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Our Interview with Swen Lorenz on the Budget Crisis at the Charles Darwin Foundation

Date: January 5, 2015

A few weeks ago, IGTOA launched an emergency "Trip Your Impact" fundraising campaign to help the Charles Darwin Foundation (CDF) weather a serious year-end budgetary shortfall. Our decision to launch the campaign was precipitated by a dire public warning issued by Swen Lorenz, the Executive Director of the CDF, in early December that the organization would likely have to close its doors for good before the end of the year unless it received a major injection of funds. To help avert the closure of such an important institution, IGTOA and an anonymous donor aggreed to match every dollar donated to the CDF on this page with a two dollar contribution of our own, up to $25,000. To date, we've raised a total of $17,000 and have now decided to extend the campaign until January 31st. 

We recently had the opportunity to chat with Lorenz about what triggered the crisis, where things stand now, and why travelers and the travel industry must support conservation and research in the islands. 

IGTOA: The Charles Darwin Foundation recently decided to launch an emergency fundraising campaign. The media reported that your organisation even considered to close down permanently. What had happened?

CDF: Our organisation faced a perfect storm. In July, the local authorities shut down our souvenir store, which had been providing income to the CDF for almost two decades and had recently been enlarged. They cited "unfair competition" with local shop owners as reason. By the time 2014 is over, this will have cost the CDF about $200,000 in lost income. The closure of the store put a halt to our efforts to run a special fundraising campaign based on a few creative ideas we had for our new donor wall, and for which we had budgeted several hundred thousand Dollars in income. And in the spirit of “When it rains, it pours”, around the same time we lost a long-agreed sale of our land in San Cristobal, literally days before the contract was due to be signed. All taken together, we lost nearly $1m in income in 2014. When you are running an organisation with a $3.5m budget and virtually no reserves, that's a huge blow. In December, CDF was nearly 3 months behind with salary payments. Such a situation eventually takes you to a breaking point. 

IGTOA: Early December was when you decided to go public with your problems and rally the world for support?

CDF: My decision to publicly question the survival of the Charles Darwin Research Station was controversial, but we were really were at the brink and it helped to mobilise our incredible network. Since then, we have raised over $400,000 from donors in 25 countries around the world. Without this campaign and the funds we received through it, it would probably have been impossible to keep the doors open until now. 

IGTOA: It still seems incredible that the biggest, oldest scientific organization operating in the Galapagos Islands could get into such a tight spot in the first place. 

CDF: In many ways, CDF has been the victim of its own success. We have a 75-80% approval rate for conventional proposals for scientific research funding. This leads to CDF receiving restricted funding, with a limited percentage of overhead. In Ecuador, we are perceived as a wealthy foreign NGO with unlimited access to international funding. And internationally, we are regarded as such an essential component of Galapagos conservation that our potential failure was unthinkable and everyone thought the Government of Ecuador must be contributing financially. However, we do not receive a single Dollar of the entrance fees to the Galapagos National Park. The CDF has to struggle to make ends meet. Our operating costs for the physical facilities in Galapagos, for administration, communication, capacity building and the countless areas where we are providing support to local institutions simply costs a large amount of money to maintain.

IGTOA: Will this not be entirely unsustainable in the long run?

CDF: Changing this has always been the no. 1 priority of my assignment. I opened the new souvenir shop, which lead to a significant increase in unrestricted income, but is currently caught up in a quagmire of local politics which we are working to resolve. I also recently launched the new membership program of the CDF, which allows us to raise money directly from visitors to the Galapagos and stay in touch with them through our newsletters and other information products. A new student program we launched together with Coast to Coast Education, a high-quality British education company, is also set to create significant income from us, but only from 2016 onwards as their programs have a 2 year lead time for bookings. In short, we are moving towards financial sustainability. But this requires a 3-5 year effort, and in the meantime we need help to get from A to B.

IGTOA: How does CDF compare to similar organisations?

CDF: We are unusual in the sense that we do not have a single university as backer. Most biological field stations around the world are an extension of a wealthy university. Our role doesn't allow this. We are, by statutes and through our history, the scientific advisor to the Government of Ecuador. It's widely accepted that having an independent scientific body advise the management authority of a national park is the best model in the world. But it requires us to be independent. We collaborate with a lot of individual universities, both from Ecuador and from abroad. But none are  writing large checks to us.

IGTOA: Many of the guests of our member organisations visit the Charles Darwin Research Station. Tell us something about operating the physical infrastructure.

CDF: Operating an organisation with 15 buildings and a whole variety of different facilities is another challenge that we have to deal with. The costs of operating in a remote archipelago are different from having a facility in the US or Europe. E.g., the internet connections costing $4k every month for a “basic” 2 MBit service, a cost which is incomprehensible in other locations, e.g. it is 500 - 1000 times more expensive than in New York. That said, try doing science without an internet connection! This puts a whole new meaning to the word "overhead". Much of our operating costs are for areas that don't appeal to conventional donors, but without which we simply couldn't operate.

IGTOA: This all sounds like an incredible challenge. Is it worth all the effort? 

CDF: The Charles Darwin Foundation doesn't only have an incredible history, it also has an exciting array of activities that are crucial for Galapagos right now and in the future. To give you an example, of our current 15 projects in science, all 15 are carried out in collaboration with the Galapagos National Park to work on urgent conservation priorities as defined by the Government of Ecuador. Seven of them are actually bi-institutional projects, i.e. CDF and Park are working hand in hand to solve a conservation issue. Three of our projects are carried out with the Galapagos Biosecurity Agency, an increasingly important organisation that prevents invasive species from coming to the island. 

IGTOA: Could you give a concrete example why CDF matters to the future of travel organisations and tour operators?

CDF: Can you imagine a Galapagos without Darwin Finches? It's CDF that is currently working on the project to eradicate Philornis downsi, a parasitic fly that has been decimating the local bird population and pushed several of them to the brink of extinction. CDF has raised funding, CDF employs the lead scientists, CDF coordinates the international network of collaborators that contributes to the project, CDF has the physical facilities for carrying out the work on this project, and CDF trains a large number of Ecuadorian students through letting them participate in these activities. There is no one else in Galapagos that could easily pick up such tasks. Our work is aimed at preserving the unique biodiversity of the Galapagos Islands, and we are doing so with few resources and many incredible success stories.

IGTOA: How can our members help?

CDF: We have had a partnership with IGTOA since 1996. Your member organisations and individual travellers have been contributing to our programs for almost two decades now, and we are extremely grateful to have such long-term partners. In the short-term, your members can help by contributing to our IGTOA / CDF fundraising campaign. For each Dollar donated, IGTOA will contribute another Dollar and an anonymous donor contributes a third Dollar. It's a 2:1 match funding campaign. Reaching a total of $25,000 in outside donations, for a matched $75,000 contribution to the CDF, would make a major difference for us. 

IGTOA: Will it also help to ensure the survival of the CDF?

CDF: Given the incredible success of our public campaign, we are starting the year 2015 on an optimistic note. We are trying to take the total from this public fundraising campaign to $500,000 within the next few weeks. Once that is reached, we have a number of further ideas how to make the CDF fit for the future. Your members can count on us to continue to work hard every single day, to preserve the Galapagos Islands for the future.  We are grateful for any kind of support we can get.

Matt Kareus

Matt is the Executive Director of IGTOA.


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