Inside the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund

Fund Manager for the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund (MBZ), Nicolas Heard, joins Instrumentl founder, Angela Braren, to discuss the Fund’s grant-making strategies, common misconceptions when applying, fishing cats and the rare Cave Squeaker.

This candid interview is a part of Instrumentl’s Fantastic Funders series.

The MBZ is a philanthropic endowment that promotes species conservation headed by Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi. Funds are directed to projects to conserve threatened and endangered species of animals, plants and fungi around the world.

Angela: What inspired the creation of the MBZ?

Nicolas: It started in 2008 when the Abu Dhabi government offered to host a meeting for the Species Survival Commission chairs. Even though the Species Survival Commission has been around since the late 40’s, it had never physically gotten together all in one room. From this meeting, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi developed an interest and realization that species conservation funding itself was a niche that needed more support.

There was an understanding that, recently, a lot more funding was being allotted to larger and broader projects related to climate change, ecosystem services, or whole ecosystems, which is all very well and good.

“It was very much felt that species conservation was missing and small grants can help fill that kind of niche.”

We think it’s really important for people to get into the field and connect with nature by doing the more traditional conservation work that had been done in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s — the type of work that involved people out and about in the jungle chasing species they’re passionate about. So the idea was to try to support that kind of initiative for people who wanted to go out and do that. The crown prince gave a donation of €25 million which we used as an endowment to provide our grants.

Angela: Are your grants strictly for individuals?

Nicolas: Actually, anyone can apply. From our application process it may look like we fund only individuals, because an individual is the one applying, but often these applicants are from international or local NGOs, academia, government agencies, or really simply individuals who are passionate about what they do.

Angela: What are some projects that you’ve recently funded that you’re really excited about?

Nicolas: In the last couple years we awarded a few grants for cave species such as cave invertebrates, amphibians and fish. We’ve also given quite a few grants for the conservation of small, less loved critters such as bush rats. We like to support the people who care about the species that aren’t as attractive as tigers or elephants, for example, smaller critters that may be endemic to a very small localized area.

We’ve also given quite a few grants to fishing cat conservation. These grants are a nice example of a way in which a series of small grants to the right people at the right time can really help. We’ve given about 19 grants to fishing cat work across its range. Gradually our awardees have developed a network with one another that helps them with data collection and sharing. Grant-making in this way can encourage people to collaborate.

Fishing cat project awarded $9,600 on October 12, 2016

We also like to award individuals that we’ve given grants to in the past and who have successfully completed a project. By awarding them again we help them build their career in that conservation program. I think the fact that we’ve supported these same people again and again really makes quite a big difference.

Another area that I’m quite excited about is providing grants to fungus conservation. There’s not a lot of money that goes into that. When the fund started back in 2009, fungus conservation was very much about taxonomy and more focused on research. It wasn’t so much about conservation but more so about protection. Fungus conservation has slowly and gradually evolved in that direction and we’ve been able to provide support to some of the fungus conservation specialists groups in the Species Survival Committee to help them move from research and taxonomy to the current conservation environment.

Others I’m very happy about are species that are being rediscovered. Projects that can find inklings that a species is still there and then is able to then find it after not being seen for decades. That is incredibly gratifying and shows that small amounts of money can do something quite impressive.

Angela: What are some examples of species that have been rediscovered?

Nicolas: The Cave Squeaker from Zimbabwe — it hasn’t been seen since the 50’s or 60’s. The grant recipient wasn’t able to find it the first time he searched in 2015 but he tried again in late 2016 to which we gave him another small grant and this time he was successful! Another one was Cropan’s Boa recently rediscovered in Brazil. That hadn’t been seen since the 50's.

Rare ‘cave squeaker’ frog seen in Zimbabwe for first time in 55 years.

Re-discovering species is really quite gratifying and occasionally, new species are discovered, not necessarily intentionally. The most recent example was a new species of maple discovered in Mexico where we gave someone a grant to work with a particular maple species. He was looking into its distribution, population status and so on and realized that one of the maple populations was not from that species, but from a new species.

Angela: With such amazing projects, how do you pick the winners?

Nicolas: It’s hard because there is much demand for our grants and so many good projects. Three times a year we have an application deadline and all applications get reviewed. In a given reviewing period, we get anywhere from 500 to 550 applications and we’re able to give around 60 grants. It’s quite a tough process for the reviewers. The grants we give are a reaction to the applications we receive.

Angela: What’s a common misconception when it comes to applying to an MBZ grant?

Nicolas: The biggest misconception is that applicants tend to think that applying to one of our grants is more complicated than it really is. Often I’ll receive emails from people who are very concerned about having all the right references and all the right documentations, etc. It’s wonderful that they are so concerned with the details, but we do try to make the process as easy as we can and we try to be flexible and open minded.

“The biggest mistake people make is applying for conservation funding of a species that isn’t endangered or applying for funding for a project that has nothing to do with conservation.”

We also get applications asking for money which is not within our mandate. For example, the request will be entirely for salaries or heavily for salaries and core costs of an organization. Or sometimes the request will be entirely or heavily for genetic analysis or lab work all of which are things we don’t fund.

We want to get people out in the field; that’s what we’re trying to encourage. We feel that connection is slightly lost with individuals doing conservation work. We’re trying to help reestablish that connection.

Angela: How can an applicant make their their proposal stand out?

Nicolas: First thing is to do is read the criteria and make sure your application is eligible. Our reviewers are reviewing a lot of applications and if they have pages and pages of text to go through then they’re really not going to 1. read it all 2. digest all of it and 3. spot the important bits.

“Make sure the application is concise and written so that the reviewer can quickly identify the main elements of the projects in terms of what’s going to be done and how it’s going to be good for the species.”

Angela: Do grant-seekers need to build a relationship with the MBZ before applying?

Nicolas: No. There’s absolutely no need to get in touch beforehand. That often times complicates things. The applicants that come in are reviewed by an independent advisory board. In a sense anybody communicating with the Fund is communicating with me, and I’m not the one making the decisions.

The next round of funding for The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund will occur in Summer 2017 with amounts up to $25,000 USD. Visit Instrumentl to find more information about The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund’s upcoming RFP.

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