From Land Trusts to Landscapes: How Capacity Funding Brings Conservation to Scale

Jonathan Peterson, Program Manager, Network for Landscape Conservation

This article was originally published in the winter 2023 issue of Saving Land, the Land Trust Alliance’s quarterly magazine. It is reprinted here with permission. Cover photo by Matt Green, courtesy of the O2O Wildlife Corridor Partnership.


In New Orleans at Rally, two land trusts—the North Florida Land Trust and the Hudson Highlands Land Trust, both accredited—shared stories of convening collaboration to advance landscape conservation efforts. These stories showed how working through multi-organizational partnerships allows land trusts to accelerate their work—and how collaborative capacity investments are integral to ensuring that such partnerships achieve broader environmental and social outcomes.


Collaborating at the Landscape Scale

The complexity and interconnectedness of the challenges facing our lands, waters and communities—from solving the climate crisis to increasing equity and inclusion, two prominent themes at Rally—require bold approaches that transcend boundaries and traditional systems.

One such approach gaining traction is that of multi-organizational partnerships working at a landscape scale. The locally led, nationally scaled America the Beautiful vision suggests why landscapes are becoming the “operative unit” for conservation and stewardship. This is where the inherent tension between local and national is most effectively balanced—where the geography is small enough to foster the relationships and trust upon which equitable, community-driven conservation outcomes are built, but large and connected enough that the outcomes realize far-reaching ecological and social impact.

This landscape approach hinges on collaboration: In bringing people together across boundaries, jurisdictions and sectors, multi-organizational partnerships create enduring vehicles for weaving together knowledge and perspectives so that we can collectively advance better futures for the places we cherish. Such long-term collaboration is a seedbed from which aspirational, previously unimaginable ideas and projects emerge.

Yet a dearth of funding exists to support the collaborative process. As one practitioner recently shared, “Grantors are just interested in the project. It’s like they think that the part that makes the project happen, the collaborative structure that allows us to do this work—all of that just happens on its own and doesn’t take any resources or investment.” In reality it takes a tremendous amount of time, energy and effort to bring people together into collaboration—and to sustain that collaboration over time in pursuit of impactful landscape outcomes.


What Is Collaborative Capacity?

Collaborative capacity is the capacity of a multi-organizational partnership to perform and pursue its goals effectively over time. Funders have long resisted capacity investments, wary that such funding simply sustains organizational staff positions in ways not directly connected to on-the-ground outcomes. However, as our understanding of what it takes to collaborate effectively across landscapes grows, we increasingly see that collaborative capacity leverages organizational capacity—it is what allows groups of organizations to work together effectively to accelerate and extend impact beyond what any single organization can achieve independently. Such capacity too can be essential to ensuring that groups historically marginalized and excluded—including underserved urban and rural communities and Indigenous communities—have voice in charting the future of our landscapes.

A  new white paper from the California Landscape Stewardship Network, “Increasing Collaborative Capacity and Infrastructure for Landscape Stewardship,” clarifies elements that allow partnerships to successfully produce impactful, durable environmental outcomes. This collaborative capacity framework identifies six structural elements—collective purposes and goals; shared strategies and priorities; collaborative practices, skills and tools; systems and infrastructure; decision-making structures; and coordination capacity—and three binding elements—inclusive culture; meaningful relationships; and collaborative mindset.

Together these specific—and fundable—elements create “scaffolding” and “mortar” that allow partnerships to function effectively. Think of a keyhole: when the structural elements of collaborative capacity are resourced and developed, and when the binding elements are intentionally cultivated, it allows a suite of partners to turn in lockstep, opening the door to realizing conservation outcomes we seek for our landscapes.


How Lands Trusts Are Securing Collaborative Capacity Investments

The Catalyst Fund is one program that strives to fill existing collaborative capacity investment gaps. Launched by the Network for Landscape Conservation in 2019 with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Fund grants to multi-organizational partnerships that are working towards long-term conservation goals and are landscape-based, community-grounded and collaboratively governed.

Land trusts can be ideally positioned to convene such partnerships, given their deep connection within local communities and their ability to bridge to larger regional (or national) conservation entities. In northcentral Florida, the North Florida Land Trust (NFLT) has convened 25 organizations into the Ocala-to-Osceola (O2O) Wildlife Corridor Partnership, focusing on a landscape stretching 100 miles between two national forests. The O2O Partnership used a Catalyst Fund grant to grow coordination capacity. Hiring a dedicated coordinator, housed at the NFLT, has allowed the partnership to solidify its structure, improve partner engagement and information-sharing, and accelerate conservation planning—all of which has allowed the Partnership to build momentum towards its goal of conserving 140,000 acres by 2050.

In the Hudson River Valley, the Hudson Highlands Land Trust has convened 16 partners into the New York Highlands Network. A Catalyst Fund grant allowed the Network to invest in strengthening its systems and infrastructure. Specifically, the Network created a cloud-based land project tracker system to efficiently and effectively share information about priority conservation projects, improving internal communications across partners. This investment has accelerated forward progress for the Network as it works to increase connectivity throughout the New York Highlands.

These vignettes of land trusts leveraging the Catalyst Fund to strengthen multi-organizational landscape partnerships belie the reality: Collaborative capacity funding remains an unmet national need. Recognizing this, the Network for Landscape Conservation is envisioning what a federal ‘National Landscape Partnerships Fund’ might look like, appropriately scaled to provide longer-term and expanded investments that empower multi-organizational partnerships to build—and sustain—the collaboration necessary to address landscape-scale needs for people and nature.

This is a unique moment: the importance of landscape efforts is more manifest with each hundred-year storm and mega-fire, and an unprecedented amount of federal project-delivery funding is emerging. In this context, a key fundraising question will be: How can we secure collaborative capacity investments to work equitably and effectively at the appropriate scale to meet the scale of the challenges we face? Clearly articulating what collaborative capacity is, and showing how programs like the Catalyst Fund are empowering landscape partnerships in accelerating their work, will be critical to ensuring we meet this moment.


Jonathan Peterson is program manager for the Network for Landscape Conservation. He presented on the topic of capacity funding at Rally 2022 with co-presenters Bob Bendick, Director, Gulf of Mexico Program at The Nature Conservancy, and Network for Landscape Conservation Coordinating Committee member; Katrina Shindledecker, Executive Director of the Hudson Highlands Land Trust; and Kimberly Tillman, Partnerships Coordinator at the Alachua Conservation Trust (formerly O2O Partnership Coordinator at the North Florida Land Trust).

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From Land Trusts to Landscapes: How Capacity Funding Brings Conservation to Scale