Corporate to conservation, how business know-how can land you your dream job: An interview with African Impact’s Business Manger Stuart Isham Fairbairns

In theory, the cut and thrust of the corporate world is a far cry from the ideal of the conservation industry. But, conservation is a business, and the skills that make a multi-national corporate thrive, can be utilised to boost conservation projects, too.

Prior to 2014, Stuart Isham Fairbairns, the Kruger Business Manager for African Impact, had spent most of his life working in marketing for high profile brands. But, Stuart and his wife Stacey grew tired of the ruthless, superficial environment and wanted to get back to what made them happy – living in the South African bush and making a difference to the environment and community.

Stuart already had connections with the directors at African Impact, a volunteer travel organisation which specialises in impacting both conservation and communities. So, he bit the bullet and arranged a meeting.

“[We] went for a pizza and they brought their entire families… It just spoke volumes about how the business was run and that it was collective effort. Compared to the corporate world, where it was all deadlines and harsh and cold, here was a warm world of being welcomed into the sunshine,” Stuart told Conservation Careers.

Still, it was not an easy decision. While Stuart wanted to get back to nature, he was also nervous about walking away from some of the boardroom skills he had grown to love.

“The biggest fear was not isolation, it was losing what I was so passionate about every single day – working with strategy. I loved the whole map of things, I was petrified of losing that and thought by coming into the bush I would,” he said.

“But, if anything, this role gives a broader diversity of doing what I loved in the corporate world, but making it impactful,” Stuart added.

The position involves a lot of problem solving, and juggling the needs of volunteers, staff development and mentorship, the desires of conservationists and the local community. Something Stuart finds immensely rewarding.

“Our volunteers leave with a whole different perspective of Africa. We get repeat volunteers and some staff are in fact ex-volunteers, and we are proud of what we have created. Every volunteer who arrives becomes part of the team and the family and that’s the same across AI,” he enthused.

Negotiating skills have also proved key, particularly in South Africa where many reserves are owned by different landlords. His time in the corporate industry gave him the confidence to open-up communication – whether that be helping in talks to remove fences on neighbouring reserves to allow the introduction of big five animals, or gaining rights to work and research on land owners’ property.

“My tenure in the corporate world gave me the ability and the belief, plus the tricks and tips, to do these things…It helped me to realise that people are people and everyone wants the same thing – they have money to spend but are scared it is going to be spent the wrong way. Whether that be here on a reserve, or in a board room in New York,” he said.


Mind map to reach your career destination

Understanding strategy is also useful for those starting out in conservation. Just saying you want to work in this industry is too broad a statement.

Stuart is a firm believer that by mind mapping – a diagram used to visually organise information – you will not only narrow down your niche, but become more attractive to employers in the process.

“Go and explode onto a wall and find exactly what you want – write down: I want to be with animals, I want to be in the bush, I want to look at rivers, whatever it is – write it all down,” he advised.

Keep going until you are down to one sentence that stands out for you – and that, Stuart said, is effectively your mission statement.

By going through this process, it allows you to re-evaluate everything – you could find that you are drawn to something quite different to what you set out believing to be your goal.

“Look at the immediate and not necessarily the next thirty years. I know a lot of people would disagree with me on this point, but if you decide today what you are going to do for tomorrow and the next thirty years, you are never going to make the decision, it is too scary.

“You need at some point to take an educated step – say ‘I do not know if there is ground beneath my feet, but I am going to take this decision because I am convinced by it’,” he said.

By narrowing your field, you will also see an improvement in your soft skills and self-belief.

“The first thing is to find the direction you want to go in, and then the second is to just do it – and do it without exception…If you have gone through the mind map process and know the direction – even if it is not a defined role – then that confidence is going to come across in your email, in your CV, in your interview,” he enthused.

He further advised that when applying for jobs it is important to keep applications professional – this includes ensuring that your formatting, punctuation and spelling is correct. Fail to do this and you will fall at the first hurdle.

“Every single piece of communication you put out represents you. If you send an email with just one line saying: ‘See CV attached’ I am not going to look at your CV. You need to impress me… show me you care about what you are saying,” he said.

Volunteer to get beat the competition

African Impact have a variety of staff on all projects, many of whom are previous volunteers. Volunteering puts you above the competition as you would be known to the company alongside having first-hand knowledge of what makes a good volunteer experience.

Volunteer Co-Ordinator: This is a high intensity role, where the co-ordinator is expected to spend all their time with volunteers – ranging from game drives, data crunching and presentations. Qualifications are not necessary, but previous volunteer experience is. They need to be passionate, have a lot of energy and be a people person.

Field Guides: Expect early starts and long days, but the rewards of being in the bush and sharing your passion will be rewarded. A typical day will see the guide be ready for 4am to get the vehicle ready and take volunteers out into the bush. Afternoons can be spent at the reptile centre, while evenings you would be expected to either be on a game drive or presenting on conservation to lodge residents.

To be considered for this role a FGASA is essential. In South Africa, the FGASA is the basic qualification to guide safely in the bush, alongside providing a base understanding of the African bush and its flora and fauna.

There are several programmes in South Africa, such as Bushwise – who work alongside African Impact – which provide courses on FGASA. Alternatively, you can self-study.

Often, Bushwise will send interns for a six-month placement with Stuart and his team.

“To be hired, we would need to have space, but at the end of the six months we may select one or two. Or, we give them references to go in the world elsewhere. For the most part we don’t hire from an outside pool of guides as we are a learning organisation and we want to give people that experience,” he said.

Research Manager: If you are a research manager at the very least you need a degree, but a Masters PHD is preferable. This position would see you in charge of all the data, so attention to detail and an analytical mind is a must.

Project Manager: The project manager needs to be very good at juggling a multitude of tasks daily – this includes logistics and operations, alongside schedule planning.

“If you have a brain that can map out a multiple touchpoints and requirements simultaneously whilst planning ahead then you will fit that role. It wouldn’t need to be a qualification, it would be experience,” Stuart said.

Business Manager: Alongside producing reports and fundraising goals, the business manager oversees the entire project operations and staff management.

Stuart said that the role was not too different from his previous position, albeit with a more spectacular view from the ‘office’ window and with a more positive impact.

“What I remind myself is, every single time I touch a key, I am helping towards conservation, that makes me smile as I reflect upon the fear that engulfed me when I was looking for change, a change that has now positively affected my life forever” he said.

For more information on African Impact visit or follow them on Facebook: @AfricanImpact.OfficialPage and Instagram: @africanimpact.

Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Conservation Enterprises, Organisational Manager