Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation—Grace Hilbert

No two conservation projects are the same, which is why the Conservation Measures Partnership (CMP) developed the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation, also referred to as the Conservation Standards (previously the Open Standards). These Standards are an adaptable framework that brings together common concepts, approaches, and terminology to help make conservation efforts more effective. CMP is a collective of conservation organizations, including NGOs, government agencies, and funders that seek better methods to design, manage, and measure the impact of their conservation actions. In 2004 CMP created Version 1.0 of the Conservation Standards, which they have continued to update and revise based on the results of field tests and input from CMP members. The most recent update, Version 4.0, was newly released in 2020.  The Conservation Standards have become a central tool for conservation management and are based on the following five-steps. 

Five steps included in the Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation
(Source: Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation, Version 4.0)

Step 1. Assess 

The first step includes defining the vision and purpose of the conservation work and assessing the overall context of the project. This should include establishing a project timeline, addressing any funding and resource questions, identifying decision-makers, and defining roles and responsibilities for project team members. Once the team members have been selected, the team should describe and map, if applicable, the scope of the project. The scope may be defined in terms of a place (e.g., a park), targets (e.g.,  specific species or ecosystems), or a theme, such as a specific threat, opportunity, or enabling condition (e.g., reducing illegal timber imports), and should include both scale and timeframe. Once the scope is defined, conservation targets–specific entities that the project is working to conserve– should be selected. For place- and target-based projects, conservation targets are usually specific habitats or species, whereas for thematic-based projects, conservation targets may include threats, driving factors, or ecosystem services. Next, a viability assessment should be performed to determine the status of each target and help create feasible goals and monitoring plans for each target. After selecting and assessing conservation targets, direct threats that influence them should be identified. Threats are often human activities that directly impact a conservation target but may also be natural phenomena that are altered by human activities. Step 1 culminates with a situation analysis, the goal of which is to summarize the project context, including the relationships among the social, economic, political and institutional systems and associated stakeholders that affect the conservation targets. 

Step 2. Plan 

This step involves creating an overall strategic plan, including the project action plan, monitoring plan, and operational plan. The action plan should include a description of the project’s goals, strategies, assumptions, and objectives. The monitoring, evaluation, and learning plan (monitoring plan), will help track progress towards the stated goals and help address information gaps. The audience for whom the monitoring is being completed and the information they need for decision-making should be identified in the monitoring plan. It should also include specific monitoring indicators and what methods will be used to collect the data. The monitoring plan should also specify when, where, and by whom the data will be collected. The operational plan should include analyses of current and potential sources of funding, the non-financial resources needed to implement a project, risk factors associated with the project and how they may be addressed, and a description of an exit strategy to ensure that the project will be sustainable beyond the project team’s involvement. 

Step 3. Implement 

In the third step, general plans from the previous steps are turned into more specific plans and put into action. This begins with creating a detailed short-term work plan and timeline. Next, the project budget should be developed and refined to include the expenses necessary to implement the project plans and monitoring activities. The strategic plan and detailed work plan should be implemented based on the schedule outlined in the project timeline and within budget. The implementation team may include different project team members than the planning team, so it helps to have kick-off and follow up meetings with all team members. Data collection and storage systems should be established since implementation will include monitoring activities.  Progress reports and tracking tools are helpful for monitoring implementation and they can be used to reflect on project progress and report back to the project organization, donors, and project partners.   

Step 4. Analyze & Adapt 

The fourth step builds on tracking efforts in step three and includes routinely analyzing monitoring data so that the project team has the opportunity to assess if they are on track to achieve the project goals and objectives.  This should include regularly recording, storing, processing, and backing up data, including operational and financial data. Whichever data analysis process is chosen, the project team should be able to easily review the information needs outlined in the strategic plan.  CMP recommends reviewing and reflecting on the project regularly (every 6-12 months) to better understand what is working and what needs improvement. To improve the project’s effectiveness, project documents, including the strategic plan, work plan, and budget should be updated based on lessons learned while analyzing, reviewing, and discussing the data. Throughout the process, it’s important to document the discussions and evidence behind decisions so that the team can track and share what they learned.

Step 5. Share 

The final step involves documenting and sharing evidence generated as well as lessons learned with internal and external audiences. This will help other practitioners learn from the project process and outcomes and avoid similar problems. Communicating and sharing lessons may be done through informal means, such as emails or calls with internal audiences,  or more formal methods to be shared with external audiences such as reports, presentations, website updates, or academic papers. The Conservation Standards aim to support and promote evidence-based conservation and adaptive management. Reflecting, seeking feedback, and providing feedback are important for fostering this type of learning environment. Being open to sharing both successes and failures is an important part of fostering a learning community both within the project team and with the conservation community more generally. 

Conservation Standards Project Cycle

The five steps come together to form a closed loop because the Conservation Standards are intended to be an iterative framework. Evidence-based conservation and adaptive management are dynamic processes, as project teams work through the Conservation Standards they may need to return to and revise previous assumptions and decisions. By being systematic about planning, implementing, and monitoring conservation initiatives, project teams will better understand what works, what doesn’t, and why and thus will be able to contribute to the shared conservation evidence base and help improve the practice of conservation.  

“Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation.” Version 4.0, 2020. Conservation Measures Partnership,

Grace Hilbert, Research Assistant |Grace Hilbert is a Master of Environmental Management candidate at the Yale School of the Environment. She is interested in water resources, land conservation, and community-based environmental management. Prior to Yale, Grace worked in environmental consulting, mainly on environmental remediation, corporate sustainability, and water risk assessment. She holds a BS in Earth and Environmental Sciences from the University of Michigan. In her free time, she loves to explore new places through hiking, climbing, and paddling. See what Grace has been up to.  |  Blog