Enlist Key Decision-Makers
Community-based conservation partnerships are always stronger when they have the support of key decision-makers. Understanding who has the ability to approve or deny conservation actions and directing efforts toward these people is key. Depending on the place, it may be important to gain the support of elected officials, senior government officials, and/or high-ranking traditional leaders to change policies, increase funding and staffing, or build enforcement capacity. Many people believe that public education and outreach is the way to influence elected leaders and other decision-makers. However, it is often more effective to secure endorsements from individuals or groups that these decision-makers already trust and respect, which can significantly increase the likelihood of gaining their support.
Keep in mind that cultivating the support of decision-makers is a continuous process that involves two-way communication, including formal and informal briefings and responding to requests for information. This ongoing engagement establishes individuals and organizations as trusted sources of information, and provides vital counterbalance to the competing viewpoints and agendas of any potential opposition. Developing strong working relationships with key staff of elected leaders is also beneficial and can help ensure continuity when elected and appointed officials transition in and out of roles. If a conservation project or plan relies on political support, it is wise to have a dedicated person with strong government relations skills on the team to maintain these critical relationships and to simultaneously work to identify policy and funding opportunities. As is true with any community partnership, trust takes time to develop and credibility is key.
Taking decision-makers on site visits, so they see the resources that need protection and meet the people involved, is an especially effective way to increase understanding of and support for community-based conservation projects. This works best when at least one of the people organizing the site visit already has a positive relationship with the decision-maker. Including the decision-maker’s staff and/or family in site visits is often a welcome gesture that can be surprisingly beneficial. However, in the case of government officials, it is imperative to understand and comply with ethics standards, which vary between jurisdictions and may preclude them from accepting trips of this nature.
While understanding the case for conservation is essential, it is not enough. Elected leaders and other decision-makers are constantly navigating competing priorities, agendas, and viewpoints advocated by various interests. Understanding their perspectives is crucial. Take the time to listen and learn. Whenever possible, help elected leaders and decision-makers appease multiple constituents by addressing their concerns and finding common ground, thereby making it easier for them to support a conservation effort.
Though there are always exceptions to the rule, finding ways to shine a spotlight on decision-makers and publicly acknowledge their support is typically beneficial to the decision-makers and the conservation project. Elected officials, in particular, value opportunities to look good on issues that are important to them and their constituents. These experiences tend to increase their ownership and commitment to an effort, and often inspire peers and others to become champions.