Spring is almost here and with it will come a new generation of leadership at the Caucasus Nature Fund. With some sadness but a great sense of satisfaction, I will be stepping down as head of CNF at the end of March. As I prepare to do so, I thought I should reflect a bit on the last eight years.
At the beginning, CNF was an idea with a bit of money behind it. I became the foundation’s first Executive Director in 2008 and was tasked with a formidable but exciting challenge: build the foundation’s administrative structures, grow its assets and—most importantly—develop its programs. Today I can say that the challenge has been met–the idea of CNF has been transformed into a very real, and successful, conservation trust fund.
Given our limited budget, we started small. In fact, for the first two years I worked alone from a spare room in my apartment–and from countless hotel rooms. Everything needed to be done, from building partnership arrangements with governmental agencies in the Caucasus, to creating basic financial and operating procedures, to developing an investment policy and finding investment managers, to changing our name and making it and our mission known.
By early 2010 we were ready to make our first grants and begin to assemble our team. In 2016 seven talented people are working with me in three different offices, and I am confident that the organization they have helped to build will still be promoting nature conservation in the Caucasus 30 years from now.
CNF began with an endowment of € 7.5 million, a generous start but not enough to carry out our three country mandate. We needed to grow our assets, and over the last eight years, all the while developing and gradually growing our grant program, we have managed to increase them more than fourfold.
The donor base is now broad, ranging from foundations to businesses to multi-lateral institutions to individuals, but the German government has been by far our greatest supporter. Over the years, in fact, Germany has come to consider CNF a model for conservation trust funds. Just this January it renewed its confidence in our work, awarding us a new € 6 million grant which brings our total assets to € 34 million. I can think of no better farewell gift.
And this more solid financial footing has allowed us to expand our investment in our programs. In 2016, grant spending will reach a new high of € 1 million, a rhythm we expect will grow even further in the coming years. This means we are currently supporting 16 parks in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, territories that are vital to protecting the endangered Caucasian leopard and tur, Gmelin’s mouflon, bezoar goat and goitred gazelle, along with thousands of other flora and fauna species.
Much of our success is due to the partnerships we have developed, not only with the ministries/national parks authorities in all three countries, but also other organizations such as WWF, NACRES, KPMG and other German government programs. These partnerships support our vital work of monitoring biodiversity, bringing eco-tourism to the parks and simply making sure the parks work better. Long-distance partnerships are hard work (just ask my wife), and with my successor being based in the region, I am confident that our partnerships will grow even stronger.
And of course we would have no program without the dedicated people who work in the parks. Today we are supporting the efforts of over 500 rangers and park staff. My fondest memories from this job will remain the days and nights spent with them, exploring firsthand “our” parks. You can read more about some of these experiences in my blog postings written after the trips. You can read about those trips here.
Although we have accomplished much, nature and biodiversity in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia continue to be threatened. I may be handing over the reins as director, but I do not intend to abandon this part of the world that I have come to love. Starting in April, I will become a member of CNF’s Board of Directors. CNF has brought me many new friends, and my life would be much poorer without you. So fortunately I do not have to say goodbye; instead, let’s just begin a new chapter.
My deepest thanks go to all who have supported and encouraged me over the years.
In my next and final letter as Executive Director, I look forward to introducing my talented successor.