August 22, 2011

Case Study: Land Trust Alliance

The Land Trust Alliance, a national associated network of 1,700 land conservancies, provides a good example of how coming to a shared understanding about the dimensions of effectiveness can be of a value to affiliates and network leadership alike.

The Land Trust Alliance, a national associated network of 1,700 land conservancies, provides a good example of how coming to a shared understanding about the dimensions of effectiveness can be of value to affiliates and network leadership alike. In 2003, CEO Rand Wentworth focused the work of the organization on increasing the pace, quality and permanence of land conservation in America. As he put it, "Our new lens shifted everything from activities to outcomes. It meant a cultural shift for everyone involved."

This case study is part of the Define Effectiveness step in the "Preparing to Grow Your Network's Impact" guide.

Wentworth recognized that in order to make that shift, the network would need a set of externally credible—and internally relevant—standards that define what it means to be a high-performing land trust. To that end, the Alliance developed the Land Trust Standards and Practices through a network-wide, collaborative process. The problem was that many groups were far from actually implementing those standards. So the Alliance created a national accreditation program to publicly recognize groups that implemented the standards. That program, Wentworth said, has proven to be "a magnet to draw energy and attention towards organizational transformation.” To date, 130 of the Alliance’s larger conservancies have received accreditation, together representing 3.6 million acres. When the current applications achieve accreditation, about 54 percent of conservation land in America will be held by an accredited land trust.

What’s more, as Wentworth noted, the land trusts that are applying for accreditation are working differently. Local boards are more engaged; for example, they are paying greater attention to due diligence on the projects they pursue. Those land trusts also appear to be thinking more in terms of long-term results; they are allocating resources differently, with long-term stewardship and conservation in mind.

Importantly, each of the organizations that have received accreditation has made significant changes in its organization in order to become accredited. Some have become more purposeful about dedicating funds to support stewardship and defense of conservation land and easements. Others are fundraising to invest in the staff, training, and technology they need to document their work—a move that will help ensure that those lands can withstand legal challenges and be conserved in perpetuity.

Wentworth calls the network’s new focus “an enormous driver of organizational change and development.” Through a seemingly simple action—developing that common list of core dimensions of effectiveness—the quality of land management has improved in meaningful ways.

Interestingly, the Alliance’s core dimensions, and those of the other networks we studied, largely divide into two major categories: program dimensions that measure results of what the affiliate achieves in delivering the programs, and organizational dimensions that track how strong the affiliate is in an operational sense. Program dimensions for the Alliance include the monitoring of compliance with the legal regulations and rules imposed by local, state, and federal governments, for example. Organizational dimensions include the strength of each affiliate’s board, its fundraising ability, and its ability not only to meet legal requirements for protecting land, but also to go the extra step to ensure that there will be funds to continue to protect the land over the long term to ensure its biological value.

A note about accreditation:

The Land Trust Alliance is one of a few networks we studied that had also chosen to use an accreditation scheme with its members. With an accreditation process, affiliates choose if and when they want to participate. In a five elements approach, all affiliates would be included. Also, when a network uses an accreditation process, it’s clear throughout the network whether an agency is (or is not) accredited. With a five elements approach, affiliates may have less visibility into the performance of others.

Accreditation certainly can be a compatible approach to the five elements process. Accreditation may work particularly well for associated networks: relatively loosely structured networks where affiliates have distinct brands but similar missions.(Click here to download the chart "Definitions of network types" to see a how Bridgespan has classified various network types.) Accreditation may be most helpful for this type of network because it is a voluntary system that allows for some variation in program model, while requiring adherence to a set of best practices.

To learn more about the Land Trust Alliance accreditation scheme, please visit

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