Why TPW Means Truly Protecting Wildlife to Me

We mark our lives with the big moments, the turning points that bond us to our friends and families, build our careers, define our character; 2002 was a year of big moments for me. It was the year when I co-founded the organization that would ultimately become the most meaningful work I’ve ever done. It was also the year I went through The Philanthropy Workshop’s year-long program, gaining my “Executive MBA in Philanthropy”.

At that time, I was in early retirement having sold the software company I founded in the mid-90s and I was focusing on my next chapter, which is conserving wildlife. I became frustrated with the lack of transparency, efficiency, and direct connection that most wildlife organizations offered, so together with Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Akiko Yamazaki, and seasoned conservationist, John Lukas, we co-founded the Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN). The three of us saw a need for a new model in the conservation field as many independent conservationists had the great ideas and ambition required to protect endangered species, but not the resources to put those ideas into action. We also saw that many donors wanted greater involvement in the projects in which they were investing, craving a closer relationship to the charities they were funding. We created WCN to bring donors and conservationists closer together and to provide the support and resources that the conservationists needed to succeed; a very venture capitalist approach to protecting wildlife.

This was the perfect marriage between my passion for wildlife and my aspirations to be more philanthropically active. Serendipitously I had just enrolled in Cohort 3 of TPW which helped me take WCN from concept to actionable plan, helped me expand the vision for WCN and refine its strategies.

Philanthropy proved to be more difficult than I expected. It’s easy to write a check to a favorite charity, but to actually “do philanthropy” requires thoughtfulness, strategy, the same calculated risk taking and keen investment savvy that you’d bring to any successful business venture. Beyond money, you need patience and a belief in the long game, passion and drive, and you need supportive allies. Fortunately, I was able to gain these tools through The Philanthropy Workshop. TPW helped me move beyond my checkbook and set me on a course where I was able to be smarter about my charitable giving. The sessions, case studies, and discussions I had at TPW expanded the breadth and depth of my understanding of philanthropy.

But perhaps what was most transformative about the process was becoming part of a network; the people I met through TPW were essential to helping me get WCN off the ground. In fact, three TPW alum would become WCN board members, one of whom is also WCN’s Vice President. A core ethos at WCN is that protecting endangered species cannot be done through just one organization, success depends on collaboration; this ethos aligns perfectly with the networking power at TPW.

The skills I gained and the relationships I made at TPW have remained strong through the years and helped me to achieve substantial growth and impact with WCN. In its inaugural year, WCN raised $600,000 for conservation. Fifteen years later we have passed the $110 million mark. WCN started with a strategy around building a network of conservationists in need of support and passionate donors looking to invest wisely in conservation. That strategy has blossomed, going from six conservation partners to 17 and 1,200 donors to 12,000.

WCN’s growth and success supporting conservationists around the world has been possible because of the efforts of countless people. I am deeply grateful for the hard work and commitment of everyone who has made this possible. This includes TPW, who has played an important role in helping WCN make smarter philanthropic investments in conservation, strengthening our ability to truly make a difference for wildlife.


Charles Knowles (TPW Cohort 3) is the President and Co-Founder of the Wildlife Conservation Network (WCN), which has advanced a powerful new model of wildlife conservation. Charlie retired early as a successful Stanford-educated entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. He founded software company Rubicon Technology in 1989 and sold it in 1994. His retirement lasted six days, until he launched full-time into applying his business acumen and experience to wildlife conservation.


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