Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Tara Stoinski of Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund Is Helping To Change Our World
Try to find that elusive work-life balance. It’s easy, when you work in the nonprofit world, to let your job consume you, because the job is important, the work is never-ending, and the person doing the work is passionate about it. But you need space to live — to pursue hobbies, to spend time with friends and family. The work will always be there. Make time to live outside of that.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”,I had the pleasure of interviewing Tara Stoinski.
Dr. Tara Stoinski serves as President and CEO and Chief Scientific Officer for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. Prior to taking on the CEO role in 2014, she worked with the Fossey Fund for 13 years in a scientific capacity. Tara has studied gorillas for more than two decades and is the author of over 100 scientific publications and books. Her work has been featured in numerous press outlets, including National Geographic Magazine, CNN, and NPR. She holds degrees from Tufts University, University of Oxford and the Georgia Institute of Technology and is an adjunct professor at Emory University. Dr. Stoinski also serves in a number of leadership positions within the conservation, primate and academic communities.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Growing up, I always thought I’d become a veterinarian. But after I finished my master’s degree, I had an opportunity to go to Africa to study animal behavior, and that changed my whole trajectory. Instead of going to vet school, I went back to school to pursue my PhD. I began studying primates, found my way to the Fossey Fund, and here I am, with the best job ever.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
For as long as I’ve worked at the Fossey Fund, it’s been our dream to have a purpose-built facility with laboratories and other work spaces that would allow us to increase the impact of our work. We started planning the space in the early 2000s, but when the recession hit in 2008, we put the dream on the back burner. In 2017, the Fossey Fund leadership made the decision to move forward. Within months of that decision, Ellen DeGeneres and her wife, Portia de Rossi, announced a lead gift to the project that helped us to get started.
In February of this year, we officially opened The Ellen DeGeneres Campus of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, and I’m just so excited about it.
The mission of the Ellen Campus is to create a space for us to engage the many stakeholders in conservation — students, scientists, tourists, conservation partners, community members — to advance our collective goal of saving gorillas and, more broadly, the planet.
It’s a multi-acre, eco-friendly facility adjacent to the Volcanoes National Park — where the gorillas we protect live. It greatly expands our laboratory and educational space, which allows us to do more science — and it also enables to bring more bring educational opportunities to early career African scientists and members of the local community. It’s so great to see people on the campus, studying and learning. To know we are helping to build the future conservationists who will not only study and protect gorillas, but will work to halt climate change and protect biodiversity across the continent of Africa and beyond — it’s just such an amazing thing to see.
We’re not just working with scientists and students, though. The Ellen Campus is also designed to support Rwanda’s ecotourism sector. Managed by the Rwandan government, tourism to see the gorillas plays a critical role in providing revenue for the park as well as supporting local communities through employment and revenue sharing. Visitors to the Ellen Campus can immerse themselves in an interactive, educational exhibit that includes original, never before displayed artifacts from Dian Fossey’s almost two decades of living among the gorillas, a 360-degree theater and numerous engaging, edutainment opportunities to learn more about the science and people behind the conservation success of mountain gorillas.
We are widely seen as leaders in conservation science, and the mountain gorillas we help protect are one of the world’s few conservation success stories — the population has increased from just a couple hundred individuals a few decades ago to more than 600 in the area where we work, bringing the total population to just over 1,000 individual mountain gorillas. Our new Ellen Campus is going to take us to the next level, and it’s such an honor to lead the Fossey Fund into this new era of conservation.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
While I’m sure I made many mistakes as a young scientist, luckily memories fade and I can’t think of any that are particularly amusing! I do remember one time giving a lecture and calling our Karisoke Research Center the Karaoke Research Center, which generated a lot of laughs.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Our mission is “Helping People, Saving Gorillas,” so of course helping people is integral to our conservation work. We know that to save gorillas and to protect their unique, biodiverse habitat, we need buy-in from the communities that make their homes near the gorilla habitat. So we invest a significant amount of time and resources into food and water security, education and livelihood programs — programs that reduce community reliance on the resources that they might otherwise need to take from the gorillas’ forest home.
But our work to help people goes beyond the borders of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Through our work to study and protect the rainforests of the Congo Basin, we are helping to protect one of the planet’s best natural defenses again climate change. We call the rainforests of the Congo basin the “lungs” of our planet: Covering 1.2 million square miles and spanning six countries, this is the second-largest rainforest in the world and has a major role to play in absorbing carbon.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Jonas Nubaha began working for Fossey Fund in 1979. He started out as a young man working on one of our anti-poaching teams and later became one of our trackers.
Jonas stayed with us for 40 years. When he retired in 2019, he told us that he had paid to send all five of his children to secondary school with his Fossey Fund salary. Several of them went on to study at the university with his help as well.
To me, this is a perfect example of the way the Fossey Fund makes a difference. We hired one person and trained him to do a job, which he did faithfully and well for four decades. Over those 40 years his diligence helped save countless gorillas from snares, poachers and other threats. And his work made a difference within his community as well — his children grew up safe, healthy and educated, and today they are themselves making a difference in their community.
This is a small story, about one Rwandan family. But it illustrates our overall mission of “Helping People, Saving Gorillas,” and reminds me that the work we do continues to pay dividends years down the road. Both on the macro level of protecting the second-largest rainforest in the world, and on a micro level, making a difference for one small family, our work changes the world.
Here’s another, more current example, of a person who has helped — and been helped by — the Fossey Fund. Deogratias Tuyisingize was a university student when he first joined us for training in 2004. We were impressed by his diligence and enthusiasm, so after he graduated, we hired him full time. When Deo decided to pursue his master’s degree in conservation biology at the University of Cape Town, we supported him financially. He’s been leading our biodiversity program ever since he finished his master’s, and he’s about to graduate yet again with a PhD from the University of Rwanda, where his research focus is on the golden monkeys that share their habitat with mountain gorillas. He also now leads our collaboration with the University of Rwanda to educate early career scientists — the very program he participated in as a student. In this case, our commitment to supporting the future conservationists of Africa and to investing in our own staff has paid significant dividends, both for us and for this talented young scientist.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
As a society, we need to realize collectively that if we want to protect mega-vertebrates like gorillas, elephants, wild cats and other iconic species, we also need to protect the ecosystems in which they thrive: the plants, trees, insects and even the soil underneath their feet.
Our politicians need to pass laws that protect the environment, address climate change and — importantly — provide funding for these activities. Conservation is chronically and critically underfunded, with less than 3% of charitable dollars going toward conservation activities. Politicians need to step in and help us make up the difference.
As individuals, we each have a job to do. We need to elect politicians who care about the future of our planet and work to protect its resources, of course, but we can’t leave the work to the politicians alone. We also need to make sensible consumer choices. We need to push for conservation education in our schools. And we need to support the organizations that are laser-focused on doing this work — the Fossey Fund, obviously, but also other conservation organizations, large and small, in our own back yards and around the world.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
There are many definitions out there — just do a quick google search — but I think at its core, leadership is the ability to create an environment where everyone feels empowered to contribute to moving toward a common goal.
What are your “five things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Try to find that elusive work-life balance. It’s easy, when you work in the nonprofit world, to let your job consume you, because the job is important, the work is never-ending, and the person doing the work is passionate about it. But you need space to live — to pursue hobbies, to spend time with friends and family. The work will always be there. Make time to live outside of that.
- Don’t lose sight of what brought you to this work in the first place. I started out at the Fossey Fund as a research scientist. My current job as CEO, overseeing the entire organization, is completely different, but it’s still important for me to stay involved in the science that our team is doing because it truly feeds my mind and heart. My face lights up on days when I have science meetings on my calendar or when I’m in the field with our teams. Those are the moments that give me the most pleasure.
- Dream big. For an organization that started with one woman and two tents, we’ve come pretty far. It was a dream of ours for years to have a purpose-built facility from which we could conduct science and educate the public. And here we are with the opening of our Ellen Campus this year. Similarly, when we expanded our conservation footprint into DR Congo to help save the drastically declining Grauer’s gorillas, we also dreamed big. We started with a few staff members and an ambitious outreach plan, and we worked hard to get buy-in from local community members. The Nkuba Conservation Area, which we started, is now officially recognized by the government of the DRC as a community conservation area, and last year we entered into a 25-year agreement with the NCA community to help them manage it as a conservation area.
- Invest in relationships. Our work is all about relationships — not just with staff, but with donors, media,conservation partners…the list goes on and on. Investment in these relationships takes time but it is ultimately what brings success. Build trusting relationships both within and outside of your organization is key to achieving long-term success.
- “It’s amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” This quote is attributed to President Harry Truman, and I firmly believe that it’s true. I think when many people start, they are looking to prove themselves (understandably so) but sometimes that desire to get credit can undermine the work itself. Over time I’ve definitely learned that what is most important, and often most rewarding, is achieving your goal. And sometimes this means taking a back seat or perhaps not fully getting the credit you deserve. But if the outcome is achieved, that is the real success.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
We see from Dian Fossey’s example that any one person can make a difference through their passion and dedication to a cause. But we also know that when people join together, the impact they make can be enormous.
We saw this first hand in March 2021, when a group of maverick investors, who call their group WallStreetBets, decided they wanted to support the Fossey Fund.
A bit of background: We have many loyal grassroots supporters, and their small-dollar donations go a long way toward supporting our field programs. The Fossey Fund works hard to ensure every single dollar raised is used to its full potential to conserve the endangered wildlife and habitats it protects. Charity Navigator gives us a four-star rating. One of our most popular programs is a symbolic gorilla adoption program, which allows donors to “adopt” one of the gorillas we protect.
On a typical weekend, we might get 10 adoption requests through our website. But one weekend last year, we noticed a sudden and unexpected uptick in adoptions — 100, 200, 1,000 adoption requests flooded our website in a matter of hours. We soon discovered what was driving the uptick: the WallStreetBets community. A WSB member had posted on Reddit that they had adopted a gorilla under the name “GameStop,” and it caught on. Adoption after adoption followed. By Monday, there were more than 2,000 adoptions totaling more than $265,000 — and growing.
This group — which wasn’t connected in any way to our conservation work before that weekend — created a financial situation that enabled us to hire more field staff, bring critical equipment to our trackers in the forest and make significant upgrades to our infrastructure, helping keep our staff safe on the job as they worked in remote and difficult areas to protect and study the mountain gorillas of Rwanda and the Grauer’s gorillas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
There is power in numbers. Each of us has the power of our voice and of our pocketbook. But when we join together, as the WSB community did last March, we can change the world. I’m very grateful that they chose to change my small corner of the world, and it’s wonderful to see how many of them went beyond a one-time adoption to become longer term members of our donor community.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Every problem is an opportunity.”
I think of this all the time. Maybe you didn’t get the job you wanted, or the grant you needed, or hire the staff person you thought you wanted but it may still turn out for the best in some strange way that you couldn’t have foreseen.
“Every problem is an opportunity” was my late husband’s motto, too, and it holds the story of why I took this job. When the Fossey Fund board offered me this job, my husband Andy had just died of cancer. I had two small girls at home, and we were all grieving. It was a terrible time to take on something new, something as big and important as this job. But I felt so passionate about our team and our mission and so decided to take the leap. And I’m so happy I did, it gave me opportunities to grow within the organization but more importantly, it helped give me purpose and keep me going forward at a very difficult time in my life.
Is there a person in the world, or in the U.S., with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
If she were still alive, I’d love to share a meal and a chat with Dian Fossey — preferably in the café at our new campus in Rwanda! People always ask me: What would Dian think of the work you are doing in her name? And I would love to show her what the organization she started has become. She started on her own at a time when people thought gorillas were fearsome, terrifying creatures. She changed the way people thought about gorillas. And she helped bring them back from the brink of extinction through her activism and courage. If it weren’t for her commitment, we might not have any mountain gorillas left on the planet today. I would love to thank her — to tell her that her sacrifice truly made a difference for the gorillas and for our planet.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @savinggorillas.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Tara Stoinski of Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund Is Helping To Change Our… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.