Is there something wrong with current conservation incentive programs? Incentive programs, including payments for ecosystem services, induce people to engage in conservation behaviors in which they might not otherwise participate. Often, the key motivator is money. This idea is intuitive, appealing, and easy to implement provided an organization has a sustainable funding source. So, the first perspective is that there is nothing wrong with incentive programs—they are a very efficient and effective tool to achieve conservation outcomes.
No, there’s nothing wrong. If organizations have reconciled to simply pay people for the services their land provides similar to the way we pay for parking spaces in populated cities, then incentive programs work just fine they way they are. I pay you, you help protect biodiversity or water quality, and I pay you again when I want continued or increased effort from you. All a conservation program needs to do in this case is determine the right price to pay for the service. This approach assumes that price is a sufficient motivator of behavior.
Yes, there's something wrong. We argue in a recent paper that an emphasis on price as a motivator oversimplifies the type of behavior the conservation community is trying to create or sustain. A more sustainable future involves creating an *ethic of stewardship* in people, and this is where incentive programs can fail. Stewardship behaviors are inherently driven by one’s internal motivation to “do the right thing,” but payments can shift our motivation for why we engage in a behavior from a social or moral motivation to doing it “for the money” (an external motivation).
People behave differently based on the context of the exchange (moral vs. monetary). Behavioral economists James Heyman and Dan Ariely have explored the differences between what they call social markets and monetary markets, and argue that when payments are offered in an exchange that is typically moral, people instead invoke frames and norms of market exchanges. That is, the “do the right thing” request becomes a “for the money” transaction. Indeed, they found that the individual’s perceived level of effort was higher for scenarios in which no payment was offered than one in which a small payment was offered. They also found that in social or moral exchanges that included money, people behaved in the same way as they do in market exchanges.
Heyman and Ariely along with a larger body of research by Bruno Frey, Edward Deci, and Richard Ryan show by-and-large that people who are externally motivated by money and rewards engage in a targeted behavior less often by their own choosing than others who are internally motivated. This evidence indicates that if you want to build a stewardship ethic, payments could be a dangerous tool to use.
All of this research together suggests that paying people to engage in conservation doesn’t automatically make them stewards. Rather, it makes them good suppliers. They likely consider the provision of ecosystem services not as their way to contribute to the health of an ecosystem, but as a market exchange, where the provision of a service is proportional to the money they receive.
Paying people to be environmental stewards. Are there ways to use financial incentives to engender a stewardship ethic given that biodiversity conservation isn’t salient to most working landowners and lack of money is a major constraint to helping?
The key to success is in the actual design of programs. Programs overly focused on motivating participation through payments neglect the basic nonmonetary factors that may undermine an individual’s stewardship ethic. These basic factors include feelings of choice, competence, and relatedness. When individuals have the freedom to choose, they are less likely to feel manipulated or that their freedom is reduced. Personal feedbacks of learning and achievement associated with individual growth are also integral to internalizing a behavior. This growth can be facilitated by the connections people have to the organization running the program or the other program participants. A focus on removing a financial barrier to engaging conservation behaviors during the design phase of the program while also helping an individual realize their own identity as an environmental steward can engender a stewardship ethic and more sustained engagement in the program or target behavior.
Designing programs to appeal to an individual’s need for financial compensation and their identity as a steward requires a shift in emphasis from payments to process. Human-centered program design starts with the philosophy that payments are often necessary but rarely sufficient to engender stewardship. Stewardship outcomes are enhanced by putting the needs of participants at the center of the program through in-depth research on potential participants. Once individuals’ needs are well understood, participatory processes are used to co-create the program structure with the participants. It is during this phase that the needs of the conservation target are overlaid with the needs of potential participants. Through this methodology, programs can be created that contain the nonmonetary elements along with the payment levels that attract people to the program. This creates a pull factor where individuals are drawn to the program because it is culturally meaningful and is aligned with their values. Human-centered design can help engender stewardship, while also leading to increased participation.
Programs that pay landowners for conservation outcomes are becoming a new norm. The principle is intuitive: paying landowners increases participation in biodiversity protection because it increases the benefit of doing so. That is, money motivates. But money isn’t everything to everyone. Understanding other sources of value by placing the needs of potential participants at the forefront can lead to increased participation and better environmental stewards.
Sorice, M.G., and C.J. Donlan. 2015. A human-centered framework for innovation in conservation incentive programs. Ambio 35:289–298.