Earlier this year Willem Nolens started as Rewilding Europe’s Head of Finance and Operations. With a background in development finance and microfinance and a longstanding passion for wild nature, he brings a unique and hugely valuable skillset to the position. We caught up with Willem to find out a little more about his background and aspirations.
Why did you decide to become involved with rewilding?
The essence of rewilding – that nature is old and wise enough to take care of itself – resonates deeply with me. Enhancing wild nature through rewilding also makes sense from a people perspective, because we need the benefits that it provides, such as fresh water, clean air and green spaces for our mental wellbeing. The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced our need for nature and green spaces even more.
How do you see yourself adding value to Rewilding Europe’s work?
Rewilding Europe is already a highly efficient and professional organisation. My role is to support the organisation as it grows further and to ensure that my colleagues can carry out their jobs without having to worry about financial and operational matters. I am responsible for ensuring that clear roles, responsibilities and mandates exist, that efficient annual planning and reporting cycles are in place, and that everyone in the organisation is constantly learning and developing so that the organisation remains fit for purpose.
The financial perspective
How important are finance and operations in conservation?
They are critical to conservation and to achieving the best rewilding outcomes possible. Funding is critical in that it enables us to carry out our work and have a real impact on the ground. Our donors and financial partners should always receive value for the money they give to support rewilding – this means we need to use our funding wisely and provide comprehensive reporting to demonstrate this. The process is cyclical: ensuring that we generate the best rewilding-related results possible helps us to raise further funding to continue and scale up our work.
Would you say Rewilding Europe is playing an innovative role in financing European rewilding?
Definitely, and in two ways. Firstly, Rewilding Europe is investing in for-profit ventures that indirectly support rewilding initiatives across Europe. We disburse loans to entrepreneurs, we run a nature-based tourism company, and we are incubating other business ideas. Secondly, we are exploring ways to make rewilding a financially sustainable activity; by developing income opportunities for landowners and land managers, we can make rewilding attractive and hence truly scalable in Europe.
What would you like to see achieved in your area of work over the next five years?
Rewilding Europe is supported by a number of loyal partners who have generously and increasingly contributed to our work. As a foundation, we are dependent on these partners, as the money that is available in the form of grants is insufficient to enable European rewilding at scale. This means we need to generate additional income streams to significantly scale up our work. As a team, we will work to develop these new and additional income streams over the years to come.
I would also like Rewilding Europe to be best-in-class when it comes to organisational efficiency. Having grown continually since foundation, we nevertheless remain a small, entrepreneurial and agile initiative. This commitment to lean operations is underpinned by the strong working relationship between our central and local teams right across Europe, with creative and effective co-production helping us to maximise rewilding impact on the ground. We will continue to refine this way of working going forwards.
Wild nature in Europe
What would you say are the biggest conservation challenges that Europe faces today?
In my opinion, the biggest challenge is that there aren’t enough financial incentives for protecting and restoring nature. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, public financial support for nature conservation is insufficient compared to the task we are up to. Secondly, scalable business models are, as yet, insufficiently developed to finance rewilding – such models involve carbon, nature-based tourism, dam removal, rewilding of forests, rivers and peatlands. These all provide huge benefits to humans, such as wildfire prevention, carbon intake and reducing economic damage from floods. With new financial incentives, involving the private and investment sectors, we can scale up the process of rewilding and large scale nature recovery across Europe.
How do you see the future of wild nature in Europe?
As the comeback of many wildlife species in Europe shows, nature is resilient and will bounce back if we let it. But for this to happen at scale we need political leaders to develop policies and pass laws and that are far more supportive of nature recovery. We need to create an environment where rewilded land becomes a competitive form of land use, where landowners and land managers receive a proper return for rewilding their land, through a wide range of rewilding-related income streams.
Do you need wild nature in your life?
Wild nature is essential to our physical and mental health, to the purity of the air that we breathe and the water that we drink. Humans are an integral part of nature, but many people have forgotten this. Rewilding can help to reconnect people with wild nature around them, and this typically means they value it more.
On a personal level, nature is a highly effective therapist that I visit several times a week. It helps me to recharge my batteries and organise my thoughts – I experience at least one mental breakthrough every visit!