A Q&A with Marine Conservation Action Fund Director Elizabeth Stephenson

By New England Aquarium on Thursday, June 15, 2023


The New England Aquarium’s Marine Conservation Action Fund (MCAF) is a small grants and fellowship program that provides support for community-based projects spearheaded by local conservation leaders in low- and middle-income countries around the globe. Through this partnership, conservation leaders are creating solutions that benefit ocean health and support their local communities. 

Here, MCAF Director Elizabeth Stephenson shares her thoughts on what makes MCAF unique in the global conservation space, how the program supports project leaders and fellows, and her vision for the future. 

Elizabeth Stephenson
Elizabeth Stephenson Photo by Vanessa Kahn

Why is a program like MCAF important for advancing conservation globally?

MCAF plays a critical role in supporting the efforts of local leaders in low- and middle-income countries who are partnering with local communities to take on the most challenging problems facing the ocean. Local leaders are those closest to the issues and are best positioned to develop locally informed, long-term solutions in collaboration with stakeholders. However, only a tiny fraction of the already small percentage of funding that supports ocean conservation goes to locally run organizations in these regions. This is where MCAF comes in, to help ensure that local leaders and their organizations have support to spearhead conservation initiatives over the long term. Through their collective efforts, these local leaders are having a global impact on ocean health which benefits all of us.

How does MCAF benefit project leaders and fellows over the course of their work?

MCAF provides multiple types of support to ocean conservation leaders across the globe, including funding, professional support, learning exchange, mentorship, community-building, and recognition. Specifically, we offer small grants of up to $12,000 for these community-based ocean conservation projects. These can include for example, field surveys to find nursery grounds of endangered sharks; community-led programs to protect sea turtle nesting beaches; or working with small-scale fishers to identify and address threats to marine species and livelihoods.

MCAF Fellows at the 2019 Fellows Summit in Boston
MCAF Fellows at the 2019 Fellows Summit in Boston Elizabeth (center) with MCAF Fellows

We provide opportunities for Project Leaders to apply for continuation funding, which is such a huge need given that most conservation projects are almost always long-term efforts. Through the MCAF Fellows Program, we invest in selected conservation leaders over the long term through developing enduring, two-way relationships, promoting learning exchange and building a supportive community of peers. We also offer grants to support the sustainability of Fellows’ organizations and their efforts to train and collaborate with the next generation of ocean leaders. We bring Fellows to the Aquarium for global summits every few years where they share their work and grow their connection with each other, the Aquarium community, and audiences in greater Boston. Fellows serve as key advisors to the MCAF program, providing feedback on the program’s direction, evaluating proposals and helping to ensure we are advancing inclusive and equitable conservation practices.

MCAF has supported more than 200 projects since 1999. Looking back on that success, what’s your vision for the future of MCAF? 

Thanks to the generous and transformational support of the Dynners, we have been able to build on this success, strengthen the global conservation impact of the MCAF program and grow the community of conservation leaders it serves. With the Dynners′ support, we have been able to fund twice as many projects as in previous years, welcome five new Fellows into our community, and plan our second global Fellows summit, which is happening this fall.

We also now have a team of three! Having my MCAF teammates Emily Duwan and Melinda Edie enables MCAF to better support, promote, and learn from the work of project leaders and fellows across the globe. Our vision is of an MCAF program that continues to listen to and learn from the global community it serves; strives to advance best practices in inclusive, equitable, and locally-led conservation; and of a thriving program that has the resources to sustain and grow its support of ocean leaders, their organizations, and communities for generations to come.



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