When Los Altos Hills resident Charles Knowles, known as Charlie in most circles, felt a call toward wildlife conservation as a young man, he started small but ambitious - and armed with a big cat. After reading an inspirational article about cheetah researcher Laurie Marker, he decided to raise money for her cause.
"I called Marine World and borrowed a cheetah, which took some persuasion," he explained. "I borrowed my aunt’s house, because I was living in a tiny, tiny house in Mountain View at the time. I had a few friends over and we raised $5,000."
Since that modest venture into the world of philanthropy, Knowles has kept going. He now helms a $3-million-a-year non-profit organization, the Wildlife Conservation Network, which represents a fairly radical shift from where Knowles began his professional career. An engineer, Knowles founded and sold the software company Rubicon Technology in Mountain View within a span of five years and, at age 34, was pulled in a sudden change of direction.
"When you're an engineer, you don't have a lot of epiphanies, so you recognize them when they come," he said.
After managing the organization for eight years with a narrow focus on a handful of single-species preservation projects, in 2002 Knowles teamed with Los Altos Hills resident Akiko Yamazaki to select the Network's current name and obtain 501(c)(3) status. Today, the Network continues to concentrate on individual endangered species but has risen to the challenge of recognizing the complex – and sometimes surprising – tasks nongovernmental organizations must take on to save a single population of Ethiopian wolves, Andean cats or Cotton-Top Tamarins.
Knowles' organization is based on the venture-capital model. His staff review promising community-based organizations around the world and single out a few to back with financial and logistical support for a span of years.
Much of the assistance is what one would expect – connecting donors passionate about elephants to Save the Elephants in Mali or spreading the word about a rabies epidemic threatening to kill off a disastrous number of the wolves of the Bale mountains in Ethiopia. Fewer than 500 wolves survive.
"We would find these amazing people living and working with local communities who were smart, capable people working on the right problems with the right strategy," Knowles said. "We'd just make a lifetime commitment to them and support the hell of them."
But the Wildlife Conservation Network has found that unexpected passions also have a place within its organization. A San Francisco building contractor with an enthusiasm for solar power collected a garage full of solar panels, designed systems and saw them packaged, shipped and installed in power conservation sites in Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Botswana.
"They're just all amazingly successful, with a very, very small out-of-pocket cost for him," Knowles said. "Not only is it cleaner and more environmental, but in a lot of areas there is no alternative – they couldn't have a conservation program (without solar power)."
The Network has unintentionally become an advocate for HIV/AIDS testing, a move that becomes less surprising when one considers the interconnectedness of human and animal populations.
"It's critical for the success of our programs that we preserve human capital," Knowles explained. "In Ethiopia we'd worked for 15 years to get the head of the whole park to understand the value of wolves. He finally came around, then he died of AIDS, so we have to start over."
The Network tested a new kind of intervention at an African Wild Dog Park in Zimbabwe. The 60 locals who worked to preserve the wild dogs had AIDS posters and condoms, but had not tested themselves for HIV infection. The Network commissioned a South African specialist in rural HIV interventions, who visited the staff and blind-tested the workers' blood samples.
When the specialist reported to the staff that 24 of them – he didn't know who – were HIV-positive, Knowles said that every worker voluntarily pursued testing and, when needed, treatment. Both testing and treatment had been consistently available through nearby non-profit agencies – but the Network got results by bringing the testing to the local community.
Knowles is now shopping for other entrepreneurs eager to expand the project to other NGOs throughout Africa.
"There's someone in this community for whom that resonates, and if we can find him or her, it would save tens of thousands of lives of people on the frontlines of conservation," he said. "If you had told me 18 months ago I'd be involved in AIDS intervention in Africa, I would have said, â€˜I think it's one of the greatest tragedies within the last century, but it's just so outside my ability to effect change there, to understand the issues, never in a million years.' But we had no choice."
Re-envisioning the NGO
Knowles doesn't host a menagerie at his Los Altos Hills home – only two gregarious cats, Wolfgang and Chloe, whom he credits with some of the inspiration for his life's work. He knew he liked felines and wanted to target a conservation area that would appeal quickly to donors and supporters. He is outspoken about a need, in the non-profit world, for an injection of hard-nosed business practicality.
"I think the thing that is missing most often is really rigorous, strategic thinking and planning. Everyone loves the programmatic aspect, but they don't think as carefully as they should about the governance aspect, about the marketing or the administrative aspect," Knowles said.
He doesn't lack a sense of humor about the subject – his inspiration combines personal passion and shrewd analysis of his target audience.
"People like big cats," he admitted.
Knowles also fosters a strong interest in harnessing developing technologies as well as finding the funding to support local groups in developing countries.
"Conservationists around the world, one thing they really lack is a community," he said. "They're out sometimes hundreds of miles from other people and they need communities not only to share technical information and methodologies but also to support each other."
The Network emphasizes exploring ways developing technology can assist conservation, for instance, interfacing radar tracking with Google Earth or using Flip cameras and YouTube posts to spread the word about poaching.
"I think there're just unbelievable opportunities in the whole social networking space to redefine how NGOs communicate, how they fundraise, how they build community," Knowles said. "There's a crisis in Mali right now where elephants (are dying) for lack of water. The tragedy is, wells were dug. The older elephants could stick their trunks down and drink from the wells – but the babies couldn't, so all the babies were dying. There were horrific pictures of this. Getting it out to the media and being able to connect, we were able to raise some funding very quickly."
The Network posted newsflashes and updates about the elephants' plight on its site, chronicling Save the Elephants' use of emergency donations to fuel water pumps and bring drinks within range of the babies.
Local residents have a chance to hear, in person, the harrowing stories of conservation work and triumphs in the field. The Network's annual Wildlife Conservation Expo draws conservationists from around the world who describe life on the frontlines and exhibit arts and crafts for purchase. Jane Goodall, Ph.D., is scheduled to be this year's keynote speaker.
"The people who come are really the rock stars of the conservation world," Knowles said. "They have just unbelievable stories of life and death and heroics."
This year's Wildlife Conservation Expo is scheduled 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Oct. 3 at the Mission Bay Conference Center in San Francisco. A wildlife garden party and jam session will follow at a private home in Los Altos Hills Oct. 4. For more information, visit www.wildnet.org or call 949-3533.