How to Fund a Conservation Expedition

Expeditions are undoubtedly one of the most exciting facets of a career in conservation, and whether you’re going through a volunteer organisation or putting forward your own research proposal, the question of how to fund your project should be given due consideration from the outset.


Plymouth University’s Environmental Science canopy access team set up a research post on expedition at Bukit Fraser in highland Malaysia, 2012. © Thomas Starnes.

Finding your feet

Volunteer organisations such as Frontier and Operation Wallacea a.k.a. ‘Opwall’ require volunteers to raise a certain amount of capital to cover the costs of travel and living expenses while they attend an expedition. These organisations usually have their own support systems in place to help you fund-raise. Whether you are going through an organisation or putting together your own expedition, how can you get the financial help you need? This article aims to answer just this question and is jam-packed with links and resources, so if you are looking to fund a conservation expedition then read on!

When I began writing this article, I instantly thought of independent conservation scientist James Borrell. James maintains a great website and newsletter brimming with advice and inspiration for budding conservationists, and he is no stranger to Conservation Careers, having featured here in February this year. James has also just launched the brand new website Discover Conservation, dedicated to helping early-career conservationists get their foot in the door! I asked James if he had any advice for expedition fundraising from a research perspective. If your project has a specific theme or focus, then capitalise on that, ‘if you’re working on a specific species or family then look up specialist organizations or charities.’ This focussed approach is often more effective because it targets specialised pockets of money which won’t be available to other applicants. For example, the Ghar Parau Foundation offers grants specifically to expeditions undertaken in caves!

Go explore!

I met James back in 2012 at the annual Explore weekend at the Royal Geographical Society in London. This weekend of expedition planning and networking held in the capital every November is a great place to start kicking around ideas, getting inspiration and building a support network for your expedition. The venue is teeming with intrepid explorers waiting to share their advice with you, and hundreds of other people seeking to plan a research expedition or simply looking for adventure! The RGS itself has many grants for expeditions and fieldwork that you can apply for; whether you are an undergraduate collecting data for your dissertation or an independent photojournalist with a great idea to promote awareness, go and check out their grants page now!

Speak to the experts

I tracked down some Opwall veterans and asked them what fundraising advice they had for us. Matt Palmer spent 8 weeks on the remote Indonesian island of Hoga diving and studying the effects of fishing pressure on Reef Grouper ecology for his dissertation. ‘Allow yourself time to prepare,’ says Matt, ‘giving yourself enough time to acquire essential equipment and find the best flight deals will bring down your bottom line. When applying for funding, always look locally for any charitable trusts whose mission is in line with what you hope to achieve. Try these first before applying to high profile sponsors as they will usually be swamped with applications from hundreds of others like you.’

‘Being physically fit will always help on an expedition… if you feel you need to up your fitness before going out then why not do a sponsored run, cycle or swim to raise money – even if you don’t get much, you will ultimately have an easier time in the field.’ ‘Finally, show commitment. You nearly always have to pay up the first time around, but if you successfully complete one expedition with an organisation and can show yourself to be helpful and capable; you might be invited back on a second expedition for free!’

He who dares, wins…

Operation Wallacea research assistant Tom Brown heads for the treetops on expedition in Honduras. Image: © Tom Brown.

Operation Wallacea research assistant Tom Brown heads for the treetops on expedition in Honduras. Image: © Tom Brown.

That is exactly what happened to herpetologist and Environmental Scientist Tom Brown. Tom has just returned from his second expedition to Cusuco National Park, Honduras with Opwall studying amphibians in the rainforest. Tom was invited back to participate as a research assistant, having completed an expedition to collect data for his dissertation the previous year. Tom covered his equipment costs for the first expedition by relentlessly writing to companies and offering blogs, photographs and publicity in exchange for donations such as trousers, boots and rucksacks. He even acquired a camera trap from Pakatak simply by messaging them on Facebook. ‘I just wrote to everyone I could think of asking for equipment and money, explaining my situation and my passion for the environment, and to my surprise it usually worked!’

Plymouth University’s Explorer in Residence Antony Jinman of Education Through Expeditions (ETE) secured a quadcopter for his solo ski expedition to the South Pole, initiated by a simple Twitter message. This was a great showcase for the hardware manufacturer as they can now say that their equipment functions in Arctic conditions. It’s often worth asking small businesses and start-ups for kit as you can potentially offer them a great advertising opportunity by including their name on blogs and using branded gear on expedition (make sure to publish photographs, too!). AJ stresses that personal will and commitment are essential to keep going in the face of rejection from various financial backers, ‘when I get an idea, I tell everyone about it and that way, it has to happen!!’

Grand designs

Objective design can be flexible if it helps you attract more funding, and multidisciplinary research maximises benefits which may in turn diversify your potential sponsor base. Our friends Rory and Finn McCann over at Talk on the Wild Side say ‘it’s important to design your project so that there are a diverse array of benefits to people and the environment, this should result in many more funding options’. It’s really important to promote the objectives of your expedition in a way that appeals to the grant committee or financial backer.

Hard work pays off

I will leave you with another tip from James Borrell which I think sums up the message, ‘don’t be afraid to just work hard and earn some money to do a conservation expedition’. Often this can be a quicker option than fundraising and if you do apply for funding elsewhere, a financial contribution from yourself shows you are dedicated to the project. Whether you cover the costs through a charity fun run or a part-time summer job, the experience you gain through a self-funded expedition will certainly increase your chances of getting funded for the next one!

Thanks for reading! Do make sure you check out all the links – that should keep you busy, and you’re bound to find something that will work for you! Best of luck with funding your expedition wherever you decide to go!

Look over here!

Finally, here are some useful links to useful websites which fund expeditions. Why not apply for one now, who knows what could happen?

About the author

ThomThomas Starnes is a GIS and Data Officer at Amphibian and Reptile Conservation in Bournemouth. He is also a member of the British Ecological Society’s Forests Special Interest Group, responsible for social media content. You can follow him on Twitter at @bio_carta.

Careers Advice, Expeditions, Top Tips