In July 2017 the Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) and WWF's Russell E. Train Education for Nature Program (EFN) hosted a knowledge café at the Society for Conservation Biology's 28th International Congress for Conservation Biology in Cartagena, Colombia. The event brought together 20 participants from 10 countries (Brazil, China, Colombia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mexico, Tanzania, UK, USA and Viet Nam) for an open and participatory discussion, based on structured questions, to help understand the types and levels of support required for early and mid-career conservationists. Responses were focused on the context of conservationists from countries with developing and emerging economies.
CLP and EFN tailor their capacity building approaches to meet the needs of early- and mid-career conservationists in countries where capacity and access to resources are limited. They do this by awarding project grants, funding internships and scholarships, delivering training courses, mentoring, and supporting global networks of conservationists.
The discussion began with a focus on enabling factors, including establishing or becoming part of formal or informal networks and attending job fairs and expositions, especially those aimed at early-career professionals. Participants noted that those new to the sector benefit from understanding that careers will not necessarily be linear but may instead open up more adaptive or opportunistic career paths. This can be helpful for those mapping out a mid-term career path and is pertinent when considering the range of skills and aptitudes identified in conservation leadership literature.
It was recognized that a cultural shift within organizations is required to encourage career development, and that this may be challenging where long-standing staff are reticent to change. Participants suggested that progressive organizations could do more to collaborate with smaller organizations by supporting institutional capacity building and professional development, and that coaching and mentoring are required at all career stages but especially for early-career conservationists and those at a career crossroad.
Participants identified mentoring, development of softskills (e.g. in proposal writing, communication, CV preparation), leadership training and participatory planning as important. The consensus was that these approaches deliver the greatest positive impact. In a 2014 survey of its alumni, CLP found that training needs decrease as alumni progress in their careers: alumni with 1–5 years of experience requiring training in proposal writing and biostatistics, and those with 10+ years of experience requiring broader training (e.g. in implementation of conservation strategies).
Participants identified that most entry level and volunteer positions in conservation are field-based, and there is therefore a need to identify and encourage opportunities that develop both field- and office-based skills, and that early-career conservationists require a stipend when volunteering, conducting project work or during internships. Universities and prospective employers were identified as potential collaborators in providing financial support or degree credits for internships. Within organizations, participants noted that career development is hampered by top-heavy management, with few opportunities for junior staff, that nepotism and preferential treatment may channel promotions to well connected people, and that where organizations do invest in skill development there can be barriers for staff to utilize and test their new skills.
To make progress towards developing early and mid-career conservation practitioners, the conservation sector could strengthen its understanding of careers through a sector-wide needs assessment, and a market analysis to identify the skills that people could develop to advance their careers. The conservation profession should continue to look at other sectors, such as health, international development and business, which have more experience of supporting human resource management and professional skills development.
The recommendations drawn from the discussion, although limited in scope, provide a snapshot of a larger, more complex situation that needs to take into account many different national, cultural and economic contexts. The information from the knowledge café will serve as a starting point for wider discussion. More in-depth discussions on this topic will take place during 30 July–1 August 2019 during the Capacity Building for Conservation Global Conference in London.