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Creating a Community that Raises $275 Million for Wildlife


Charlie Knowles

Forward Global Member since 2013


Community-based wildlife conservation



A knack for bringing people together



Have raised $275 million that is growing 30% annually in support of species-specific conservation projects globally by working with local communities to find and implement solutions so wildlife and people can coexist and thrive.

Background and Evolution

My passions have always been around education and wildlife. I grew up in rural Illinois, near a river, with wildlife streaming through the backyard, and I had every pet you could imagine. I also come from a long line of family-oriented service and when I had the good fortune to retire in 1994, I knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of my time golfing or making the next million.

I tried at first to see if we could fix our education system. I started teaching remedial math at the local high school, then figured that was way too hard and it would be much easier to save all the world’s wildlife. And then I serendipitously read an article about a woman who sold all her possessions and moved to Namibia to save cheetahs. I thought, “Yeah, that’s it.”

Since I’m not a biologist or a conservationist, I relied on one of my core competencies which is bringing people together. Through fundraising and bringing people together this way, I eventually met my co-founder for the Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN).

In our second year, we had Jane Goodall agree to come and speak. And the crowds doubled every year that she came. The organization grew like crazy and we now support 22 place-based, species-specific conservation projects around the world as well as five species funds and a program to identify and support rising conservation leaders. We’ve raised $275 million to date and have been growing at a rate of 30% per year.

It started as a casual endeavor and became my full-time gig. We have a CEO who runs operations, and I focus on creating partnerships as board chair.

How did you get involved with TPW?

I was part of the 2003 cohort, having heard about it from a good friend who wanted me to go through the program with her. In that era, TPW was best described as an executive MBA for philanthropy. I was aiming to get a broad overview from both a practical standpoint, what people were doing, and also from an intellectual standpoint, in terms of best practices. I also wanted to expand my network of people in the field. TPW ticked all three boxes. Looking back, a lot of the people I met through the program have become good friends and also supporters of WCN.

How has your philanthropy, or your philosophies around the work you do, evolved since then?

Things have changed, and they haven’t. I still have the original back-of-the-napkin plan I wrote for WCN, and we haven’t had mission drift. A lot of organizations, especially in the wildlife space, end up trying to tackle too many issues. We’ve stayed true to our core, which is working with local communities to find solutions that allow wildlife and people to coexist and thrive.

We have nuanced our mission over time, though. For example, Chinese ivory consumption drives a huge amount of poaching, which negatively impacts local communities. They lose tourism revenue, and some people are even recruited as frontline poachers, risking their lives and freedom to feed their families. It’s a complex issue that needs to be addressed at a global scale, but we haven’t focused on policy changes because we don’t have the scale or the competency. There are plenty of great organizations in D.C. working on that.

Instead, I see WCN’s value-add in our connection to what’s going on on the ground. One of my board members, for example, is Peter Lalampaa, a Samburu warrior who grew up in Kenya and received a WCN scholarship ten years ago to get his masters degree. He now runs the Grevy’s Zebra Trust and he has a very thoughtful understanding of the community, the ecosystem, and the impact we have. Having those kinds of voices represented in WCN’s core is incredibly valuable.

How did your experience as a philanthropist inform WCN’s growth and structure?

As a philanthropist, I was more interested in creating impact and having funding go to the field than being schmoozed by a fundraiser. As a result, WCN focuses more on demonstrating impact and connecting people to the work rather than traditional fundraising. As a TPW-educated philanthropist, I felt there were three major shortcomings in the philanthropy space. First, there’s a lack of transparency—donors don’t always know where their money is going or what impact it’s having. Second, a lack of efficiency—too much money is being spent on big buildings and salaries rather than getting the work done in the field. And third, a lack of collaboration—many organizations trying to do everything themselves instead of working together.

To address these issues, WCN offers transparency by allowing donors to designate where their money goes and providing them with direct access to the principal investigators. We also ensure efficiency by putting over 90% of our funds towards programs, and we were rated 100/100 on Charity Navigator’s transparency and efficiency ratings. Lastly, we collaborate with over 168 organizations and have supported over 700 different programs, ranging from large NGOs like Wildlife Conservation Society to smaller groups like two individuals with a plane who run a poaching prevention program in Kenya on just $94,000 per year.

Why do you think philanthropy is challenging?

I think philanthropy was and will continue to remain really hard. It’s difficult to develop a cohesive strategy for one’s philanthropy, and difficult to evaluate funding opportunities to decide when you should get in, when you should increase your support, or when you should get out of a certain philanthropic investment. There’s a huge range in how strategic philanthropists are, and I think a lot of it comes down to emotion, even for the more strategic ones.

More than that, so many don’t ask tough questions, like What kind of impact will my investment have? Is it sustainable? What happens to the organization if you, as the principal investigator, get run over by an elephant? How does this scale? Those were issues we talked about in TPW. With WCN, donors trust we have done that work, which we have. But even when you do the work, those aren’t easily answered questions, and it’s a shifting landscape.

At the same time, it’s so easy to get paralyzed questioning whether something is the best investment and at some point you’ve got to take the leap.

What do you find important to consider when working with philanthropists?

We give the megaphone to local voices as much as possible, so people hear from them and develop trust that the decision-making goes all the way down to the communities, and that they’ll make good decisions with the right information and resources. I think you’ve got to meet philanthropists where they are to help them. It’s vitally important to listen to their interests and connect them directly to the people doing the work. By listening to their interests, you can direct them to work that is meaningful to them. By connecting them directly to the people doing the work, they will be able to learn how their investments are changing the lives of people and wildlife. Taken together, this leads to long term, deep connection and greater impact.

What challenges does the philanthropic sector face if it wants to be more effective?

It goes back to the three issues I had with philanthropy at the start, and that we founded WCN to address: Transparency, Efficiency, and Collaboration. Transparency in terms of what an investment’s impact will be and where the money goes, and having some increased level of democratization in terms of allowing people to specify where their money is going to go, especially for international work.

WCN can do that. If you tell me you like African wild dogs and want $100 to go on the ground for the bush program, and you send it tomorrow, it’ll be in Zimbabwe doing work next week. We have that level of granularity. We don’t take anything in the process.

I think the collaboration among organizations is lacking. So many are competing unnecessarily with each other and view the world through a scarcity lens. From the beginning, WCN viewed the world through a lens of abundance. We have annual Expos where we invite all our major donors to attend, and we also invite any other organizations doing wildlife conservation or animal welfare work to come and exhibit for free, even if they’re big competitors and 10 times our size. It’s about aligning interests and supporting them with the aim of helping raise all boats. I think some of these values should be more widely adopted.

What remains valuable about TPW for you?

The personal connections are still incredible, even at this point in my journey. I was just introduced to someone through TPW and we’re meeting next week, and I can tell already there’s enough commonality that we’re going to be working together. Making those kinds of connections is really valuable. The cross-pollination is great, and I always like talking with like-minded people.

What’s your position on philanthropy infrastructure funding?

Philanthropy networks like TPW, Legacy Venture, and SV2 are incredibly valuable for the content and the contacts. We’re seeing tremendous transgenerational wealth transfer and there is a whole new generation of philanthropists emerging. I’ve directed several individuals who are new to philanthropy to TPW and I serve on several boards with board members who don’t have any background in philanthropy. I think there’s opportunities for more board training and tactical intervention with small family foundations and I know TPW can add a lot of value.

Any closing thoughts?

I’ve been very pleased with my experience with TPW, which helped me early in my philanthropic career and which continues to help me through both the lessons I learned back then as well as the ongoing connections and new things I’ve learned through members in the community. And I think the first step for bringing philanthropists along is to have a conversation and bring people together in frictionless environments. The number one thing we can do for philanthropists—and TPW has been great at this—is get people in the field so they can actually see the work, meet the people on the ground and establish a dialogue to understand what the needs are. I think that’s critically important.