Funding for an ecolodge | An interview with Rowens Cristancho of Conservation Allies

Are you an NGO seeking to build or expand an ecolodge?
Apply here for USD $50,000 in funding until 15th April 2023

Rowens Cristancho is a Latin American conservation officer working for the small, non-profit organisation, Conservation Allies (CA). Their mission is to help local NGOs across the globe maximise funding by eliminating the administrative costs normally associated with donations, and to make them visible to big donors, such as the United States.

Rowens reached out to Conservation Careers, hoping to promote Conservation Allies’ latest conservation strategy, an ongoing, funded initiative for ecotourism in Latin America. With the deadline of 15th April approaching, I was happy to help him round up any potential applicants.

An educator, a biologist and a videographer, Rowens had much to say on the impact of smaller NGOs and on ecotourism, answering the questions that came forth with the type of gusto that put a genuine smile on my face.

If you’re a small, Latin American NGO (Non-Governmental Organisation) with a plan already, skip straight to the application form. The deadline is April 15th.

Conservation Allies currently has USD $50,000 that they are hoping to give away to an NGO looking to build or expand an existing ecolodge. What makes ecotourism a suitable strategy for small NGOs, and what can this amount of money do for the winning NGO? 

We know from our own experience that ecotourism is a good tool to achieve three key goals:

  1. Increase the visibility of the NGO and the conservation duties carried out.
  2. Engage people in the conservation of the endangered species
  3. Create long-term revenue to fund the conservation operations from visitors and donations.

Getting funding to sustain day-to-day conservation activities is always the biggest challenge for small NGOs. So, the 50,000 USD that we are going to put towards the construction of a lodge could be seen as seed capital to create a long-term source of income.

Is an ecotourism lodge the holy grail and the solution to all problems? Of course not, but it is a useful tool.

CA’s platform doesn’t charge commissions on the donations their partner NGOs receive. How else does it help NGOs?

[M]any small local NGOs around the world don’t have direct access to donations from United States citizens. [They] want to have access to US donors [but] they can’t because they lack a way to collect donations within the US and receive the donations in their countries.

[T]hose who have access to donations from United States citizens do so through organisations that charge a commission on donations that can range between 5%-15% and in many cases hide the names of the donors. So, we were born to change the way these NGOs do fundraising in the United States.

The US as a country is the biggest donor for wildlife conservation around the world. Because we have the status of 501 (c) 3 in the United States, CA can receive donations from US citizens and in addition offer them a tax benefit, which increases their likelihood to donate.

Tell us a little about what issues arise when international NGOs dominate the market for charity? Why should people be interested in supporting local NGOs?

Elephants are powerful, but elephants can’t jump. Big international NGOs make a good job but at the same time they move slowly, they have a lot of bureaucracy and elevated administrative expenses. Our experience has shown us that when we talk about real conservation impact on the ground, which is ultimately the important thing in conservation, small local NGOs can achieve the same or even better results at a fraction of the cost.

In many cases when conservation is led by local people there is a special connection between the people and the land. Sometimes it is for cultural, ancestral, or religious reasons, or simply because it is the place of his childhood. But they feel like they are protecting a place where they belong.

[A]t the same time, we have seen that although these NGOs do wonderful work in the field, in too many cases they lack the essential skills to run an organisation successfully. Marketing skills to increase the visibility of the organisation and its work, fundraising skills to obtain more resources, business skills to properly manage resources, etc.

And for these reasons, it is that many times these small NGOs are left out of the panorama of international donations. This is where we are trying to help.

A stunning photo of the lodges at Fundacion ProAve, Colombia. © Rowens Cristancho.

Greenwashing is such a big issue today. I feel the need to mention it, because, after a cursory search on the internet, I was left with a different impression of an ecolodge than I’d first had, from watching your videos. Is greenwashing happening? 

Is there a difference between the lodges found at the top of search results and what you’d expect from your NGO applicants?

Yes, yes, yes. There is an abysmal difference. The world is full of falsifications, in food, money, art, etc. Ecotourism is not an exception. There is a lot of greenwashing or fake ecotourism deceiving people and stealing the resources to protect biodiversity.

I am going to describe a typical case that has multiplied in recent years and you will tell me if it sounds familiar to you. A farm, medium or small, located in the rural area around a large city, that for decades was dedicated to agricultural production, where all native vegetation was removed locally and wildlife was killed.

Suddenly one day it is transformed into a beautiful cabin, with a pool, spa, some fruit trees and palm trees that cannot be missing to make the photo beautiful. To make it wilder they have some cows and chickens in the back. And to attract customers they begin to call it ecotourism. Does it sound familiar to you?

The population in general does not know that this is a hoax, so we must work to educate them and attract them to true ecotourism. The difference between the real and the fake is not whether it is luxurious or rustic, it is knowing if it is really fulfilling the purposes of ecotourism.

I work so that in a short time more and more people when they are planning their trips ask the following questions:

  • [W]ith the money I’m going to pay, what endemic species will be protected and how?
  • Who and how [is] going to educate me about these species and their ecosystem?
  • In what ways the well-being of local people is improved?

If they don’t have answers to these questions you have to rule this place out. Hint, true ecotourism is almost always done by NGOs or involves an NGO throughout the process.

Rowens documenting good ecotourism at Fundacion ProAves in El Dorado, Colombia.

What do you expect from the intersection of cultures that ecotourism inspires? For example, when envisioning the future of Latin America, let’s say thirty years down the line, with regard to these ecolodges, these intersections, what do you see?

Today each NGO makes its individual effort to attract more visitors. I have the dream of participating in the creation of a space that brings together the destinations where true ecotourism for conservation is carried out. That it serves as a space for the exchange of ideas, good practices and improvements. That it serves to promote everything together and to be able to reach the eyes of that great public that is out there waiting to enjoy the wonders of nature while with their money they are helping to protect it.

Rowens, your answers really reinforce the fact that you’re a wildlife lover, and an educator. I’ve already confessed, in our emails, to having subscribed to your Youtube channel. As someone learning Spanish, who is passionate about conservation, it is just the kind of input I’ve been looking for. 

I have one final question for the many people reading our blogs who are keen to start jobs in conservation. Do you have any advice for our readers? 

“The magic is in the extra ingredients”

I don’t know if it’s the magic recipe but I’m going to say what worked for me: always adding extra ingredients to your toolbox and always actively looking to create new opportunities.

When I was studying my biology degree in Colombia, money was very scarce in my family. I started a small packaged food distribution business, that taught me real-life things that I would never have learned in college and that were totally foreign to my field of study, such as sales, marketing, basic accounting, negotiation, and time management.

When I graduated, it was that blend of background in biology plus proven business skills that opened the doors for me in my professional career. Then I kept adding more, and now I also know about customer experience in ecotourism, project management, filmmaking and video production.

I’m not saying that everyone has to do the same, but the world of conservation needs countless skills, the more you have and the further away they are from each other the better. The magic is in the extra ingredients, my mom used to say when she cooked.

Rowens Cristancho, conservation biologist and science communicator. You follow Rowens’ adventures on his Youtube channel. © Rowens Cristancho.

If you are a small LatAm NGO with conservation and biodiversity at the heart of your mission, hoping to win $50, 000 USD, apply here before the deadline April 15th.

For those of you looking for a helpful platform that will absorb the costs for you, wherever in the world you are, read more on how to become a partner.

For those of you who want to support Conservation Allies, visit their website to donate.   

All photographs copyright of Rowens Cristancho.


Author Profile | Danielle Hutton

Dani grew up in different parts of the world. She is from everywhere and nowhere. Thankfully, she likes to travel, likes to learn and likes to connect with the wild ones. Helped by her writing and a vivid internal world, she has developed her own system of roots through which she is watered, fed, and enlivened.


Interviews, Ecotourism