Protecting the Caucasus - Fundraising in Georgia
8th March 2020 By Imogen Ward
As a follow-up to our interview with WWF Armenia's Hayk Tiraturyan last year, we talk to Mariam Zabakhidze who works for WWF in Georgia and was part of the same wider AAW consultancy project to develop a fundraising and communications strategy for WWF in the region. Alongside Armenia and Azerbaijan, Georgia is part of the greater Caucasus region, one of 35 biodiversity priority hotspots identified by WWF as a result of the wild animals and plants they are home to. Mariam shares with us the challenges of fundraising in a developing market and the role of an environmental group in her part of the world.
Can you tell us about your role at WWF?
I joined WWF around three years ago as a Regional Fundraising and Partnership Manager, a brand-new role for WWF Caucasus involving raising funds from international donors and government funding, as well as engaging with the corporate sector and the general public.
We have just one fundraiser per country and I work closely with the conservation and senior management teams. I like to be as knowledgeable as I can about our projects for when I’m representing WWF, to convince others why our work is important and why other should be interested as well. As part of my job I also work with university and high school students to raise awareness of environmental issues and build partnerships. It makes me optimistic to see how motivated young people are, how they see the world and want to engage with it.
WWF was my first real work opportunity after finishing my masters in globalisation, business and development. I wanted to work on sustainability issues for an organisation that shared my values and was having an impact on issues that are important to me.
What are the main challenges of your job?
The most challenging part of my job is building relationships with different stakeholders. In my role I explore long-term ways of working with businesses. The notion of corporate social responsibility is something quite new in our region. Companies often want to just engage on a one-time ad-hoc campaign, but we prefer to work on a more strategic and long-term journey with projects that have a transformational element. Companies here are looking for tangible immediate results that they can post on social media or for PR activity. Many also see WWF as a branch of a well-established international organisation with global networks and funds which therefore doesn’t need their support. As a newcomer to fundraising it has taken time and effort to build networks, trust and relationships with the corporate sector – it is a long journey.
Government funding and international donors are areas that have the potential for much more significant opportunities for us. The way I approach this is by looking at identifying what their priorities are and where our interests overlap. One example is an international finance institution which gave funding to Georgia to develop infrastructure – we worked with them to ensure the construction of a bridge over a globally important river for surgeon habitat and conservation would be done in an environmentally friendly manner.
Another challenge is that not many international donors or foundations are looking to invest in Georgia. The complexity of the region, politically as well as in terms of economics, creates additional hurdles for fundraising, particularly for transboundary projects. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union the entire region has never been stable, clear or predictable. With the experience of 25 years working in the region, WWF has its own personal approach to working with governments in each country; we communicate in a subtle and diplomatic manner and we prepare for the worst case scenario, so that we are prepared ahead of the time. Personally, I have lived through one big revolution alongside protests and changes in power, but my older colleagues are more experienced in this matter– they remember even older times and remind me to be optimistic.
What is the role of WWF in the region?
WWF in Georgia plays an important role in bringing together the three countries of the South Caucasus region (Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan) as we work together towards building ecological networks, consisting of protected areas and ecological corridors. These countries all have some kind of political challenges with each other but over time, everyone understands the importance of coming together to build relationships and trust; this enables us to operate effectively in the region.
I see WWF’s role in the country as supporting the government to protect nature and to create a future where people live in harmony with nature. Many people still think and see environment protection and conservation and economic development and development as oxymorons. Yes we can build things, we need industry and to create jobs and livelihoods for people but we need to ensure that balance and checks are in place – not doing just what’s the easiest, but what’s better for us all.