Seven years ago the Richard King Mellon (RK Mellon) Foundation began working with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) to develop a comprehensive business plan that targets investments on ecological restoration in Western Pennsylvania. This process involved deep collaboration with stakeholders across the region with intimate and extensive knowledge on the species and threats to critical habitat and environmental health in specific geographies. These stakeholders provided cardinal information to navigate the diversity and nuances of landscapes, which species to use as indicators for threat and recovery, and which metrics to track to indicate success.
Beyond partnering with the restoration and conservation professionals to unite the groundwork strategy, RK Mellon recognized a need for software to make best use of all of the the data generated through these information gathering exercises. In the first phase of the business plan, RK Mellon partnered with Trust for Public Lands to develop an online tool to help determine the best locations for future investment projects that could meet the new business plan goals. This tool incorporated feedback and data sets collected through the business plan development process. Thanks to the investment in thorough business planning, development of decision-making tools, and commitments by outstanding work by grant recipients RK Mellon determined that they met or exceeded the original business plan goals.
“Our grant making is only as good as the grantees RK Mellon works with,” explains Brian Hill, Senior Program Officer at Richard King Mellon Foundation. “While the first five years revolutionized our ability to make meaningful strides in conservation and environmental improvement, there was an unavoidable shortcoming in terms of tracking the work itself. We had not set up a system to track all of the work being done by the individual organizations to meet the business plan goals. When the time came to report progress of the investments to the board of trustees, our staff had to painstakingly comb through reports to collect, interpret, and attempt to standardize the critical information on project location and impact. For the next iteration of the business plan, we want to bridge this critical data gap.”
Entering Phase Two of the Western Pennsylvania Business Plan
As the Foundation enters the next decade of strategic investment, RK Mellon has invested in a two-part strategy for expanding the software systems supporting this work. The first is to update and expand use of Trust for Public Land’s scenario and prioritization Decision Support Tool. The second is to have individual grantees track and report results more clearly using The Commons’s FieldDoc platform.
Trust for Public Lands Decision Support Tool
Trust for Public Land collaborated with RK Mellon and NFWF to build the first iteration of the custom Decision Support Tool in 2016. TPL has continually updated the system to convey the most recent information collected and shared by partners on an annual basis. The system works so well because it has aggregated information created by top organizations and scientists working across the Western Pennsylvania region on niche topics. By putting all of this information in one place, as a suite of geospatial layers, planners can strategically assess where their efforts can have the greatest impact to meeting their desired goals.
The system is only accessible to approved members. Individuals that are interested in using the decision support tool before applying for funding must first be granted access to the system by RK Mellon staff.
Once within the system, users have access to the broad array of information that was used to create and update the Western Pennsylvania Business Plan. Users can go in and derive a front end assessment of potential projects based on specific sites by toggling on and off between a large variety of layers intended to help inform strategic investment decisions. For example, users can overlay watersheds and dynamic forest block locations. Forest blocks drive a lot of conservation funding considerations, so collectively viewing these areas on this map can point grantees towards more impactful project choices.
Along with basic layers, an exceptional assortment of partners across the region have generously provided their own planning and prioritization data. The analysis from the first five year business plan demonstrates the impact that symbiotic collaboration via information sharing can have on accelerating conservation successes. Layers from partners including the American Bird Conservancy, American Forest Association, Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, and others provide insighting information resulting from their own prioritization work.
Similarly, the recent addition of precision conservation data developed by the Chesapeake Conservancy will provide unprecedented precision flow paths, buffer restoration areas, and drainage areas at one meter or less precision. Viewed alongside parcel and planning data, this information enriches the decision-making capacity of individual users to determine the value of investing in restoration activities, conservation strategies, and best management practices at specific locations.
Users sorting through all of the information can generate unique, robust reports for outcomes based on threats, partner plans, and outcomes. Through these parcel reports you can get a front end assessment of what the data is telling us about doing conservation work in this area. And RK Mellon staff can gather front end information to better assess the projects that they will ulimately fund.
FieldDoc: Project Tracking and Reporting Tool
New in 2021, FieldDoc will support metric tracking for RK Mellon’s Western PA Business Plan. Implementation and planning work on a continuum. TPL’s decision support tool is a fantastic resource to use to prioritize and plan a project. FieldDoc offers a complementary and next logical step to record where the actual work is planned or occurring on the landscape. This digital filing of work should always be a fundamental component for restoration activities because it creates a chain of custody of the restoration and land protection efforts, shares explicit locations of where project implementation occurs, and measures the impact that the work will have on reaching target conservation goals.
In FieldDoc, each grantee is responsible for reporting where work is happening and how much progress has been made in installing best management practices. That work is standardized and structured so that critical data components such as project location and installation progress can be shared back up the chain from the field to the Funder. This takes the tracking and alignment work off of the shoulders of the Funders and provides additional tracking and reporting value to both the grantee and funder.
A FieldDoc project is a portfolio of the activities under a single grant. The system provides summary pages that roll up all of the information that you enter into your project and it will also provide users with nifty summary maps. As footprints for restoration work or land protection activities are added, they all show up on an overview map. This will summarize all of the information that users are putting into the project and will be shared with the funder for display on a regional dashboard. We have included focal geographies in support of transparently sharing where what regions are actual funding priorities for RK Mellon.
Along with delineating the locations of project work, FieldDoc excels at tracking best management practice installation metrics. There are two types of metrics in FieldDoc. Automated metrics are derived from a model that was developed by Drexel University’s school of Computer Science and Informatics to estimate annual load reductions of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment based on best management practice implementation.
Manual metrics are identified by and reported on as a grantee. We’ve linked each of the Western PA business plan metrics to the available practices in FieldDoc so that users can see which relevant metrics should be included for a given practice.
From the summary page users enter all of the best management practices associated with the proposed grant. For each BMP, a user sees a summary of the information related to the BMP in view. For example, users can select a Forest Buffer as their intended installation practice from the master list of available best management practice types. The user will delineate the footprint within FieldDoc and then enter in relevant metric information tied to the BMP. The entire process is context specific so the load reductions are specific to the identified BMP as well as the funding program. Ultimately, all of the information that a grantee enters and shares will be curated specifically to meet the existing lists and goals for the Western Pennsylvania Business Plan Program.
FieldDoc Practice Types
FieldDoc standardizes individual programs’ nomenclature in regards to installation work as well as metric tracking. This is important from a modeling side because to accurately estimate the reductions our system needs to know the practice in order to inform the assumptions in the model. From the funder’s perspective, this is also important because it streamlines the analysis, benchmarking of investments to the business plan, and reporting progress to the board of trustees. For users, we recognize that our list of practices may differ slightly from how your activities are referenced in the field. As such, FieldDoc provides a reference list of practices with definitions to help users identify the correct selection.
Once a grantee is awarded funding, the FieldDoc project that was created at the proposal stage becomes the reporting vehicle. Throughout the life of the project grantees can add installation reports to update a project status in terms of the metrics and work that has been committed for completion. As one enters reports, all of the respective metrics are updated at the practice, project, and program levels, giving RK Mellon a real time look at implementation work as it is reported.
Where does all of the project information go?
FieldDoc Administrators, aka program funders, can view all of the respective work entered by applicants and grantees that is being done on the ground through a custom summary dashboard. As more grantees fill out and update their projects, the program summary and project pages will simultaneously update. Administrators can update project statuses. When users are awarded funding support, the project will be updated to “active” and the “draft” status will disappear. This work will then be automatically added to the private mapping view and the public dashboard view that TPL is hosting within their portal. This is valuable because users can see the respective work that’s happening as a result of these investments.
As RK Mellon awards grants to partners across Western Pennsylvania, the FieldDoc team looks forward to seeing their dashboard populate with new project installation locations and progress towards individual metric targets. Investments intended to improve the natural world do not happen overnight, but tools like Trust for Public Land’s Decision Support Tool and The Commons’s FieldDoc offer immediate insight into the progress being made to address these critical environmental challenges.