Design Ethnography

I conducted design ethnography with a variety of people working in the environmental conservation sector.

These interviews were with community-led conservation group coordinators (Upper Yarra Landcare Group, Friends of Sassafras Creek & Community Weed Alliance of the Dandenongs), funders of environmental activities (WWF NZ and Melbourne Water), and a Conservation & Citizen Science Sector Researcher and Consultant (Landcare NZ).

My approach was multi-modal; interviews, tree planting, and attending a committee meeting. These took place in a variety of settings; meeting rooms, online video links, cafes, project sites and a community hall.

Key Insights

1. The funding cycle drives most of the project activities

A common pattern in speaking to project coordinators and funders, was that there is a (relatively) short-term cyclical cycle which drives most of the activities of conservation projects which are led from the community sector (such as “Friends Of…” groups or Landcare chapters). Whilst this may not be a radical finding, the extent to which it held sway over the projects was stark. Most projects are focused on outcomes for a geographic region which will need 10+ years to really see meaningful positive impact on the biodiversity levels, however they were often engaged in 1 year funding cycles which drove their patterns of work and use of resources. I mapped this cycle with a project coordinator, and it was confirmed by funders and other coordinators.

2. There is a trend towards accepting photography as evidence

In conversations with the project coordinators and the funders, I found that often there was small amounts of money which are being granted for projects to undertake environmental restoration work and community engagement (often under $20,000 NZD/AUD). Due to the nature of these small grants, and the short project durations (often a year or less), evaluation and reporting of the outcomes and impact was limited. Instead projects often had to report on their input activities (such as number of volunteers engaged, trees planted and hours spent on site), and were increasingly being asked to provide photos for evidence of the work on site. This was interesting as photography was becoming a proxy which replaced other forms of monitoring and evaluation, but often with little or no analysis beyond a description of weeds removed, or tree species planted.

I noted this process could be quite cumbersome and time consuming for some groups, as they had to capture, store and present the photos, provide GPS coordinates, and more.

3. We don’t know the impact of the majority of community-led conservation projects

As I spoke with researcher and consultant, Monica Peters, and delved deeper into secondary research on the conservation sector, I found that there was a significant gap in data about the scale and effectiveness of environmental projects.

Given the consistent under investment in the environmental conservation sector (McCarthy et al, 2012 [54]), it isn’t surprising that the majority of funding is channeled directly to on ground activities, rather than activities commonly seen as “overhead” such as monitoring, evaluation and capacity building - which could contribute to the qualitative and quantitative picture of the sector’s impact (Peters et al, 2016 [55]). Likewise, the fragmentation of conservation grant making funding and its administration, has meant that there is no common platform to which projects submit their activity, monitoring or evaluation data.

See section ‘Conservation Data’ in Appendix for more information about these .

4. Recognising the social impact

There is a huge variety of research on the social impact of conservation activities and green spaces, on the participants of these experiences, however this is often ignored, forgotten and not accounted for by environmental projects as it is not their ‘main focus’.

See the section ‘Social Impact of Conservation’ in the Appendix for more information.

This is a major opportunity for environmental conservation to recognise the greater impact that it has as a sector on society, as well as an opportunity to access greater financial resources which are generally allocated to social initiatives which do not have the dual benefit of conservation. Indeed, if groups were more aware of the potential benefits, with some support they would be able to enhance the social outcomes of their on-ground group activities.