Many of the problems faced by international projects intending to create adaptive social-ecological systems for climate change are lack of stakeholder engagement, limited local knowledge and restricted time. Local organizations focused on conservation and development often have an advantage in creating adaptive social-ecological systems because they understand local power relations, share local discourses and are involved with communities for extended periods of time. Twenty-one comunidades campesinas in the Andean highlands outside of Cusco are involved in a local conservation project aimed at protecting the endangered Polylepis forests (a high mountain forest in the Andes where there are many endemic bird species). A local non-governmental organization, Asociación Ecosistemas Andinos (ECOAN), works with the communities to encourage conservation and economic development. In the face of climate and economic change, communities leverage ECOAN as a tool to adapt (though not always purposefully). These local relationships are challenged by ECOAN’s obligation to provide significant quantitative results for donors. The purpose of this research is twofold: 1) create a case study of local conservation and adaptation efforts and 2) illuminate the inevitable complexity of being funded by national and international donors. Data was collected over three months using interviews and participant observation amongst targeted communities, ECOAN and the donors.