How Do Funders Like MacArthur Know if Conservation Efforts Are Paying Off?

One of the challenges of global conservation is that, with thousands of scientists working in dozens of countries that don’t always get along, it’s hard to tell how things are going. For a foundation like MacArthur that pours millions into the cause, a clearinghouse of conservation data is extremely valuable, as indicated by one recent award. 

The MacArthur Foundation recently announced its 2014 winners of the Award for Creative and Effective Institutions, providing up to $1 million to organizations that provide unique solutions to society’s toughest problems. NatureServe, a nonprofit that tracks the work and data collected from conservation scientists worldwide, was one of the seven grantees, taking home its largest in a series of grants from MacArthur since 2009. The $1 million grant will help the network scale up its efforts to catalog biodiversity information and provide it to other researchers, private corporations and government entities. 

The MACEI awards cover a lot of bases, awarding efforts in online civil rights, criminal justice research, investigative journalism, and affordable housing. The NatureServe award was the only conservation-related grant in the 2014 round. 

It marks the culmination, or at least escalation, of ongoing funding MacArthur has sent toward NatureServe, indicating the foundation’s conservation program, led by Jorgen Thomsen, has been pleased with the organization’s progress. Thomsen’s program has now made seven grants to NatureServe totaling over $2 million, but the MACEI award is triple any previous grant. 

It’s understandable why MacArthur is so enamored of NatureServe. The idea of scores of researchers working in isolation from each other and decision-makers, their data squirreled away in academic journals and annual reports, must be horrifying to a conservation funder. Cooperation is one of the most important factors in successful biodiversity efforts, and NatureServe seeks to make sometimes-disjointed data more collaborative and accessible. 

The program grew out of data collection efforts led by the Nature Conservancy in the 1970s, became a formal entity in 1994, and has been ramping up its work in recent years. With a more sophisticated website, its capabilities have expanded, and the organization reports 6 million annual inquiries about the conservation data they’re accumulating, including from government organizations like Fish and Wildlife that use it to guide their decisions.  

One example of its recent work is an online biodiversity “dashboard” to provide quick access to data in sensitive areas like the Tropical Andes. For MacArthur, you can only imagine what a breath of fresh air such a program is, not only for enabling progress, but simply making it possible for funders to know what efforts are working, what areas need more help, and where new threats are emerging.

The MACEI Award will provide a notable boost for the program, adding $1 million to a budget that in recent years has hovered around $9 million. 

Read IP's guide to MacArthur's conservation funding here, and profile of program director Jorgen Thomsen here.