Volunteering forced me to re-evaluate my life: An interview with Wild Tomorrow Fund Executive Director John Steward

It was only supposed to be a month-long vacation but, for Wild Tomorrow Fund Founder and Executive Director, John Steward, a volunteer placement with Wildlife ACT in South Africa resulted in a complete re-evaluation and life overhaul.

After witnessing the plight of African wildlife due to dwindling habitat and illegal poaching, Steward walked away from a successful career as an advertising creative director in the USA and set up his own non-profit organisation. He tells Conservation Careers his story and advises others in the same boat.

In 2013, Steward was tired of working in advertising, jaded by the superficial money-hungry lifestyle. At the time, he had no idea the effect volunteering would have on him. But, South Africa, and its people, captivated him.

“I was like a sponge… it hit me hard hearing about the problems and seeing how hard people were working to save the eco-system and I needed to know how are we in that position? Why are we in that position? I couldn’t stop thinking about it. When I came home and sat at my desk, I knew my career in advertising was over. I had discovered something way more important to me,” Steward says.

Two years and two return visits to South Africa later, he decided to take the plunge and set up Wild Tomorrow Fund.

“I had no fear that I would find people to support us in terms of funding and donations. And, coming from a marketing background, I knew I could make the brand. I didn’t know how to start, but it never scared me. It was never anything that I thought I couldn’t do. What scared me was walking away from a very handsome life,” he explains.

Wild Tomorrow Fund is now a fully-fledged charity, headquartered in the USA but with on-the-ground work in South Africa. It is dedicated to the protection of threatened and endangered species and the habitats they depend on.

Steward’s friends and family fully supported his decision. But, it has been a learning curve and the career-change has not been without its hurdles.

Initially, he struggled asking others for help – not through any sense of narcissism, but because he did not want to impose.

“It took me longer than it should have to ask for help – that was a dirty phrase to me… the thing that pushes me forward is I remind myself I am not doing this to impress somebody, I am doing this to try and save animals. So, if you feel embarrassed, remind yourself, you are not asking for you, you are asking for your charity,” he says.

Kick-starting a charity, with no track-record or proof of success, was perhaps the hardest obstacle Steward faced. He advises others to be aware it will take perseverance.

“It started off with friends who introduced us to other people, who then introduced us to others. The hardest part is the first two years when you are breaking through your inner circle of friends.

“They want to help, but eventually they are going to get tired – donor fatigue – you can’t keep tapping the same people. That’s the toughest part, waiting for that next circle to appear and you have to work hard to get there. Again, that comes back to asking for help,” he adds.

As well, running a non-profit comes with heavy sense of responsibility. Not just for the wildlife you want to protect, but the financial obligations to those working for you.

“The one thing that keeps me up at night is personal finances. How do I pay my bills? How do I pay our employees’ salaries? People with families rely on me. The challenge is, when a donor gives money, they don’t want to see say more than 15% of that go to administration. But, one thing that cannot slip is supporting your people – without them there is no charity,” he warns.

Be honest with yourself and others

Despite some of the challenges, Steward says he feels more honest and happy with himself and has no regrets. And, while not everyone’s “calling” is to leave the corporate world, he is a firm believer that if you feel what you are doing is not satisfying, then perhaps it is because it is not what you are meant to be doing.

“The problem is getting the courage to take the jump. If you are in an office and think ‘I really wish I had done this’ – it’s obvious how you feel. It is having the belief in yourself. And I would say that anybody can do this,” he says.

For those wanting a career change, do not fear you have nothing of value to offer, almost always, what you have done in your previous career brings vital skill sets.

“For me, it was advertising and branding – I knew I could elevate ourselves. Or, in financing for example, you understand book-keeping, budgets, salaries” he says.

A science or conservation background is not essential – Steward has neither – but he stresses trustworthy connections are a must.

“You need to know the people you are going to work with, or the charities you want to help. If you want to have programmes on the ground, you must know and trust people on the ground and trust they know the issues,” he says.

“The worst thing is spending generous people’s money and having their money wasted. You must be 100% sure that if you are taking money from people that it goes to the right cause – it cannot go to waste.”

The bigger picture

The charity industry is saturated and the ability to gain trust from donors is vital. The success of Wild Tomorrow Fund has come from being genuine, knowledgeable and passionate.

“Passion” is the number one word – you cannot go wrong if you communicate your message in a kind, humble way. Humans can see a scam, they can feel if you are the real deal or not very easily,” Steward says.

In 2016, the fund acquired, and protected 1,235 acres of wild land in KwaZulu-Natal called Ukuwela, which was at risk of becoming a pineapple farm.

As well, there are ongoing conversations to drop fences with neighbouring reserves.

Steward is determined to build on this success.

“You can save all the animals you want, but if they have nowhere to live then there is no long-term future. But, it is a race – is urban sprawl going to get their first? Is monoculture? Or will it be conservation charities? It is hard to go back once land goes in one direction,” he stresses.

The charity also raises funds to purchase equipment, while conducting scientific research.

A highlight for the charity this year is receiving a $150,000 donation from the US government following successful busts in illegal ivory trade in the USA – the money will be used to fight wildlife poaching in South Africa.

“I see the reserve managers’ faces when we open the trunk of our car with a generator inside. Just seeing the cloud lift off them because they can now keep animals a little safer – that makes me proud,” he enthuses.

Going forward, Wild Tomorrow want to see continued growth, but only if it is organic and they can remain in control. Slow and steady is the company’s mantra.

For more information on the Wild Tomorrow Fund visit their site at www.wildtomorrowfund.org,  or follow them on social media www.facebook.com/wildtomorrowfund on Instagram https://instagram.com/wildtomorrowfund/  or twitter @wildtomorrow.

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