Measuring Return on Conservation

– Joni Carswell

“One accurate measurement is worth a thousand expert opinions” – Grace Murray Hopper

Each year at our annual Conservation Summit we gather leaders from conservation, community, and industry to discuss the future of conservation in terms of our natural resources, people, and economic growth. We’ve looked at how collaboration, new models, creative problem solving, and macro trends are shaping the future. One topic that is always top of mind is the way returns are measured and reported.

Most in these discussions agree that the future of conservation depends on returns realized – the traditional business aspect, if you will. Agreement becomes murkier as we dive into the definition of return and what this means regarding conservation. Discussion circles on whether it’s a traditional business ROI of straight currency value, a resource return measured in acres, gallons, tonnes, etc., a people return measured in the number of people impacted, or a combination of all three. The conversation is even more convoluted as leaders discuss and question tools and resources to evaluate return. To date, there is no standard tool or measure across industries, states, or nations, though the UN Sustainable Development Goals act as a rallying point and we look forward to thoughts on standardization coming from #COP26 workgroups.

Texas is an interesting place to host discussions on conservation and its expected return. Texas is home to seven of the 15 fastest growing cities in the U.S. and Texas’s population has increased over 48% in the last decade alone. Pairing this mass growth and urbanization with the fact that less than 1% of Texans are landowners results in an increasingly diminished connection to nature and our natural resources. Adding Texas’s business leadership in multiple industries makes this picture even more complex. Leaders working in this space are bridging backgrounds, knowledge levels, short-term and long-term goals.

Given the level of interest in measuring and realizing return, it’s somewhat surprising that tools and methodologies are not more standard or utilized. In our work with conservation partners (501c3 organizations), we hear that lack of time, expertise, and resources to gather and monitor the data industry seeks in justifying conservation projects hinders funding and progress. There’s a gap in vocabulary and a lack of a universally accepted approach. Funding is not readily available for the evaluation and measurement aspect of a project. There’s an inability to show that conservation is indeed a profitable endeavor be it measured in currency, people, natural resources, or all of the above.

In our work with industry, we hear there’s frustratingly little data and a lack of standardized framing necessary to utilize on-the-ground conservation for progress towards long-term ESG goals. We hear that proper metrics and evaluation methods have not been scoped within a project. Whether it’s water quality and quantity, carbon capture or sequestration, air quality, or a myriad of other benefits, projects must show that there’s a business side to the conservation that drives long term, bottom-line benefits for both business and natural resources. 

Hurdles to Measuring Return

Conservation View Industry View
Lack of Time Lack of Data
Lack of Expertise Lack of Standard
Lack of Tools Vocabulary Gap
Lack of Standard Lack of Impact Projection
Vocabulary Gap Lack of Trust in Data Presented
Lack of Funding for Analysis and Monitoring Money only approved for project work

So how do we do this? How do we continue to innovate while also standardizing the way we measure and report returns? How do we close the gap between conservation and industry? Our Summit in November 2021 hosted a panel that provided examples and drove discussion on this topic. 

The onus is on each of us to engage in dialogue with intent to understand our partners and share best practices for estimating, monitoring, and reporting on the full return of our conservation efforts. Through our work with the Texas Water Action Collaborative and our Conservation Partner network, we’re compiling the resources, tools, and services that are available for us to drive progress. This said, project funding must allow for the capacity and tools needed to deliver desired results metrics. Our conservation partners need to scope this into their funding requests, while our industry and community partners need to expect and allow for capacity and tool building to receive reporting of desired metrics to meet their ESG goals.

As we continue to grow, it’s critical that conservation and industry work together to share best practices, fund projects in full (including metrics and evaluation), and engage in dialogue that continues our forward momentum. It’s essential that we work together to frame, fund, and execute broad reaching conservation programs and projects. The first step in this is understanding the returns realized in investing in these conservation projects and programs. This understanding will drive further investment and activity.  

What tools, resources, and services do YOU think should be part of this discussion? What examples do YOU see as best in class that others should follow? Email us your thoughts at!


  • Return on Conservation: The return realized by investing in conservation encompassing positive financial, people, and natural resource impact.
  • Conservation: The act or process of conserving. The efficient management or restoration of wildlife and of natural resources such as forests, soil, and water.
  • Sustainability: The process of maintaining change in a balanced environment, in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations.