Case Study from Hawaii – Purpose, Vision and Values in Forest Bird Conservation

Case Study

Hanna Mounce is a colleague who leads the Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project. A very good summary article of the challenges which her team face is described in an Audubon article on their efforts to restore high altitude ecosystems in Maui, Hawaii. As a leader Hanna  has to ensure that her team are purposeful, buy into a meaningful vision which steers the direction and planning of work and have a common value system which makes sense to the team and can be recognisable to outsiders.

The purpose of the team is to protect and recover the island’s endangered species and ecosystems (particularly the forest bird species).

The vision is to restore high altitude ecosystems which will provide malaria free habitats protected against the effects of climate change. This vision is not so much about restoring lost landscapes (a ‘nice to have’ option) but is linked to and justified by the fundamental purpose of the project – these new landscapes will become the last wild refuge for endemic species as malaria encroaches lower altitude habitats.

The values of the team include a persistent belief that conservation of Maui’s endemic species is feasible and worthwhile. The species are not a lost cause, the work is not an excuse for a career in field conservation. The team members believe that the work is valuable, meaningful and will make a difference.


Jarvis B. (2015) How Scientists are Racing to Save a Rare Bird From Extinction. Audubon, Sept-October.

Acting fast to save species demands clarity of purpose

Simon Black – 

In recent years it has become clear that fast action is often required to save threatened species. This is important because even if sometimes we might prefer to think about options, make grand plans or gather scientific evidence, circumstances might not give us that luxury (Martin et al. 2012).

The only way to know the answer to  ‘what must we do now?’ is to have a clear PURPOSE in our work (Black, 2015). For example, if we need to save the orange bellied parrot, then what we must do today is something concrete in line with that mission; if emergency action is required (such as bringing wild individuals into protective captivity for an accelerated breeding programme), then that must be carried out. By contrast, if conservation managers decide to conduct monitoring and devise a recovery plan they must consider…WHAT WILL MONITORING AND PLAN CREATION DO TO RECOVER THE SPECIES NOW?

The Panamanian golden frog is one example where extreme measures were taken (removing all individuals from the wild to evade fatal chytridiomycosis infection) simply to save the species (Gagliardo et al., 2008).

Of course, the action itself must be purposeful. The capture in 1980 and care of the juvenile male Yangtze river dolphin (or Baiji) known as Qi-Qi did not progress to become a breeding programme, despite a female being captured in 1996. The male died alone in captivity in 2002, and the species was considered extinct by 2007 (Turvey et al., 2007). The purpose of Qi-Qi’s capture appears to have been to act as an ambassador (i.e. an exhibit) of the species rather than to save the species itself.

One must identify the correct purpose of work in order for that work to serve the right system (i.e. the species and its ecosystem), not a corporation, or an NGOs publicity machine, nor a person’s career, nor a particular political system, nor a university’s research programme.


Black S. A. (2015) A clear purpose is the start point for conservation leadership. Conservation Letters, 8(5), 383–384. doi: 10.1111/conl.12203

Gagliardo, R., Griffith, E., Mendelson, J., Ross, H., and Zippel, K. (2008). “The principles of rapid response for amphibian conservation, using the programmes in Panama as an example”. International Zoo Yearbook 42 (1): 125–135.

Martin, T. G., Nally, S., Burbridge, A. A., et al. (2012). Acting
fast helps avoid extinction. Conservation Letters, 5, 274-280.

Turvey, Samuel T.; Pitman, Robert L.; Taylor, Barbara L.; Barlow, Jay; Akamatsu, Tomonari; Barrett, Leigh A.; Zhao, Xuijiang; Reeves, Randall R.; Stewert, Brent S.; Wang, Kexiong; Wei, Zhuo; Zhang, Xianfeng; Pusser, L.T.; Richlen, Michael; Brandon, John R. & Wang, Ding (August 7, 2007). “First human-caused extinction of a cetacean species?”. Biology Letters (Royal Society Publishing) 3 (5): 537–40. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2007.0292

Vision and goals: what is it all about?

Simon Black –

A key area of capability for a leader is to have a strong sense of purpose for the work that they and their team must undertake. Questions like ‘Why are we here?‘, ‘Why are we doing this work?‘ can be answered with a statement of purpose. In conservation it might be something like ‘ to recover and conserve species X’, or ‘to recover and protect landscape Y’, or ‘to restore ecosystem Z’. That purpose must be reasonably within the control of the team; so a purpose defined as follows: ‘to prevent global climate change’ would be unhelpul and difficult to operationalise (so not really worth the paper it is written on).

Durrell is one organisation which has a clear purpose (they call it a mission) “saving species from extinction“. In any work the organisation undertakes, people can legitimately ask – ‘does this work help save species from extinction?’ The assumption is that if the work does not deliver this expectation, it is the wrong work to be doing.

WWF’s mission is “to stop the degradation of the planet’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature.” This sets a broad expectation but is perhaps less easy to operationalise (or at least to discriminate what to do and what not to do).

In understanding purpose, we need to help understand the work we do – and to have that understanding which is common across the team. In Durrell there may be debate about which species to save from extinction, but thereafter what to do can be carried out. This type of decision making is perhaps less easy to agree with the WWF mission – there are likely to be a myriad of other criteria which are necessary to prioritise WWF’s work.

FFI describe their mission as “To act to conserve threatened species & ecosystems worldwide, choosing solutions that are sustainable, based on sound science & take into account human needs“. This is clear, but perhaps also includes qualitative criteria worthy of debate – what is ‘sound science’, what should we do if effective conservation can be achieved without science? What if human needs contravene the conservation of species, or drive unsustainability? What if sound scinece is unsustainable? These are legitimate questions.

Vision then builds a view of the future – and this is a move-able feast driven by the context we are working in; HOW we conserve species might involve building a secure captive population far from harms way, but a different vision might have the population restored in its native habitat, another vision might see the population trans-located to a new uninhabited location; it all depends on context. Which vision is most likely to inspire others to engage with the work and which will also ensure the purpose of the work?

With these things in mind a leader can set short-term goals and learn more about the system that is being worked with.

In the Black, Groombridge Jones paper is a description of some areas to consider in developing purpose, vision, goals and plans:

  • Establish shared long-term vision & common sense of purpose.
  • Identify what is happening/affecting biodiversity.
  • Set clear, short-term achievable goals.
  • Ensure flexibility in all levels of planning.
  • Consider view of stakeholders and partners.
  • Start plans by understanding current performance v purpose.
  • Ensure that staff embrace project aims and culture.
  • Get people to measure performance in relation to project aims.
  • Advocate good governance, particularly in complex projects.
  • Ensure congruency between plans, action and results.

Further Reading:

Black, S. A., Groombridge, J. J., & Jones, C. G. (2011a). Leadership and Conservation Effectiveness: Finding a Better Way to Lead. Conservation Letters, 4, 329-339.

Tell me: what’s your purpose?

Simon Black –

To be clear about our work, who (or what) we are serving, how to do the work, how to change, what improvement looks like – we need to be clear about one thing:


Peter Scholtes was one of the clearest writers on this concept; for him, like Deming before, everything starts with purpose;  “Without a purpose there is no system”.

Until we have clarity of purpose, all we are doing is completing sets of tasks. ‘Purpose’ should be embedded in our thinking about work, people and organisations. We should be focused on the needs of the sepcies and ecosystems of concern. If not our goals can easily drag us off-track.

Scholtes offers a very clear analogy to illustrate the importance of purpose:

“Cleaning a table cannot be a system until the purpose of the clean table is made clear. A table clean enough to eat on requires one system of cleaning. Clean enough to dance on requires another. Clean enough to perform surgery on requires yet another. Everything starts with purpose.

“What is your purpose?” is the most useful question one can be asked. 

When thinking this way, conservation work is transformed from being seen as tasks to carry out, to become a reason to do something which adds real value; a framework for making decisions and seeking ways to improve.

Read more:

Black, S.A. & Copsey, J.A. (2014). Purpose, Process, Knowledge and Dignity in Interdisciplinary projects. Conservation Biology. 28 (5): 1139-1141. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12344

Deming, W. E. (1993) The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, second edition. MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Scholtes, P. R. (1998) The Leader’s Handbook: A guide to inspiring your people and managing the daily workflow, New York: McGraw-Hill

Scholtes P.R. (1999) The New Competencies of Leadership, Total Quality Management, 10: 4&5, S704-S710.