A conservation enterprise is a business established and run for the purpose of environmental and cultural conservation.

It differs from a social enterprise because social enterprises usually have social outcomes as their goals, tending to employ disadvantaged people or sell a product that benefits disadvantaged people. My writing here explores the rationale for the approach, as well as going through the options and practical steps for designing and setting up such an enterprise. There are five major steps:

  1. Strategy and industry choice
  2. Researching the market and the change agents
  3. Designing the business model and theory of change
  4. Iterative piloting, learning and resource acquisition
  5. Sustaining, scaling and replicating

USAID is currently the main organisation researching and promoting a conservation enterprise approach. They include sustainable livelihoods approaches in their definition, rather than just focusing on formal business, with the objective of environmental conservation.

There are a few other instances of organisations actively promoting a conservation enterprise approach, in particular Conservation Capital. African Wildlife Foundation also adopts this model and could be seen as one of the most effective examples of it, although their are question-marks over the ethics of removing management control of key environmental assets from the community or nation.


Conservation enterprises are the building blocks of a conservation economy. This was pioneered by an American organisation called Ecotrust in the mid 2000s and subsequently taken up by their Vancouver based offshoot, Ecotrust.ca. It was popularised in Cache by Spencer Beebe, the founder of the organisation, a book that I found motivating and inspiring, particularly its incorporation of story, art and other design principles into an economic narrative.

It is only by focusing our energy on the importance of place – of working with local communities, businesses and cultures to preserve the distinctive qualities that need to be protected and restored, of releasing the energy of local residents – that we can build on the local differences that are the very foundation of human prosperity

– Spencer Beebe

The concept was first introduced to Australia as a way of creating sustainable development for northern Australia by a group of scientists and community leaders in the report Cultural and Conservation Economy for Northern Australia, which continues to be widely sourced, although it suffers from a lack of business and economics expertise.

Aboriginal voices who contributed to the report stressed the importance of cultural economies, and went on to argue that actually, environmental conservation was a subset of cultural conservation. While Indigenous rights have been increasingly promoted in the international conservation agenda, cultural economies have yet to be incorporated into the conservation enterprise approach internationally.

a culture based economy…builds on contemporary Indigenous culture, knowledge and connection to country and….supports their ongoing maintenance whilst creating genuine opportunities for employment, income and business development


When I arrived at Larrakia Nation, fresh from MBA school in 2011, I was determined to put these concepts into practice, create more sustainable income for the organisation and achieve the community’s goals of cultural revitalisation and increased engagement with their traditional land and sea country. We setup a number of conservation  enterprises using this approach – including B2B cultural experiences and a hybrid ranger enterprise that continues to be successful, winning commercial services and government funding.


In Hanoi, I’m currently working on these models with a number of NGOs and social businesses looking to grow their earned revenue and achieve additional impact, as well as developing a conservation enterprise “toolkit” for wider use, which is the intent of my writing.

If you would like to tell me about your experience, ideas, or are interested in what I have to offer your organisation, please get in touch.

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