Brett Jenks, President/CEO, Rare Conservation

September 23, 2010
Brett Jenks, Rare Conservation

Our planet has become very crowded, very quickly. According to economist and Earth Institute director Jeffrey Sachs, the world's population has grown by 4 billion, from 2.6 billion to 6.6 billion, in just sixty years. Over that same period, the population of sub-Saharan Africa has increased from 180 million to 820 million, while the population of Asia Minor has quadrupled, from 51 million to 220 million. Global economic activity has increased even faster, with gross world product having risen a staggering eight times since 1950 and a hundred times since the start of the industrial era.

All those people and all that economic activity have greatly stressed the planet's natural systems. In almost every region of the world, freshwater supplies, forests, arable land, and fish stocks are being depleted at an alarming rate. Deserts are expanding, endangered habitats are shrinking, and the oceans are becoming more acidic. And with world population predicted to hit 9.2 billion by 2050, and world per capita income expected to rise 450 percent, the global competition for critical resources is likely to have dire consequences. Unless, as Sachs writes in Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, we "break some bad and long-standing habits" and learn to manage our resources sustainably.

Recently, Philanthropy News Digest talked with Brett Jenks, president and CEO of Rare Conservation, a U.S.-based conservation group, about the organization's work, the dynamics of behavior change, and the significance of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

For the past decade, Jenks has overseen Rare's global effort to equip people in the world's most biodiverse areas with the tools and motivation they need to protect their natural resource base. Under his leadership, the organization has grown over 1,000 percent; expanded its work to five continents; formed worldwide partnerships with leading environmental NGOs; and received four straightFast Company Social Capitalist Awards.

Jenks has worked in the field of tropical conservation and rural education since 1992. He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Massachusetts and holds an MBA with honors from Georgetown University.

Philanthropy News Digest: I'd like to start by asking you about the situation in the Gulf of Mexico. After three months and the release of millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf, BP was able to cap its damaged Macondo well in July, and this past weekend it finally plugged the well for good. Beyond the economic toll on the residents of the Gulf region and the toll on turtles, sea mammals, sea birds, and other species, what concerns you most about what happened in the Gulf this summer?

The spill, as devastating as it was, pales in comparison to the loss of habitat and species we are going to have to contend with once we realize what we've allowed to happen to the planet's climate....

Brett Jenks: It's clear to me the oil spill was a tragedy whose ultimate consequences we won't be able to assess for months, if not years, to come. But a spill like that, as devastating as it was, pales in comparison to the much less perceptible loss of habitat and species we are going to have to contend with once we realize what we've allowed to happen, in our lifetimes, to the planet's climate. For me, the oil spill is a symbol of our arrogance as a species, as well as the fact that we don't have a Plan B in the event something goes wrong when we drill that deep for oil. And my biggest concern is that people simply don't recognize or are unwilling to admit what is happening all over the world with respect to the loss of habitat, the loss of species, the loss of the natural resource base on which so many people's lives and the well-being of future generations depends. Sadly, I don't think we've learned very much from the spill, and I don't think it will lead to comprehensive climate legislation — or to a recognition of what's happening in terms of the global extinction crisis, the future scarcity of water, or climate change in general.

PND: Is Rare doing anything to address the after-effects of the spill?

BJ: We aren't involved in any way with the spill. We're not a domestic conservation organization, we have no offshore drilling expertise, and we don't lobby. Instead, we spend every waking moment thinking about the small gains we can make with local communities in the world's richest habitats in the developing tropics. We work entirely abroad, in countries like China, Indonesia, Mexico, and Malaysia. Other groups are far better equipped to take on the government and the oil companies and industry lobbyists who spend all their time on the Hill. We want to work where we can make a difference, and that's what makes us an effective organization.

PND: Many of our readers may be surprised to learn that Rare has been around in some form for almost forty years. How did the organization get started? And how has its mission evolved over the decades?

BJ: Rare was founded in 1973 by David Hill, an avid ornithologist and former Flying Tigers pilot, in part because he felt people weren't as aware as they should be about what was happening in the developing world with respect to habitat and species loss. One of the first things he did was to hook up with Friends of the Earth and the Animal Welfare Institute to launch the "Save the Whales" campaign. As that campaign caught on and revenue from the sale of bumper stickers and buttons began to add up, Hill and his colleagues realized they were making enough to finance a number of other conservation projects. The focus back then — the organization's focus for the first fifteen years, in fact — was really promotion and marketing, basically fostering the kinds of conversations that today are so commonplace when we talk about the plight of certain habitats or species, whether it's whales, tigers in India, snow leopards in Pakistan, or smaller creatures in far-off places that few people have heard of.

What's changed at Rare, especially over the last fifteen years, has been a growing focus on the recognition that the environmental movement has succeeded in creating a desire for change. Where the environmental movement has fallen short, however, is in providing the means to make change happen. What we've focused on over the last ten years is to identify situations in which charismatic local leaders have been able to not only inspire a desire to protect the environment within their communities, but have also created the political, technological, and economic means to actually bring about that change. In short, our focus today is to identify what works at the local level and to replicate it in other places where species and critical habitat are endangered.

PND: Rare takes what I would call a tools-based approach to conservation work. Tell us about some of the tools in the Rare toolkit?

BJ: First let me say that, in providing a conservation toolkit, Rare works from a couple of assumptions. One is that any good approach to conservation needs to be based in local culture, local economies, local ways of dealing with the world; you can't just parachute in like Wile E. Coyote from the outside with a conservation-in-a-box approach and, presto!, expect change to happen. Everything we do is customized by and for our local partners, whom we train to be agents of change in their communities.

That said, the basic toolkit is pretty simple. First, we identify local leaders and provide them with a two-year-long masters program. They study for seventeen weeks at a university, in their language, and then spend the greater part of two years designing and implementing a campaign for behavior change in their communities.

The second is an apprenticeship, during which our local partners are taught how to develop a grassroots marketing campaign that reaches every member of a community with the message that they live in a unique environment, that there's no other place quite like it on earth, and that the species that live there — many of which are not found anywhere else on earth — are part of their cultural legacy and something to be cherished and protected. The goal is to create a desire among local residents to conserve something that is valuable and uniquely theirs. If you can link their pride in place to an area's natural resources, you begin to create the desire to conserve those resources.

The other tools we use revolve around creating the means to bring about change. So, for example, in Indonesia, which boasts seventeen thousand islands and where fishing is a way of life for millions of people, the coral reefs that support and sustain the natural resource base are of utmost importance to people's way of life and economic livelihood. It's their asset base, their insurance policy, and yet people there generally recognize that the reefs are being overfished. That recognition has to come first. That's the knowledge component.

The attitude component, as we call it — getting people to not only want to make a change but to develop the confidence that they can change — usually comes in the form of providing examples of other success stories. So, in the case of Indonesia, we try to identify other communities, in Indonesia itself or elsewhere in Asia, that have not only recognized they have a problem with resource depletion but have actually implemented concrete changes to better govern their resources. It might be that they have decided to create what's called "no-take" zones, which serve to allow young fish to grow to a mature size and spawn more, which creates a positive feedback loop and ensures that that a fishery can be fished on a productive, sustainable basis. If you can provide models like that to local fishermen, local cooperatives, municipal leadership, pretty soon everyone is thinking about what they might do to replicate that success.

So, again, it's sparking a desire for change, which involves marketing and outreach and getting everyone on the same page with a clear, compelling message and call to action, followed by a technical assistance phase involving skills building. It may sound simple, but it's actually quite complicated.

PND: Dan Heath, co-author with his brother Chip of the best-sellers Made to Stick and Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, was so inspired by the work Rare does that he agreed to join your board. The Heaths talk a lot about change as a process, a process that starts with a clear direction, proceeds by small steps, and relies on reinforcement. Has the Heaths' thinking about change changed the way Rare approaches its work?

BJ: Yes, in some simple ways. When we were describing our theory of change to Dan, I remember laughing because we talked about knowledge shifts leading to attitudinal shifts leading to interpersonal communication on the street leading to behavior change and finally to a conservation outcome. Then he and Chip published Switch, and we realized that it was much simpler to just talk about an elephant and a rider and a path. [Laughs.] Since then, we've simplified it even further by saying that it's about providing the desire and the means to change.

More importantly, in sharing stories about guys like Jerry Sternin of Save the Children and his notion of positive deviance, or what Dan renamed "bright spots," Dan really changed the way we at Rare think. When we think about bright spots, what's important to us is the idea that most of the solutions to the world's problems already exist somewhere. And maybe the most innovative thing we can do is to identify the things that are working rather than focusing on a long list of things that aren't. Identify what works, understand and celebrate it, replicate and scale it, make it a part of what you do every day. If you do that, I guarantee change will follow.

What's important to us is the idea that most of the solutions to the world's problems already exist somewhere....

PND: How do you measure success?

BJ: In a couple of ways. At the enterprise level, we're looking at the degree to which we've hit our revenue targets, our expense targets, whether our employees are satisfied, and whether we're investing in their skills and development.

At the project level, we measure, very specifically, every project in a statistically valid way, including things like changes in public awareness and shifts in public opinion, changes in the behavior of community members, the measurable reduction of threat, and so on. So, if the particular threat is forest fires, or overfishing, we have measures in place that let us determine the degree to which we are being effective.

Over time, because the environment isn't as measurable as, say, childhood education, where you can compare test scores — sometimes it takes a while to see fish stocks rebound, for trees to grow back, for a watershed to increase its productivity — those indicators are often measured in spans of three years, or five years, or even decades.

PND: As you've mentioned, your work is focused at the local level. Does that make it difficult to scale your approach to the regional, national, or international level?

BJ: I think our work is inherently scalable. For example, we're launching a project in Indonesia right now at ten different sites with some of the most biologically rich coral reefs on the planet. If we can produce with our local partners and the community members we're supporting the type of no-take zones that can create sustainable fisheries around those reefs, those reefs have a far better chance of not only thriving, but being resilient to climate change over time — and that's something we're all going to be talking about over the next twenty-five years.

What's really interesting about those ten sites is that, one, they represent about ten million acres of some of the world's richest fisheries. That's not a drop in the bucket. More importantly, just based on a plan for those ten sites, the government of Indonesia, with its partners in the Philippines, in Mexico, in Madagascar, is interested in replicating the model — although we're sort of going slowly, in order to go quickly. What I mean is, we want to make sure the model works. But if it works at the first ten sites, and then another dozen sites in the Philippines and a dozen in Mexico and a dozen in Madagascar, there's no reason why it couldn't work in hundreds and eventually thousands of sites around the world.

What's scalable about it is that it involves local people, and at least half the threats to fisheries globally emanate from local populations. At the same time, there are no easy answers. That needs to be clear to everyone. Even if an organization is able to green the supply chain of Wal-Mart so that Wal-Mart is only buying and selling sustainably harvested fish, that's only a tiny piece of the global market for seafood. The fact that these are poor, marginalized, and often remote communities doesn't mean they're any less important than something like comprehensive fisheries legislation. These are the places that are the most unregulated, the places with the fastest-growing populations, and where the reefs and fisheries are in greatest peril. We've got to get it right in all those places.

What's interesting about the question of scalability is the challenges we face in the United States with issues like climate change. It's as if everyone assumes there's going to be a silver bullet, there's going to be a solution that saves us at the eleventh hour. Unfortunately, we tend to think simplistically about problems and tend to assume we're going to come up with something that works. But if you sit down and think about the supply chains that bring dinner to your table, or the way your home was built, or the energy you consume getting to work or flying to meetings, and then start thinking abut what it would take to reduce the carbon footprint of each of those systems, you begin to see it's anything but simple.

The truth is we need thousands of little success stories; we need thousands of solutions to these kinds of problems. At Rare, we've developed a very compelling way of helping people change their behavior so that the natural resource base that supports them can be managed sustainably. If we're able to do that at thousands of sites around the world, well, I'll sleep a little better at night.

PND: Given the success of a project like the one you just described, have you ever considered partnering with a larger, better resourced environmental organization so as to scale your work more quickly?

BJ: That's exactly what we're doing. We're working with the Global Environment Facility, for example, one of the world's largest environmental donors, to expand our work in the Andes. And if you think about some of the better-known environmental NGOs, the World Wildlife Fund, the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society, all four of those organizations regularly use Rare's approach to building local constituencies and fostering behavior change in environmentally sensitive areas. In a way, Rare has sort of become the Intel inside hundreds of local conservation projects around the world. It may have a different logo on the outside, but inside the method and the approach to engaging the hearts and minds of local community members is often a Rare Pride campaign.

In a way, Rare has sort of become the Intel inside hundreds of local conservation projects around the world....

PND: Talking about partnerships, in June you announced a $2 million grant from Malaysia-based YTL Corporation in support of a new initiative called YTL Fellows for Rare Planet. What is exciting about that initiative? And do you see it as a model for future collaborations?

BJ: What's so exciting about the partnership with YTL is that it's a very well-known Malaysian conglomerate headed by the Yeoh family, which specializes in resort development and construction management. And yet because the Yeohs have spent time in rural Asia and because of their roots in China, they're really interested in this issue of empowering rural communities to protect and manage their natural resource base.

It's also exciting because it represents one of the larger private gifts for conservation efforts in Asia to date. There may have been larger ones, but the gift from the Yeohs is very significant, and we hope it's a harbinger of good things to come from the growing ranks of the wealthy in Asia. We really credit the Yeoh family for being leaders in this regard.

PND: Was Rare hurt by the economic downturn, or did you manage to get through it relatively unscathed?

BJ: We were lucky. We've been growing at about 30 percent a year for the past five years, and we managed to keep that going through the downturn. Oddly, a benefit of the recession has been the fact that there's more talent available out there, and we've been able to take advantage of that. That said, I don't want to sound overconfident. This has been a tough time for everybody, and we have no idea what the next few years will bring. Our outlook is neutral for 2011 and beyond. We had planned to continue to grow at about 20 percent to 25 percent a year, as we have for the last ten years, but we'll proceed cautiously, because we don't see things rebounding the way we had hoped they would two years into the crisis.

PND: Where do you see opportunities for growth — if not this year, then, say, over the next three to five years?

BJ: I'd answer that in two ways. First, programmatically and in terms of funding, I think we have opportunities in three areas.

Within the climate change area, we think a lot of money is going to be invested in the Reduced Emissions From Deforestation and Degradation, or REDD, mechanism — that is, the idea of paying communities not to cut down trees in order to reduce greenhouse gases. Local communities are going to need to help in figuring out how to work in that space, which is something we think we'll be good at by the time the REDD market is ready for prime time. Second, we all understand that billions of people are dependent on healthy fisheries, and as political leaders around the world increasingly recognize the sad state of their fisheries, there's going to be a lot more money invested in protecting coral reefs, wetlands, fish nurseries, and watersheds. And third, as the climate continues to warm and populations in developing countries continue to grow, we'll begin to see water scarcity and conservation become a critical component of every major environmental effort.

From a funding standpoint, I see opportunities in two segments: high-net-worth individuals, especially those who have accumulated wealth by being entrepreneurial and want to bring similarly innovative, entrepreneurial approaches to social and environmental concerns; and two, governments, which are going to have to become more forward-thinking and do more to protect their natural resource base, whether it's governments in South America spending more money to protect the cloud forests and watersheds of the Andes, or low-lying countries that are dependent on fisheries spending more money on enforcement and the creation of marine sanctuaries.

Over time, the opportunity for conservation organizations will lie in the general public's recognition that we are approaching a tipping point in our relationship with nature and the natural systems that support our continued existence on the planet, and that awareness will lead to much greater investments in the kinds of changes, the kinds of technologies, the kinds of societal shifts that are needed to conserve and stabilize fresh water supplies, fish stocks, and the climate for generations for come.

Over time, the opportunity for conservation organizations will lie in the general public's recognition that we are approaching a tipping point in our relationship with nature....

PND: Any final words of advice for organizations that are working to address conservation and biodiversity issues?

BJ: Well, we're still working hard to come up with solutions to our own challenges, so I'm not sure I'd presume to offer advice to anyone. But I will say that what we've learned over the last ten years is that this work is not easy, and sometimes it makes sense to go slowly in the short term in order to go faster over the longer term. All of us doing this kind of work want action and results quickly. And yet, by taking the time to identify what's already working — those bright spots I was talking about earlier — and by figuring out how to use resources already available at the grassroots to replicate those successes and diffuse that learning, we've found that you're more likely to achieve the kind of impact you seek.

PND: Well, thank you for your time, Brett.

BJ: Thank you.

Mitch Nauffts spoke with Jenks earlier this summer. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch at