Five Trends to Watch

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Reflections on LTA Rally and the American Farm Land Trust Annual Conferences

This past fall I attended both the Land Trust Alliance Rally in Providence, Rhode Island, and the American Farm Land Trust Annual Conference in Lexington, Kentucky. I was struck by the dedication, talent, and passion the people I met bring to their conservation work.

I also observed a significant amount of overlap between the interests of land trusts and those I’ve worked with in past years in the areas of farmland preservation, food systems, community economic development, and social entrepreneurship. There are five critical trends that need to be on the radar screen of land trusts and those working on food system or community development issues.

1. Proliferation of Innovation

While the rapid pace of change can bring challenges, it also brings innovation. New technologies that reach and engage donors and volunteers is one area of innovation to watch, as is new social investing models that pair private capital with working lands to promote triple-bottom line performance.

In particular, there are clear similarities between existing investors working in sustainable timber and fisheries and new, emerging firms looking to invest in farmland by increasing the fertility of marginal or poorly managed lands. While the impacts of these innovations are not yet clear, the breadth of energy and creativity is sure to yield some surprising results worth paying attention to!

2. Heightened Importance of Focus and Strategy

A rapidly changing operating environment leads some organizations to lose focus in a race to become, “all things to all people.” This highlights the importance of re-focusing and targeting organizational strategy as the world changes around you.

While organizations need to communicate with many different audiences, they still need to clearly define and then fill their niche to be sustainable over time. In my local food work, I have seen agencies and organizations traditionally involved in public health, planning, economic development, human services, conservation, etc. – all move into the local food space. However, only those who are clear about the niche they want to fill and then structure their organizations to support that role seem to last more than 3-5 years.

3. The Healthy People, Healthy Places Convergence

A dramatic convergence of interest and excitement around local food systems, community conservation, and economic development is well underway. While still in its formative stages, the convergence is already driving new research (like food system assessment and economic impact analyses) and new partnerships (like community engagement, and public health-related integrations). Stay tuned for case studies of these innovative pilots in the coming year.

4. Engaging New Markets Means New Challenges

I heard many exciting conversations about engaging new or non-traditional audiences in conservation, for example adding farmers markets in near urban areas as part of a community conservation strategy. The adaptations organizations make to messaging and marketing and outreach practices in order to reach new audiences are often easy to see.

But those that are most successful also make changes that are less obvious, adapting their programs, internal systems, budgets, and sometimes staffing patterns to fully serve new markets. These internal shifts, which ranged from subtle to transformative, had much greater impacts on their success.

5. Stewardship, Stewardships, and Conservation

Of course, no conversation about conservation would be complete without mentioning stewardship! My love of finances and Microsoft Excel is a common joke around the office, but I find many people are focusing with great interest on the meaning and practical implications of perpetuity.

Many land trust coalitions and their members are realizing two things. First, the organizational model of acquisitions and its associated revenue stream is losing steam. In the not too distant future, many land trusts will shift from predominantly active conservation deals to predominantly stewardship-based organizations. Second, that their current stewardship endowments and their fundraising models are insufficient for this transition. Some exciting work is being done by LTA in this area, but every land trust may benefit from board-level discussions about their timeline for moving from conservation into stewardships and about the capacity of their stewardship fund and fundraising methods to fully cover the operational costs of stewardship.