Conservation Campaign Tools

Learn more about innovative political and public advocacy campaign tools that have been applied to generate funding and desired policy outcomes.

What is a Conservation Campaign?

Conservation Campaigns are political and public advocacy campaigns to generate funding and policy outcomes at all levels of government, whether it’s a legislative initiative, a ballot measure, or broader public affairs/ issue advocacy campaign. All campaigns are focused on changing someone’s behavior such as getting an elected official to vote yes, a water utility to increase fees for a water fund or a voter to support a water fund. Conservation campaigns are part science and part art. The science involves proven public affairs research and tools such as polling, coalition building and power mapping to determine the political viability of public funding or policy outcomes. The art is how you use that research to influence your target audience to increase public funding or policy. Below, we highlight the science side of the top public affairs research and tools that you might use.

What is types of research might be undertaken?


    Feasibility research is often a first step towards assessing public funding viability. This research is a thorough analysis of the state’s (or another political jurisdiction’s) fiscal, political, social and electoral make up. It is key to identifying the legal route to success, identifying funding mechanisms available and it also serves to identify problems and barriers to success as well as opportunities. Through 27 years of experience, we have found that the funding mix chosen by each state or jurisdiction is uniquely local. Feasibility research will typically take between 3-6 months depending on available resources and the scope of work.

    Public opinion research is essential to determining motives, values and gauging attitudes toward conservation and support for financing mechanism. This research can include polling, stakeholder/elite interviews, focus groups and online qualitative boards. Polling, in particular, is the foundation for testing funding mechanisms that are palatable with voters, and determining strategic communications to promote cohesive and effective messaging alignment. This non-partisan, analytical research provides a strong foundation to help elected officials and decision makers understand the connections between their constituencies and our natural world. Poll after poll shows that water and protecting our watersheds, lakes, rivers and streams consistently rank as a top priority with voters. It is always better to poll early to assess the political, economic and social landscape in order to determine if timing is right to proceed with a water fund project.

What a Poll can Tell You

Public opinion research that is well-designed and strategically planned is essential to understand the context for public funding discussions and provides a benchmark for where conservation ranks in the multitude of public priorities. Polls also:

  • Provide a baseline understanding of people’s values such as health and quality of life and provide a gateway to tie water to the already held beliefs and values.
  • Test initial support for potential public funding and/or policy, and determine how additional information and arguments (pro and con) affect that support.
  • Identify the threshold of the public's willingness to pay for conservation programs.
  • Assess different reactions to a variety of specific potential funding mechanisms (bonds, taxes, fees, etc.).
  • Evaluate relative levels of public support for specific conservation programs that might be funded.
  • Identify the most effective themes and messages to use; and messages that could be used effectively to oppose the conservation program (see below for more on message development).
  • Determine which people or organizations will make the most effective messengers.

Choosing a Pollster

Choosing the right pollster(s)is very important. You should look for the following characteristics in a pollster(s):

  • Experience with environmental and/or conservation ballot measures;
  • Reference/recommendations from local partners or community leaders;
  • Someone who will work with you through-out the campaign; and
  • If you need to persuade a key official with your polling data, such as the governor or a legislative leader, consider using a pollster that the key official uses and trusts.

Often, it is helpful to have a team of pollsters, especially in the U.S., to ensure that the poll covers both Democratic and Republican perspectives so that it is received by politicians and the public as bi-partisan.

  • Identify the most effective themes and messages to use; and messages that could be used effectively to oppose the conservation program (see below for more on message development).
  • Determine which people or organizations will make the most effective messengers.


Coalition building is a comprehensive process that requires the campaign team to consider a range of strategic questions. For instance, the team may want to consider:

  • Who do you need as partners in order to be successful?
  • Will any groups be offended if they are not invited to collaborate?;
  • What are the Conservancy’s strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats in a given community?
  • What are the Conservancy’s capacity limitations for the campaign?;
  • Who is the opposition to the campaign?; and
  • What will the return on investment be of pursuing different opportunities?

An important lesson learned for Water Funds is to not separate out science from politics. The role of public funding and political considerations should be involved at the onset of exploring the potential for a Water Fund since the political and economical state of play will determine the viability of bringing a water fund to fruition.

Message Development

Message development entails three aspects: (1) the message itself; (2) ensuring that the right audience is being targeted and (3) that the right messenger is being used. All messaging should be poll-driven and tested. A few key guidelines for ensuring successful strategic communications include:

  • Limit your communications to no more than 2 or 3 messages. More than that is too confusing.
  • All messages should support the Water Fund’s core goals.
  • Messages themselves are not necessarily sound bites; they are the ideas that you are trying to get across.
  • Messages are reinforced by the sound bites, phrases, statistics, and anecdotes.
  • Messages take time to create; do not rush the process.
  • Messages don’t change frequently; for messages to have impact, they have to be repeated over and over.
  • Messages can be tailored for specific audiences, while still remaining constant and cohesive.
  • Consistent messages should permeate all of a Water Fund’s communications efforts, not just the media.
  • Messages must be simple. They are ideas that can be explained in a sentence or two.
  • All messages are strategic and are designed to move the audience to support a water fund.
  • When designing your message, start where the public is on the issue, not where you want them to be.
  • Remember that the public wants to know: (1) What’s in it for me? (2) How much is it going to cost? (3) How does the proposal align with my core values?


  • Power Mapping

    One key to public funding and policy is understanding the politics at play and who the right players are. Power mapping is a visual tool to identify the best individuals to target to promote change. The role of relationships and networks is very important when seeking public funding and/or policy. Hire an in-state public affairs firm to help identify the top influencers in the state (legislators, staffers, opinion leaders, special interest groups, industries, think tanks, universities, journalists, bloggers, issue experts, etc.) along with the specific names of individuals and their social media addresses in order to build an engagement plan and push content to.
  • Economic Benefits / Return on Investments

    Economic benefits research is important for securing public funding for conservation especially for decision-makers whose primary focus is allocating scarce resources while simultaneously attempting to appease special interests and their constituencies. An economic analysis detailing the cost effectiveness of nature-based solutions is an important tool to inform the discourse, and it is also foundational to building a case for improved ecosystem management and investments. Economic research can answer several questions depending on the data available including return on investment or cost avoidance.
  • Needs Assessment and Case Statements

    Decision-makers may also require a needs assessment or case statement that explains why a water fund or new conservation funding is needed and approximately how much is needed. A case statement may also present additional information about the benefits of land conservation, such as the ecosystems services provided by conserved land. These reports are most valuable if they are designed as short, eye-catching, easy-to-read pamphlets or brochures. These fact-based documents will describe state or county land conservation needs for the general public, agency staff, and policy-makers. Typically, such reports are written by consultants familiar with the land conservation needs of a particular state or locality and produced by professional graphic designers.
  • Telephone & Online Town Hall Forums

    Moderated town hall forums target specific demographics to share information and solicit opinions through questions and answers and instant polling. These online forums can feature PowerPoint presentations of data. Elected official, thought leaders and experts and coalition partners also can be invited to attend.
  • Media

    Both earned and paid media play a crucial role in Conservation Campaigns. New possibilities include digital ads in media, policy blogs, and/or ads geo-targeted to state capitals to draw target audiences to special content sites; sponsored content, native advertising, and promoted tweets on articles, infographics, and video that appear along – and appear similar to – journalistic content on news sites and blogs; content that can be boosted to the top of the feed in Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn; or sponsoring bloggers where the blogger covers an issue in their own voice (a note may indicate that the story was sponsored, but the opinions expressed are those of the bloggers’).

Important caveats for the use of Conservation Campaign Tools

A Conservation Campaign requires the support of qualified professionals who hold relevant experience scoping, designing, and implementing conservation campaigns. While Conservation Campaign Tools can help to provide critical insights into the potential for a desired policy or funding outcome, they have limitations. Specifically, note that:

  1. Technology changes quickly.

    Traditional campaign practices may become less appropriate as technology advances. For instance, changes in cellular technology directly affect how people were traditionally reached to complete public opinion polls (i.e. over landline phones). As such, campaigns must continuously be adapted to meet ever-changing public behavior.

  2. Use of Conservation Campaign Tools is only half the battle.

    Just doing a poll or feasibility study is not enough. This is not a checklist of activities. It is how you apply and use these tools that will determine your success.

  3. Each step of the process could serve as a 'No-Go'.

    Decision-points will arise throughout the campaign’s development and implementation (e.g. after implementing different Conservation Campaign Tools). Any of these decision-points could serve as a clear indication that the challenges of developing a Water Fund are significant and warrant further deliberation before proceeding. .

The X Factor: Money

While these tools are critical to success of any Water Fund, they cannot be implemented without money. Many of the research tools can be funded with foundation dollars, but foundation money cannot be used for lobbying a legislative body or agency.

In the U.S., we have ballot campaigns which is the process of having voters vote directly to enact policy and/or public funding. Ballot campaigns are not available in most countries. This direct democracy tactic is only utilized in U.S. states and localities where available. Ballot campaigns consist of television, radio and online ads, direct mail and more. Depending on the campaign, television remains the most effective way to reach voters on the policy or funding you are trying to pass. It is also the most expensive medium. Radio, mail, phones, social media, and earned and paid media cost less, but still come at a significant cost. While each of these tools aren’t required to win, some combination of these tools will be necessary and come at a cost that must be planned for and dollars must be raised. Furthermore, campaigns can become dramatically more expensive if there is formal, organized opposition that is investing in defeating the conservation program you are trying to enact. It is much easier, with much less funding, to get a “no” vote than to get a majority or super majority vote of a legislative body or the public.

Return to Feasibility Governance section.