but you wouldn’t know it from its track record. The trust uses a unique approach in its quest to “help stabilize Earth’s biodiversity and ecological processes for the benefit of humanity,” taking on very few – but highly ambitious – efforts at once, and providing intensive support to each of them.
Working with other philanthropies, conservation NGOs, bilateral and multilateral agencies, and governments (and with Redstone’s support), the Linden Trust has helped secure several financial deals to assure long-term conservation of large and globally important areas, including in Costa Rica and, most recently, Brazil’s Amazon Region Protected Areas (ARPA) program – the world’s largest network of protected areas. Each deal applied an innovative approach known as “project finance for permanence” (PFP), which mobilizes all of the resources needed for long-term success in a single burst of effort by making each commitment contingent on all the others being in place.
We recently chatted with Roger Ullman, Linden Trust’s Executive Director, once the confetti had settled on the ARPA deal, to discuss what he has learned from these efforts.
What are some lessons you’ve taken away from the successes of ARPA and other PFP efforts?
Two lessons, in particular, stand out for me. One is that thinking big can pay off. The ARPA program was already big [when this initiative started]. The idea of finishing it financially was seen as very daunting, if not impossible, for many years, but the group was able to do it. Similarly, when addressing all of ARPA seemed too difficult, we started thinking that maybe we’d try for “only” 40 million hectares [2/3 of ARPA]. We learned, though, that expanding to include the whole scope increased the probability of success because it made the deal more attractive and simpler. Funders like big things. Even though big visions are more expensive than little visions, that doesn’t mean they are less fundable – they may be more fundable because people want to accomplish big things.
Second, when working with a government, it is really, really important to get buy-in at multiple levels. Not only do you need support at a very senior political level – in our case, Minister of Environment Izabella Teixeira was very supportive – but it also is critical to have the support of people at other levels. For example, [the ministry’s Executive Secretary] Francisco Gaetani was really committed, and did a lot to make the deal happen. That’s irreplaceable.
To get this support, though, the proposition has to be politically attractive to the government. At its core, the ARPA deal is meant to provide incentives for the government to increase its funding for conservation. The question was, how can we make this politically – not just financially – attractive? In Brazil, it was seen as politically attractive for the government to be able to say that they’re taking on full funding of their environmental responsibilities, so we structured the initiative to support this [with a Transition Fund that provides more external funding now than an endowment would, but is spent down over time as the government increases its funding].
That first lesson is really powerful – though one also should keep in mind the many grand initiatives that don’t pan out. In fact, PFP in some ways is an answer to a history of partially completed conservation initiatives. So, how does one “think big” in a careful and practical way?
Of course, you can’t get too big. Going bigger doesn’t make things better forever – there’s no relationship like that. In this case, though, we made a judgment that big was beautiful, and possible, and would simplify things [e.g., because the partners would not have to choose which 2/3 of ARPA to emphasize]. While adding the additional scope made it more costly, donors were mostly motivated by qualitative aspects – for example, that the Amazon is so important and big – so the numbers didn’t deter donors from stepping up financially. But we were realistic. For example, we knew we couldn’t double ARPA’s size.
What lessons might these initiatives have for philanthropic collaboration more generally?
For large institutions – whether foundations or a multilateral or bilateral agency – you have to present them with a proposition aligned with their preexisting priorities. Smaller foundations and individual donors might be more flexible, but for larger donors that’s the first priority.
You also have to engage at various levels of their organizations, early and often. You can’t just approach them at the beginning and the end of the initiative. In these highly collaborative processes, it can be helpful to have a third party to facilitate this engagement – in this case, we played that role – though success is not necessarily impossible without it.
Finally, people underestimate the resources that go into just the project management itself. You need dedicated people – especially if you’re working against a deadline, like a PFP deal closing where everything needs to come together at once.
If you could change one thing about philanthropy as a sector, what would it be?
Large foundations are very committed to their initiatives, which is great because big problems need big commitments of resources and time. Nevertheless, opportunities can arise that are unexpected but highly valuable. It would be great if larger philanthropic institutions built into their structures the ability to seize these chances. A great example is the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation, which provided very significant support to ARPA because it saw an opportunity, even though ARPA didn’t fit exactly with their focus areas.
What’s next for the Linden Trust?
The way we work is to focus on one large thing at a time – a big, multiyear effort that requires a lot of planning, project management, and coordination, because those are things we think we can provide. Whatever we do next will fit that description.