Cecil the Lion’s Legacy: How Do We Turn Viral Giving Into Lasting Change?

The devastating killing of a beloved lion in Zimbabwe has sparked giving approaching $1 million. It’s an inspiring example of tragedy elevating a cause, but what happens next? Will the wave of support stick? 

At this point, everyone knows the story of Cecil the lion. The news reports, which spread like wildfire, were gut-wrenching, as a dentist from Minnesota and his guides lured the lion out of Hwange National Park with food, beheading him and leaving the body behind. 

The story set off a wave of sadness across the Internet, followed by outrage, and now, as a silver lining to the tragedy—giving. 

But as viral phenomena like the story of Cecil are becoming routine channels for large sums of charitable giving, will they translate to meaningful philanthropic support and long-term impact for the causes? Or is this just flash-in-the-pan philanthropy that evaporates as quickly as it appears?

Related: Another Billionaire Comes to the Defense of Africa's Elephants and Rhinos

At this point, the Cecil story is driving a lot of positive attention to at least some groups working in wildlife conservation.

First, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel made an emotional appeal about Cecil on air, and encouraged viewers feeling outraged about it to donate to Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Unit, the research outfit that had been studying Cecil and the other lions at the park. That triggered 2,600 donations in 24 hours. 

As people became more aware of WildCRU, which does conservation research worldwide on all kinds of animals, giving continued to grow, and billionaire founder of Panthera Tom Kaplan pledged to match donations up to $100,000. Conservation nonprofit Panthera is already a funder of WildCRU’s research at the national park where Cecil lived, but Kaplan and wife Daphne made the matching pledge to nudge the Kimmel-inspired giving further. 

Now, giving to WildCRU is over $850,000. National Geographic has reported a similar spike in giving to its Big Cats Initiative, with about 700 donations a day, compared to the typical 600 a month. 

WildCRU, which once considered cutting its anti-poaching patrol for budgetary reasons, has raised about four times the lion program’s annual budget of $234,000 in about a week. 

But even with the organization's great windfall, it's faced with the tricky questions of how to use the funding, and what it means for WildCRU in the long term. “We need to make some strategic decisions once the dust has settled,” Research Fellow Andrew Loveridge told National Geographic. WildCRU will need to figure out how to channel the surge toward work that aligns with its mission, and how to make it sustainable.

Related: National Geographic's Quest to Save the King of the Jungle

For example, while the giving is happening in an outpouring of emotion over illegal trophy hunting, that represents a small part of the group’s work. Much of the work is research-based, involving long-term monitoring to advise policy decisions. 

The organization does some anti-poaching work, but trophy hunting is actually not one of the big drivers of population decline. The organization has been quick to point this out—human population growth, agriculture, impoverished farmers trying to coexist with predators—these are bigger and more ambiguous villains than the dentist in Minnesota. 

Beyond allocating the short-term influx of funds, there’s the unanswered question this kind of viral giving presents regarding whether it can be turned into sustained support, or translated into growth for conservation in general. The problems surrounding loss of biodiversity are so much broader than can be addressed by limited work with lions in a single country. 

Will the thousands of people who gave in the heat of the moment continue to support this work? After all, it’s not clear if people are giving because they are anti-poaching, anti-hunting, anti-trophy-hunting, pro-lion, pro-wildlife, pro-conservation, or even anti-poverty, all of which are parts of this work. 

WildCRU is doing an admirable job of keeping things in perspective. In a great interview with a Minnesota Public Radio show, WildCRU Director David Macdonald expressed his deep gratitude, but also pivoted from the pain and drama surrounding Cecil’s death to the bigger picture. 

“For me, perhaps the most important good is the signal that is going around the world that starts with Cecil, goes on to lions, but transcends, I think, to wildlife, nature, and the environment.” 

Amid questions of what Cecil was like and the prospects for his family, Macdonald emphasized that he hopes “people will start to understand the complexity of what is modern-day wildlife conservation. This is not easy, this is not a simple juxtaposition of good guys and bad guys.”

That strikes me as very difficult—turning the flood of emotion into lasting financial impact on a nuanced and complex cause. 

You can see the challenge clearly, as different segments of society respond in non-strategic ways. There was the harassment of the dentist himself, and a corporate campaign to stop commercial airline transport of trophies. People pounce, wanting desperately to see a happy ending, but not sure how to get there.  

This is a classic problem when engaging with donors, but particularly difficult in terms of these viral phenomena. How do you get people to connect that white-hot emotion with the pragmatic, sometimes dull, and morally complex work of conservation? 

Maybe this is a point where major donors could provide some direction. While the Kaplan matching grant was a smart, quick move, you can imagine large philanthropists playing an even bigger part in strategically channeling the publicity. 

It would be great, for example, to see a big wildlife donor like Leonardo DiCaprio announce a new Cecil Fund to support a small coalition of wildlife conservation groups (including WildCRU), with Leo matching all public donations up to $2 million. Such a fund could still support work with lions, but it would explicitly engage people in the broader issues. 

Related: Leonardo DiCaprio’s Giving Just Got Way More Interesting

Sure, the $850K WildCRU raised is great (not to mention the windfall for many other groups using the event in unconnected fundraising appeals). But as these viral giving events keep happening, we need to find ways to translate the resulting showers of cash into something long-term and profound. 

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