Nature-based Solutions

Best Practices In Creating and Leading Nature-based Solutions Projects

Admittedly, upfront, this is our take on what constitutes best practices when it comes to creating and leading Nature-based Solution (NbS) projects with local partners. These partners have existing trust networks and have aggregated landowners pursuing resilience in the face of our changing climate. (BTW, coming soon will be a detailed look at how we evaluate local partners).

The complexity and challenges of creating successful Nature-based Solution (NbS) projects in pursuit of climate justice for communities call for a new leadership model.  There are five essential actions that can help:

  1. Practice co-creation
  2. Push to expand the project envelope
  3. Work at the field and political levels
  4. Embrace diversity in skills, backgrounds, and relationships
  5. Build trust through transparency and adaptation

As an organization, we do not claim to be unique in our approach. Instead, we focus on our work and our goal to ultimately improve the lives of 100 million people. It’s a big goal. It’ll take a while, but strong leadership will get us there.

1. Practice co-creation

Nature-based SolutionsWe began our journey late in 2020 believing that our local partner could build and manage NbS projects with their existing trust networks. We thought our role was merely to act as a bridge to the sources of capital to help our partners achieve resilience.  That can happen, but we have discovered that it is rare.

As we pointed out in our “Barriers To Entry blog, the lack of technical know-how and the complexity of rigorous carbon and financial modeling often preclude adequate project design. This is a problem for investors who, rightly or wrongly, want answers that the proponent cannot provide.

N4J’s role has evolved to become more of an advocate for the proponent. We help shape their project and describe it using language that the investor needs for its own internal purposes. We’ve learned that if you leave the interpretation of the proponent’s intentions largely to the investor, they’ll likely misinterpret it, get it wrong, or dismiss it outright.  

Such reactions only further isolate the local group and reinforce the notion that the people with the resources are only looking for opportunities that fit their narrow requirements.  We have spent time with the investors and have concluded that, in most instances, there is genuine interest in pursuing new NbS approaches. However,  N4J must act as a translator, re-packager, and facilitator in this exchange.

Co-creation is a slower process as it requires understanding what elements of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) combined with modern science,  can facilitate the adoption of an NbS approach.  Co-creation requires more of our time, as it’s as much about building trust as it is about getting the design right.  Co-creation has a higher likelihood of long-term success as it is a bottom-up approach that factors in culture, place, and history.

2. Push to expand the project envelope

Green Belt Movement, KenyaWhat is a project envelope?  The project envelope includes:

  • The geographic scope of an NbS project (i.e., the physical area);
  • The topical scope of what is rightfully and strategically included in a project;
  • The cultural scope of a project; and,
  • Creating space for innovation and risk-taking.

Most investors, but certainly not all, consider the project envelope to be only the geographic scope and amount of the carbon sequestration opportunity.  We’ve concluded that that approach undermines the need for a broader economic, social, and cultural approach that has a higher probability of success.  In other blogs, we have referred to this as the need to consider Climate Justice Additionality1.

As an advocate for a proponent on the topical scope of a project, we have found the need to make the case that carbon financing is just the catalyst that will lead to biodiversity conservation, jobs, skill development, and new opportunities for income diversification.  Resilience and long-term sustainability will only come about when a broader set of topics that are most sought after by a community are factored in.

The recognition and expansion of a project to factor in cultural elements empowers the proponent and reinforces ownership.  Without this empowerment, a project becomes merely a local exercise that is not integrated into the broader cultural context. 

Furthermore, expanding the project envelope as described above, also creates additional opportunities and the need for innovation.  We are all entering uncharted space and while innovations occasionally fail to achieve their goals, without innovation, we will not adapt to our changing climate.  A specific example is our restoration work in South Africa using a native plant called Spekboom. The innovation involves trying new nursery methods that are physically closer to the restoration sites, aiming to reduce young plant mortality rates and transportation costs.

1 Climate Justice Additionality is a term created by N4J to convey that carbon offset projects need both carbon additionality but also social justice/climate justice benefits that would not have occurred without the project investments.

3. Work at the field and political levels

Leadership in the NbS space also means that you bring hard lessons from the field to the political, policy, and legislative arenas that determine the rules of the game.  We at N4J believe that we have a powerful ally in government that is particularly interested in involving the private sector to address national problems caused by climate change.

However, the host government understandably wants actions on the ground that demonstrate the viability of an approach and provide credibility that can inform policy decisions.  For example, in Kenya, an important attribute of N4J for the Minister of Environment. Climate and Forestry was our planned fieldwork in Southeastern Kenya and the previous experience of N4J’s EVP for Global Partnerships, Mike O’Brien Onyeka.  Mike’s background enabled him to lead in creating an MOU with the Government of Kenya.  

The policy work sets the legislative context for how projects are implemented.  Leadership needs to engage with initiatives like LEAF, or the process by which countries develop their approach and framework to Article 6 of the Paris Accord.

4. Embrace diversity in skills, background, and relationships

I see one of my main jobs as N4J’s CEO is to create an enabling environment in which team members can bring their unique skills, perspectives, and experiences to bear on problems that, for many of us, we’ve never seen before.  It requires me to suspend my preconceived notions about what might work based on my experience.  We embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion as not only the morally right thing to do but a strategic expansion of our collective toolkit for taking on challenging problems and solving them.

Let me give you two examples.  Years ago, I was the Country Director of a small NGO working in Somalia’s refugee camps and cities.  It was there that I learned early on that when it came to engaging with the refugee commission, Mohamed Ali Noor, was a true expert in knowing how and when to talk to senior members of the government, despite his lack of formal education and deep knowledge of a particular topic. (See my origin story: Help People Where They Are) I hired him so that he could employ his skills and help the project flourish.

The second example is with N4J. Take a look at our Team Page and you’ll see a diverse set of board and staff members. It’s the most diverse organization I’ve ever been part of.  We are in the process of expanding our global coverage, and we are well on our way.  If I have a question about India, I can turn to Ganesan Balachander; about Canada, former Chief Steve Nitah, about Africa, Mike O’Brien Onyeka, and the Southeast US, I can call Patrick Brown. Zoraya Hightower is my go-to person for thinking about social justice and Nicci Mander is unparalleled in her ability to systematically approach problems and craft a path forward. Tying it all together as my primary advisor is Tess Zakaras. As you can see, at N4J, we have a multitude of varied experts ready to help me understand what is best in any given situation.

5. Build trust through transparency and adaption

Nature-based SolutionsTrust is a critical part of the N4J lexicon: Trust in the skills and knowledge of your colleagues (see last point), ensure that our local partners have existing Trust Networks,  engage at the pace of trust-building,  and trust that change in the face of complexity, as with all these NbS projects, is the only way to ensure long-term success and resilience at the local level.

We collect data on an ongoing basis and adapt our approach as needed to ensure rights are respected, funds are not squandered, and that we stay true to our mission to assist those impacted by climate change.

In Summary

Successfully implementing Nature-based Solution (NbS) projects, particularly in the context of climate justice, requires a multifaceted leadership approach. Key actions include rule with co-creation, expanding the project envelope beyond just geographic scope and carbon sequestration opportunities, working at both the field and political levels, embracing diversity in skills, backgrounds, and relationships, and building trust through transparency and adaptability. 

This comprehensive approach, demonstrated in actions on the ground and policies at the governmental level, has the potential to ultimately improve the lives of millions of people affected by climate change. It’s a big goal that will require time and persistent effort, but with strong, dynamic leadership that includes learning from both successes and setbacks, we believe we can get there.


  • Hank Cauley

    An engineer who later got a business degree to achieve social and environmental justice through existing economic structures. He’s started or built many organizations and projects. Hank lives in Falls Church, VA, with his wife and is an avid bee-keeper.

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