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Adventure Travel Conservation Fund Quietly Achieved a Milestone in the Height of the Pandemic

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In the height of the pandemic, the five-year-old Adventure Travel Conservation Fund (ATCF) quietly achieved a milestone, crossing the half-million-dollar mark in grants awarded—enabled by members—to 33 nature and cultural preservation projects around the world.  Like many of its members who operate in the adventure travel industry, the ATCF was impacted by realities of the pandemic; and despite the obstacles, the ATCF completed two full grant cycles in response to the needs over the past two years. It was through this commitment to continue the grant cycle amid the pandemic challenges that $500,000 dollars were raised and granted in less than five years.

“ATCF is a visible example of the adventure travel industry coming together to support the wild and wonderful, but imperiled, destinations our businesses rely on,” says Soraya Shattuck, ATCF’s executive director.  In the past two years, ATCF funded many meaningful projects such as the protection of threatened species and Indigenous communities in Guyana, the last remaining elephants in Cambodia, humpback whales in Mexico, and wildfire recovery in Australia. “Many members stayed committed to the ATCF through financial hardship because they know our mission is more important than ever,” says Shattuck. 

ATCF 2021 Grant Winner, When the Whales Win, Everyone Wins, in Mexico.

What is the Adventure Travel Conservation Fund? 

The ATCF is a nonprofit that promotes wildlife and cultural preservation in adventure destinations around the world through small, high-impact grants and other strategies. It embraces nature-based climate solutions and is supported by members of the adventure travel and outdoor gear industries. While closely aligned and affiliated with the ATTA, it is a separate entity.  ATCF chair Steve Barker, co-founder of Eagle Creek, explains, “We are the nonprofit of the adventure travel and outdoor gear industries. Through their membership, our members—companies and individuals—are signaling the importance of protecting the places and communities we travel to.”

How the ATCF Works

Donations by members in the form of membership dues provide project funding. ATCF members nominate and vote on preferred projects for each yearly grant-giving cycle. After the grant award, projects are implemented, monitored, and impacts reported. 

How the ATCF grant cycle works.

What the ATCF Funds 

From waste infrastructure projects in Nepal to planting trees in Kenya, a homestay family training program in Palestine to outfitting rhino rangers in Namibia, ATCF grants fund projects that protect threatened communities, cultures, wild places, and animals. Organizations may include conservation groups, Indigenous groups, tour operators, accommodations, and other nonprofits. In 2021, ATCF began to prioritize projects whose work intersects three core focus areas: tourism, climate change, and local communities. Additionally, the ATCF funds projects that address the root cause of the problem and demonstrate quantifiable impacts. 

Wilderness Landscapes Inc. and tree planting project for a native future in Kenya–2021 ATCF Grant Winner.

“From Horse Guides to Conservation Stewards, Chile,” is an example of a project supported by ATCF in 2020 with a $10,000 grant. JB Haab, member of the board of grant recipient Friends of Cochamo, shared that ATCF grant funding not only helped achieve the goals of the project but helped generate more funding. “We had many arrieros (horse packers) in the local community who were out of work and facing lost wages due to the pandemic. These arrieros set to work building boardwalks, a bridge, guardrails, and a sustainable trail. Perhaps even more impressive was how ATCF funds galvanized support, spurring the arrieros and our sister organization, Organización Valle Cochamó to raise more money to pay for work that went over our budget, and also inspiring the next generation of conservationists to continue this work in the future.” 

How ATCF Began

Since the beginning of the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) in 2005, the adventure travel community has supported worthy conservation projects around the world. However, there was no clear place or structure to bring projects forward or find projects to support. “Before the ATCF, we would donate as we could or rally others to support great projects, but it was a bit random and there weren’t guidelines,” recalls Shannon Stowell, ATTA’s CEO. “After some time, and with needs continually arising, it became clear that the fundraising projects and conservation initiatives needed a home–the adventure travel industry needed its own nonprofit.” 

While the need was clear, the model took some time to develop. “We considered various approaches, but ultimately decided to model ATCF after the Conservation Alliance, a nonprofit whose founders are competitors in the outdoor gear market. We were inspired by the way they banded together to approach their shared conservation goals. Though competitors, they knew that together their impact would reach well beyond their individual efforts.  We wanted to see that in the adventure travel space at scale,” says Stowell. 

After a series of meetings, the Adventure Travel Conservation Fund was announced at the 2016 Adventure Travel World Summit (ATWS) in Alaska. Its founding members and first Adventure Leaders were REI, ATTA, Eagle Creek, ExOfficio, and Uncruise. Following the announcement, 34 travel companies signed on to be ATCF members. Within a few years, more than 75 members have joined, with companies such as MiiR, Eagle Creek, REI Adventures, Backroads, North Face, Toad & Co, and Grayl providing a higher level of support. 

Lake Atitlan Restoration & Community Ecotourism project in Guatemala–ATCF Grant Winner in 2021.

What is next for the Adventure Travel Conservation Fund? 

In 2020 and 2021, the nonprofit was in pandemic mode–it stayed lean and put a pause on collecting dues. But while the pandemic brought an onslaught of obstacles, it also brought a deepened commitment to the mission in a way that wasn’t predicted. “We realized how even more vital the mission was and we set to work on plans to re-align to a new reality and re-invigorate the organization,” says ATCF board member Norie Quintos, a communications consultant and contributing editor to National Geographic. A clear plan emerged:

  • convene and build the communities of nonprofit project grantees, tour operators, and outdoor gear companies to allow for problem-solving and sharing of solutions
  • lower barriers to membership and diversify the nonprofit’s income stream
  • re-launch project grants strongly tied to nature-based climate solutions
  • continue to facilitate, accelerate, and amplify giving through successful initiatives such as Adopt a Project, and targeted campaigns during emergencies
  • and invite every traveler, company, and organization in and adjacent to the adventure travel and outdoor space to be part of the ATCF community 

How to Get Involved

The most impactful way to support ATCF is through membership. The ATCF has restructured membership levels, including options for destinations, travel companies, media, and individuals, with new COVID pricing. Already, many companies have renewed their memberships including ATTA, and ATTA members such as MiiR, Toad & Co, REI Adventures, and Grayl. A new ATCF member, Paul Sarfati, founder of a Mexico-based travel company called Baboo shares, “I have seen ATCF’s work with many different projects, and it has the same values as Baboo. As a company, we’ve decided to donate at least one percent of our sales to ATCF every year. I think all travel companies should commit part of their profits to give back to the planet, and the ATCF is one to seriously consider. We need to be the change we want to see in the world.”

The ATCF and its work is a testament to the values the ATTA community holds. Our collective action to fund projects globally puts a spotlight on how travel can indeed be a force for good,” says Casey Hanisko, president of ATTA.

Volunteering with the ATCF is another meaningful way to contribute. “If you have a passion for travel and conservation, we can probably use your skills, whether that be in grant writing or marketing,” says Shattuck. 

The ATCF’s biggest annual fundraiser, the Travel Conservation Auction, will be from 27 June to 27 July 2022, hosted on the ATCF website. “We are still accepting auction donations such as trips and gear, and looking for everyone to bid and to share it widely,” says Shattuck.

Many destinations worldwide depend on tourism as their primary source of income. With the halt in travel during the pandemic, communities are turning towards extractive jobs as an alternative to tourism, in order to put food on the table. This includes logging, mining, and wildlife trafficking, all of which will result in devastating long-term impacts on travel destinations. As the travel industry recovers, it will be paramount to continue funding initiatives that safeguard communities and natural environments that the travel industry depends on for perpetuity. To learn more about ATCF and get involved, visit https://adventuretravelconservationfund.org/.

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