Skip to main content

Measuring social impacts in conservation: experience of using the Most Significant Change method

  • Lizzie Wilder (a1) and Matt Walpole (a1)

The ability to measure and demonstrate the impact of conservation interventions is critical for management, accountability, and lesson-learning, yet most organizations struggle to implement appropriate, effective monitoring and evaluation. This is particularly so for community-based projects and livelihoods-focused interventions that require the use of social science methods unfamiliar to most conservation biologists. Quantitative surveys and indicator-based approaches are commonly used but are limited in their utility, and ignore a wealth of potentially valuable qualitative and anecdotal information on impact and change. Here we describe a method for standardizing the collection and analysis of stories of change that originated in, and is commonly employed by, the development sector. Trials of the use of the Most Significant Change method in a range of Fauna & Flora International's partnership projects revealed not only its value as a monitoring tool alongside more familiar surveys and quantitative data collection but also as a participatory management tool that improved staff capacity and project adaptive management and responsiveness. Although initially time-consuming to establish and implement, it has been embraced by these projects as a beneficial addition to monitoring and evaluation. The consequent interest it has raised amongst other conservation practitioners suggests that it warrants further testing and application. Conservationists would do well to learn from the tools and experiences of the development sector when exploring the social impacts of conservation projects.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Measuring social impacts in conservation: experience of using the Most Significant Change method
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Measuring social impacts in conservation: experience of using the Most Significant Change method
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Measuring social impacts in conservation: experience of using the Most Significant Change method
      Available formats
Corresponding author
Fauna & Flora International, Jupiter House, Station Road, Cambridge, CB1 2JD, UK. E-mail
Hide All
ActionAid International (2006) What Makes a Critical Story of Change? Http:// [accessed 3 July 2008].
Adams, W.M. (2007) Thinking like a Human: social science and the two cultures problem. Oryx, 41, 275276.
Ball, S.J. (2006) Monitoring the Monitoring: Mpingo Conservation Project, Quarter 4, 2006. Internal Report,Fauna & Flora International, Cambridge, UK.
Balmford, A. & Cowling, R.M. (2006) Fusion or failure? The future of conservation biology. Conservation Biology, 20, 692695.
Balmford, A., Green, R.E. & Jenkins, M. (2003) Measuring the changing state of nature. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 18, 326330.
Bernard, H.R. (2006) Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Rowman Altamira, Lanham, USA.
Campbell, L.M. (2005) Overcoming obstacles to interdisciplinary research. Conservation Biology, 19, 574577.
Cleary, D. (2006) Who needs to spend money on conservation science anyway? Conservation Biology, 20, 15671568.
Davies, R. & Dart, J.J. (2005) The ‘Most Significant Change’ (MSC) Technique: A Guide to its Use [, accessed 3 July 2008].
Dart, J.J. (2000) Stories for Change: A Systematic Approach to Participatory Monitoring. Proceedings of Action Research & Process Management and Participatory Action-Research World Congress, Ballarat, Australia. Http:// [accessed 4 July 2008].
Dart, J.J. (2005) Five Questions with Jess Dart [, accessed 3 July 2008].
Dart, J.J. & Davies, R.J. (2003) A dialogical, story-based evaluation tool: the Most Significant Change technique. American Journal of Evaluation, 24, 137155.
Dart, J.J., Dysdale, G., Cole, D. & Saddington, M. (2000) The most significant change approach for monitoring an Australian extension project. PLA Notes, 38, 4752.
Dawkins, Z.J. (2007) The Social Impact of People Oriented Conservation on Cat Ba Island, Viet Nam. Working Paper 48, Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Program, The Australia National University, Canberra, Australia.
Dubois, M. (2007) Using Video to Capture ‘Stories of Change’. Internal report, Mekong Wetlands Biodiversity Conservation and Sustainable Use Programme, UNDP/IUCN/Mekong River Commission. Http:// [accessed 4 July 2008].
Earl, S., Carden, F. & Smutylo, T. (2001) Outcome Mapping: Building Learning and Reflection into Development Programs. The International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada. Http:// [accessed 4 July 2008].
Fazey, I., Fazey, J.A., Salisbury, J.G., Lindenmayer, D.B. & Dovers, S. (2006) The nature and role of experiential knowledge for environmental conservation. Environmental Conservation, 33, 110.
FFI (2008) Fauna & Flora International. Http:// [accessed 3 July 2008].
Ferraro, P.J. & Pattanayak, S.K. (2006) Money for nothing? A call for empirical evaluation of biodiversity conservation investments. PLoS Biology, 4, 482488.
Fox, H.E., Christian, C., Nordby, J.C., Pergams, O.R.W., Peterson, G.D. & Pyke, C.R. (2006) Perceived barriers to integrating social science and conservation. Conservation Biology, 20, 18171829.
Heffernan, P.J. (2006) Cambodian Elephant Conservation Group Operational Plan, 2006–2010. Fauna & Flora International, Cambridge, UK.
Higgins, J.V., Touval, J.L., Unnasch, R.S., Reichle, S., Oren, D.C., Waldman, W.R. & Hoekstra, J.M. (2006) Who needs to spend money on conservation science anyway? Conservation Biology, 20, 15661567.
Kleiman, D.G., Reading, R.P., Miller, B.J., Clark, T.W., Scott, J.M., Robinson, J. et al. (2000) Improving the evaluation of conservation programs. Conservation Biology, 14, 1569.
Lewis, D. & Mosse, D. (2006) Theoretical approaches to brokerage and translation in development. In Development Brokers and Translators: The Ethnography of Aid and Agencies (eds Lewis, D. & Mosse, D.), pp. 126. Kumarian Press, Sterling, USA.
Madey, D.L. (1982) Some benefits of integrating qualitative and quantitative methods in program evaluation, with illustrations. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 4, 223236.
Margoluis, R. & Salafsky, N. (1998) Measures of Success: Designing, Managing and Monitoring Conservation and Development Projects. Island Press, Washington, DC, USA.
Marsland, N., Wilson, I., Abeyasekera, S. & Kleih, U. (2001) Combining quantitative (formal) and qualitative (informal) survey methods. In Socio-economic Methodologies for Natural Resources Research. Best Practice Guidelines. Natural Resources Institute, Chatham, UK.
O'Leary, M. & Nee, M. (2001) Learning for Transformation – A Study of the Relationship Between Culture, Values, Experiences and Development Practice in Cambodia. Krom Akphiwat Phum/VBNK, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Patton, M.Q. (1990) Qualitative Evaluation and Research Methods. Sage Publications, Newbury Park, USA.
Pullin, A.S. & Stewart, G.B. (2006) Guidelines for systematic review in conservation and environmental management. Conservation Biology, 20, 16471656.
Robinson, J.G. (2006) Conservation biology and real world conservation. Conservation Biology, 20, 658669.
Salafsky, N. & Margoluis, R. (1999) Threat reduction assessment: a practical and cost-effective approach to evaluating conservation and development projects. Conservation Biology, 13, 830841.
Salzer, D. & Salafsky, N. (2003) Allocating Resources Between Taking Action, Assessing Status, and Measuring Effectiveness. TNC/FOS Working Paper – Draft version. TNC, Arlington & FOS, Bethesda, USA.
Sandelowski, M.R.N. (1986) The problem of rigour in qualitative research. Advances in Nursing Science, 8, 2737.
Sigsgaard, P. (2002) Monitoring without indicators: an ongoing testing of the MSC approach. Evaluation Journal of Australasia, 2, 815.
Sitati, N.W. (2007) Challenges and partnerships in elephant conservation and conflict mitigation. Oryx, 41, 137138.
Stem, C., Margoluis, R., Salafsky, N. & Brown, M. (2005) Monitoring and evaluation in conservation: a review of trends and approaches. Conservation Biology, 19, 295309.
Sternin, J. (2002) Positive Deviance: a new paradigm for addressing today's problems today. Journal of Corporate Citizenship, 5, 5762.
Sutherland, W.J., Pullin, A.S., Dolman, P.M. & Knight, T.M. (2004) The need for evidence-based conservation. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 19, 305308.
Swan, S.R. (2006) Monitoring the Monitoring: Hoang Lien Son Project, Quarter 4, 2006. Internal Report, Fauna & Flora International, Cambridge, UK.
Urveeja Bose, A. (2007) Thinking Critically about Change: Experiences of Learning and Analysing the Impact of Projects on Livelihoods amongst International Development Organizations. Fauna & Flora International, BirdLife International, and Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.
Vinod, R. (2007) Summary of e-discussion for topic 1. What is Systematization? ENRAP. Http:// [accessed 3 July 2008].
Walpole, M.J. & Linkie, M. (2007) (eds) Mitigating Human-Wildlife Conflict: Case Studies from Africa and Asia. Fauna & Flora International, Cambridge, UK.
Walpole, M.J., Elliott, J., Granziera, A., Thomas, D. & Wilder, E. (2007) Measuring the Impact of Livelihoods Initiatives in a Conservation Context – Workshop Report. Fauna & Flora International, BirdLife International, and African Wildlife Foundation, Cambridge, UK.
Walpole, M.J. & Wilder, E. (2008) Disentangling the links between conservation and poverty reduction in practice. Oryx, 42, 539547.
Whitehouse, C. (2005) The ants and the cockroach: a challenge to the use of indicators (with a response by Thomas Winderl). In Why did the Chicken Cross the Road? And Other Stories on Development Evaluation… (ed. Cummings, S.), pp. 3548. KIT Publishers, Amsterdam, The Netherlands [, accessed 3 July 2008].
Wilkie, D.S., Morelli, G.A., Demmer, J., Starkey, M., Telfer, P. & Steil, M. (2006) Parks and people: assessing the human welfare effects of establishing protected areas for biodiversity conservation. Conservation Biology, 20, 247249.
Winterford, K. (2003) Sharing Stories – A Participatory Approach To Monitoring And Evaluation In The Pacific. Pacific Children's Program, International Development Support Services, Melbourne, Australia. Http:// [accessed 3 July 2007].
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0030-6053
  • EISSN: 1365-3008
  • URL: /core/journals/oryx
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Wilder supplementary material

 PDF (83 KB)
83 KB


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed