What’s it like working in conservation fundraising?

Nick Askew is the Fundraising and Communications Manager for BirdLife Pacific – a flourishing network of seven national conservation organisations based in Fiji, Palau, New Zealand, Australia, Cook Islands, New Caledonia and French Polynesia. They are supported by the BirdLife Pacific Secretariat which manages regional projects and assists in conservation planning, capacity development and fundraising.

WHY DO YOU HAVE A CONSERVATION JOB?

I think we all want to feel like we’re making a difference through our work. I love the natural world and feel it needs people on its side; dedicating themselves to conserve it. Anyone who’s seen a Barn Owl hunting over a summer meadow, a Manta Ray flying through the sea, or an Orangutan swinging through the trees will remember it forever. I want people hundreds of years from now to have these experiences too.

WHAT’S IT LIKE BEING A FUNDRAISING AND COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER?

My job is to work with conservation charities in Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Palau and Samoa to secure funds for their conservation projects and to help promote them.

On a day to day level this means I work closely with staff from within BirdLife International and our Partners to identify priority funding requirements based on their conservation and organisational needs. Having done so we work as a team to develop projects that will deliver real benefits for threatened species and habitats. To do so we ensure we have a firm understanding of the problems we’re tackling, their ecological and cultural context, and develop the best solutions to address them. This then all needs costing out in terms of time and money and then carefully checking to ensure we have a great plan ready to go.

Having developed the projects it’s my job to identify suitable funders and to ‘sell’ our projects to. Funders come from a variety of form; from trusts, foundations, universities, other charities, wealthy individuals and governments. I see myself as a sales person or a match-maker at this point – ensuring I understand the donor and work hard to make our projects stand out from the pile.

Most appeals for support come in the form of written proposals. These can be very lengthy and detailed documents which take weeks, or even months, to prepare. You have to enjoy writing, understand the issues you’re presenting, the perspective of the donor and be very persuasive. It can require burning the midnight oil – OK is never good enough.

Having secured the funds, I help to promote the project launch, key milestones, and closure of the work. This helps to showcase our work and ensures we thank our supporters. Promotion might mean holding an event, publishing a press release, creating a video or much more. Here’s an example of a video we made to promote our work to tackle invasive species which were threatening seabirds in the Cook Islands.

WHAT’S THE BEST PART OF THE JOB?

The best part of the job is working with a varied, dispersed and passionate team of conservationists around the globe. The best moments in the job are when we secure significant funding, and I can see that I’ve been an important part of a team who have started a project which will help to save a species from extinction.

It’s probably worth mentioning that within the conservation charity sector, a good fundraiser is very much in demand and can be relatively well paid. Of course, you don’t go into conservation to earn lots of money, but if you’re choosing between career paths, it’s worth bearing this in mind.

WHAT’S THE WORST PART OF THE JOB?

Being a fundraiser is not for the feint-hearted. If you don’t secure enough money, threatened species may disappear, and staff (with families to support) may loose their jobs. That can keep you awake at night when funding starts to run out.

It also never ends – the celebration of winning funds doesn’t last long as the next important priority comes along. Enough is never enough – you can always do more with more funding. You need to continually learn and improve your techniques.

Finally, unlike many jobs, it’s very easy to measure your performance as a fundraiser by how much you’re raising. When things go well, it’s teamwork; when they don’t, it’s a fundraiser that often feels the pressure.

WHAT KEY STEPS IN YOUR CONSERVATION CAREER HAVE YOU TAKEN?

The first key step for me was gaining a love for nature as a teenager – firstly through fishing, and later as an all round wildlife lover.

I studied Biology at university and specialized in Ecology. Looking back during my time at university, the time I spent outside the library was probably more important than the time I spent in it… I ran the university conservation volunteer group and had a great time learning about practical conservation methods. Through this I also met and become best friends with the site manager of three National Nature Reserves. Through this friendship I spend hundreds of hours helping to monitor and manage the sites.

My work as an English Nature (now Natural England) volunteer led me to design and secure funding for a PhD studying the conservation ecology of Barn Owls. I skipped a Masters and went straight to a Doctorate because I knew very clearly what I wanted to research, and was lucky enough to have the backing of a supervisor to do so. My PhD taught me how to undertake research and helped me develop my field skills. Although having a PhD can close some doors  – “you’re too over-qualified for this job” – it can open even more.

Since leaving university I’ve worked as a Consultant Ecologist for a private firm, and then as a Communications Officer for BirdLife International where I continue to work today. I see fundraising as a logical extension to communications – I’m just talking to a different audience: donors.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE SOMEONE WISHING TO FOLLOW IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS?

Many people choose a direction and stick to it. If you know exactly what you want to do, then great – go for it! Get yourself out there, make contacts, gain real, tangible experience and stay focused. Too many people say they are passionate about wildlife but can’t prove it. If you’ve done 100 grass surveys, ringed/banded 500 birds or lead 20 days of volunteer tasks, then say it. If you haven’t done things like this then ask yourself how serious are you about conservation?

If, like me when I left university, you’re not sure what you want to do then do some research and pick a few areas that you might be interested in. Talk to people who do these jobs and get their advice. See if you can get some work experience and be honest with yourself about whether you could see yourself doing the job in the longer term. Many jobs aren’t as fun as them seem on paper.

And if you get a job and don’t like it – take some time to reflect why, learn from your mistakes, and don’t be afraid to move on to something even better.

Feel free to get in touch with me if you want to know any more. You can find me on LinkedIn.

AND FINALLY, WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE SONG?

Don’t think twice (it’s alright) by Bob Dylan.

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