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Ya’axché team at workshop. Credit: Rebecca Drury/FFI.

A helping hand – building conservation capacity when and where it matters most

Posted on: 16.01.14 (Last edited) 16 January 2014

Conservation is challenging at the best of times, and often a little bit of help can go a long, long way. Here, Rebecca Drury shares the inspiring story of Ya’axché Conservation Trust, Fauna & Flora International’s long-standing partner in Belize.

At Fauna & Flora International (FFI) we believe that cultivating resilient conservation organisations in areas of high biodiversity is one of the most effective means of making a lasting contribution to conservation.

But many such organisations have a crisis in their first decade, some terminally. This may result from a funding crisis, change in leadership or lack of focus. Many others simply need extra resources, expertise or objective external mentoring to help them to fully realise their potential.

We help to build strong organisations that are able to fully realise – and sustain – their own conservation goals. Ya’axché Conservation Trust is one of the many inspiring locally-led organisations to which FFI provides support.

Ya’axché and the Maya Golden Landscape

The Caribbean Sea stretched out from southern Belize to our left like a sparkling mirror. Mangroves, home to the reclusive manatee, embraced the coastline, buffered again by the Belize Barrier Reef. To our right, estuarine rivers wound through broadleaf forest to the Maya Mountains. The tiny plane made a soft landing on a narrow, dusty airstrip.

Awestruck, we had finally arrived in the Maya Golden Landscape.

Belizean coastline. Credit: Rebecca Drury/FFI.

The stunning Belizean coastline. Credit: Rebecca Drury/FFI.

The purpose of our trip was to work with Ya’axché, a brilliant Belizean organisation that works hand in hand with indigenous and other rural communities to protect the forests, rivers and reefs of this stunning region. Started by local leaders in 1997, and strengthened and supported by Fauna & Flora International (FFI) since that time, Ya’axché has flourished and grown in both its remit and impact.

Mangroves on the Belizean coast. Credit. Rebecca Drury/FFI.

The Maya Golden Landscape stretches from the forests of the Maya Mountains down to coral reefs and mangroves on the Caribbean coast. Credit. Rebecca Drury/FFI.

The most effective organisations face organisational challenges head on, and learn from their experiences. It was for this reason that, in October 2011, Ya’axché asked us to help them improve their strategic direction and financial sustainability.

Changing times and emerging pressures meant that their last strategic plan had become outdated and increasingly overlooked. Ya’axché was keen to develop a strategic plan more reflective of emerging threats and opportunities.

Although useful at the time, the old plan was also now considered too long and complicated. A more accessible plan was needed, serving as a core document guiding strategic action, decision-making and fundraising. It needed to be ‘owned’ and understood by everyone. It was going to be a busy week!

Looking forward

The first step was to build a shared vision of where the organisation wanted to go. How did they want the world – and their organisation – to look in ten years’ time?

Everyone – the ranger team, office staff, volunteers, board members and community representatives – collectively embraced their inner artist and mapped out the future visions they strived for.

Ya’axché's vision for the future. Credit: Rebecca Drury/FFI.

Ya’axché's vision for the future. Credit: Rebecca Drury/FFI.

Based on the artwork, it was unanimously agreed that the current vision statement needed an update. A new vision statement was born, reflecting the hopes and values of every stakeholder group present.

With consensus reached on the vision and mission, the staff and volunteers applied themselves next to exploring the context in which they work. What are the key threats? What are Ya’axché’s strengths? What are the opportunities? Who do they need to work with? Where could they have most impact? What strategies will be most effective?

With these questions answered, Ya’axché was able to prioritise five key threats on which to focus, and on which to base their strategic objectives and actions for the next three years.

Identifying priority issues to address. Credit: Rebecca Drury/FFI.

At the workshop, the team identified five priority issues to address. Credit: Rebecca Drury/FFI.

One week and tens (alright, maybe hundreds) of post-it notes later, the strategic plan was complete. It was an intense week, but one that gave clarity and direction for the years ahead. Ya’axché now had five clear strategic objectives to guide all their work.

Involving everyone in the process had also built ownership and understanding of their plans, and motivated the team to face these future challenges.

One survivor of the post-it note deluge, Lee McLoughlin (Protected Areas Manager) later reported: “It has been a tremendous help having the strategic plan, new and easy to understand vision and mission and having this feed into one concise and easy to use plan. I am confident we will be far better organised and strategic in 2012 and beyond. Thanks again for your assistance and guidance.”

A good strategic plan includes at least one goal that looks inward, concentrating on a key challenge affecting the organisation’s long-term effectiveness. Recognising that it underpins everything they do, Ya’axché chose to focus on financial sustainability.

Two years on, they have made great progress towards this goal. Most recently they have launched an innovative new membership scheme.

Not only can members enjoy the ‘feel good factor’ that comes with supporting vital conservation work, they also get the opportunity to sample (guilt free!) chocolate grown and produced in the Maya Golden Landscape, as well as other local treats.

Having dutifully tested the chocolate whilst there I can confirm it is in a league of its own!

Organisations as living systems

Organisations are messy. They are multi-layered living systems populated by people.

Throughout life we each learn, grow and go through different phases of development. Likewise, being a stable and effective organisation is a never-ending process; there is no set formula for the ‘right’ way to operate, and an organisation’s structure – like its people – will have to develop and adapt over time.

At FFI we do our best to tailor our support to the unique characteristics of the wonderfully varied, creative and vibrant organisations we support. We aim to help them bring out the best in themselves, whatever phase they are going through.

I am privileged to work with the resourceful, energetic and exceptional individuals who are the life force behind each one.

To learn more about Ya’axché please visit their website.

Written by
Rebecca Drury

Rebecca is a Programme Manager for Flora & Fauna International’s Conservation Capacity & Leadership programme. With a PhD in Human Ecology, she is interested in the challenges of the relationship between human needs and the environment. Before joining FFI, Rebecca worked on these issues in Egypt, Nepal, Cambodia and Vietnam, and has a particular interest in the social drivers of wildlife harvesting and trade. At FFI, Rebecca is responsible for working with a small team to support the organisational development of conservation organisations across all of FFI's regional programmes. She helps conservation partners to define, achieve and sustain conservation goals by providing mentoring and training, and by facilitating processes such as strategic planning, and providing accessible information and guidance.

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