Generating ideas, connections, and action

MAR-L: An Innovative Approach to Recruiting Fellows

Several years ago LLC had the opportunity to evaluate the Mesoamerican Reef Leadership Program (MAR-L). It was an important evaluation that laid some groundwork for a research project we initiated the following year to explore the topic of ‘Leadership and Large Scale Change.’  We were inspired by MAR-L. MAR-L set itself apart from many other leadership programs because they were not content to simply focus on building the leadership capacity of young entrepreneurial conservation leaders, which itself would have been an important endeavor. They were also willing to ask tough questions about whether the investment in young people and their projects was making a difference in the health of the reef. Ultimately, most leadership programs are serving some larger purpose, and because of the challenges of understanding the contributions of their leadership development work to larger scale changes, most programs focus primarily on the ways in which participants of programs believe they have benefited. This is starting to change, and we are excited to be part of evaluating programs that tell a different story about the ways in which leadership development programs are supporting changes in the lives of people, and the planet.

One interesting feature of MAR-L is their approach to recruitment. If you are hoping to affect on the ground change around some social issue, it helps to be strategic in your recruitment and think about who in the system needs to be part of the change you are hoping to affect. MAR-L approached this by thinking about the different issues undermining the health of the reef, (e.g. tourism, land management, overfishing, climate change) and which of these issues they could tackle that would make a difference. Over the years they experimented with recruiting cohorts around specific themes, across sectors and from different countries. Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with the program’s Executive Director, Maria Eugenia Arreola and learned that they have been experimenting and learning more about strategic recruitment. I was excited and asked if I could interview her for our newsletter.


Could you explain why you decided to have a theme for each cohort?

“Building a New Generation of Conservation Leaders in the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR) Region” is the essence of the MAR Leadership Program launched six years ago by Fondo Mexicano para la Conservación de la Naturaleza (FMCN) with the support of the Summit Foundation to scale‐up conservation impacts through ‘smart investing’ in people.


Since the inception of the program in 2010, for each cohort, we select a theme linked to the conservation needs of the reef that will allow us to maximize synergies among our Fellows and facilitate group networking and joint project design around a common focus. To ensure that cohorts work and brainstorm, and develop their ideas and skills together, we will  recruit participants who already share common interests and purpose. We remain flexible to incubating more than one great idea per cohort and recognize that even though the MAR region is under severe stress from more than one threat at once, trying to develop cohorts that focus on too many issues at the same time can dilute limited resources and diminish group cohesion and effectiveness. For this reason, we have learned that it is most effective to tackle one major theme per cohort.


The 2010 cohort was focused on coastal development and tourism; 2011 on sustainable fisheries and establishment of marine protected areas; 2012 on the establishment of a network of multifunctional marine reserves; 2014 on integrated solid waste management, 2015 mangrove valuation and conservation; and 2016 cohort is addressing Blue Economy as a model for sustainable development.


The process of selecting a theme entails brainstorming meetings with the Executive Committee and the MAR-L Program staff six months prior to the opening of the call for applications. Themes are selected based on its importance in the international and regional agendas, the feasibility to scale up impacts in conservation for the MAR through Fellows projects, and the availability of funding for the projects. Once the theme is selected, the staff carries out research on the theme (status, trends, potential projects, funding), and  interviews key stakeholders on the subject in order to develop a background report. Then a group of consultants who are experts on the theme are hired to mentor fellows throughout the cohort cycle.     


How does having a theme affect the way you approach recruitment?

Based on the information collected through the research and interviews, we foresee the type of projects we will be looking at and the Fellows’ profile that can lead these projects. People that we interview also advise us on the profile of potential candidates. Mentors help us in developing the call for applications, therefore, the theme definitely affects our approach in recruiting our Fellows and, of course, the training program.


Do you have both individual criteria for each applicant and criteria for the mix of the ideal cohort?

The MAR-L Program selection is rigorous and candidates are required to present a bold idea that can significantly contribute to the protection and non-destructive use of the MAR’s natural resources. Ideally, each cohort will represent a blend of leaders from the business, media, NGO, academic, and government sectors, with a special emphasis on “less traditional” candidates from regional private industries (e.g., tourism, real estate development, agro-industry, commercial fisheries). In addition to paying attention to each individual candidate, there is attention to the most desirable cohort mix to bring the perspectives of the different countries and sectors. The Fellows will range from promising recent college graduates to mid-career professionals in any field and sector with a direct connection to environmental sustainability, industrial ecology, and biodiversity/ecosystem conservation in the MAR region. They could also be local leaders with no formal educational background. Candidates for the program will have to present evidence of their ambition and ability to succeed and play a leadership role. They will have to outline innovative projects and ideas.


We look for bold, forward thinking leaders! Individuals that meet the following eligibility requirements: possess some or all of the following personal, professional, and community-based experiences, and demonstrate potential to develop leadership skills listed below.

  • Be a resident of the Mesoamerican Reef ecoregion, which includes locations within Belize, the Caribbean basin of Guatemala and Honduras, and the State of Quintana Roo in Mexico.

  • Be at the early - mid career level.

  • Have a clear professional connection to natural resources or conservation field of relevance to the MAR.

  • Be passionate and capable of generating change.

  • Have regular access to the internet in order to participate in exchanging data, email, activities, and experiences from a remote location.

  • Knowledge of environmental issues through work experience, high school, university coursework or community work.

  • Minimum three years’ experience working on environmental, coastal resource related conservation issues.

  • Experience working with local community groups and/or initiatives.

  • References from colleagues and supervisors.

  • Demonstrable long-term commitment to conservation.


What is your selection process?

Every year we open a call for applications in May-June. During that time, a press conference is carried out in each country. The call is shared by email with an extensive list of contacts that reach 370 people; it is also shared with all the Fellows and people that staff contacted during the research phase of the cohort’s theme. It is distributed through mailing lists such as Coral list, GCFI, CAMPAM and Kanan Kay Alliance. Candidates that send all the requested documents and meet the eligibility criteria are interviewed by MAR Leadership staff for an hour via telephone or Skype. Qualified applicants that pass that filter are interviewed in-person (2 - 2.5 hours) by MAR Leadership staff. The staff looks for innovative projects that will have scalable impacts in the MAR, and that will boost economic activities and sustainable use of marine resources in the region.


Staff presents a shortlist of 15-20 candidates to the Executive Committee (7 members) who, after long discussions with the staff, will select 12 Fellows. Applicants selected as Fellows receive official notice of acceptance by mid August in order to start participating in the program’s activities by early September.

What have you learned over the last several years about recruitment?

Fellows’ recruitment is one of the key aspects of the program. We want our recruiting process to be strategic and grow the quantity and quality of our candidate pool by increasing the representation of groups such as corporate/for-profit and local community applicants who are currently underrepresented. To do this, we have strengthened our proactive outreach to former alumni, held press conferences, increased trips to the four MAR countries and expanded our communications activities in social media lists and media. We’ve learned that the recruiting process varies depending on the theme of the cohort which influences the profile of the ideal Fellow. We have learned that we have to invest more time and financial resources to reach the target group. The recruitment process may take around six months. Outreach is important and the costs increase as trips to each country to hold press conferences and meetings, presentations with different stakeholders are carried out. Increasing the participation of Fellows from the private sector and from local communities has been a challenge and is essential for achieving greater success in conservation.    


We found that the online application process created barriers to participation for candidates that are not used to an online application format. We had other options, but it seemed that online format was not attractive or easy to complete. Understanding the theme and gathering the required documents for the application also became a barrier for candidates who opted out because they did not believe they had the time to collect the documents and understand the theme well enough to develop an innovative project. To address this we produced videos, communication materials and we were available to help people understand the theme and the benefits and expectations of participation in the MAR-L Program.


What changes have you made in your approach as a result of your learning?

We have put a lot of effort in developing a straightforward call for applications in collaboration with the cohort mentors. The eligibility criteria for selecting Fellows are reviewed and clearly communicated. Our selection criteria centers on the person, the project and her/his potential for greater conservation impact. We have improved how effectively we inform the applicants, reviewers and interviewers about what we’re seeking in our candidates.


Our recruitment process has been adapted to be multi-disciplinary—combining academics, policymakers, private sector, various national, state and municipal government agencies, public interest attorneys, communication experts, architects, environmental engineers, sociologists, and tourism experts, among others.

We carry out the recruitment process jointly with the group of consultants/mentors for that cohort and the Executive Committee.


What advice could you give, based on your experience, about how to connect your recruitment with your program’s purpose?

  • Put a stronger stake in the ground around a theme with a project/vision and concrete measurable goals. The recruitment process should be adapted to this goal.

  • Have a straightforward call for applications with clear eligibility criteria and a clear link to the program’s mission.

  • Continue connecting with the program’s alumni and current Fellows who are key in nominating future candidates.

  • Having an Executive Committee or group of knowledgeable advisors that know the region, its challenges and represents each MAR country has helped in evaluating the candidates and providing feedback.    

If you would like read more about the types of projects and results that participants were able to achieve please read our three vignettes about the fellows projects.