Nancy Lynne Gibson is is a good friend of mine who started an amazing non-profit organization in Thailand — Love Wildlife Foundation. The mission of the non-profit foundation is to educate the younger generation about the importance of wildlife conservation and work towards keeping wild-born animals free in their natural habitat.
She was kind enough to spare me some time to have a conversation with her.
Mickey: How did Love Wildlife Foundation came about? Was it something you always wanted to do? Was it out of a dare? [laughter]
Nancy: Yeah, I dare you to do this [laughter].
Mickey: You studied Medicine so how did that evolve to become Love Wildlife Foundation?
Nancy: I was studying Medicine at first. Then, ding! I didn’t want to do it anymore. At that time, I was taking herpetology and behavioral ecology and I found that’s what I really liked. Afterwards, I did an internship at the Rosamond lion breeding compound. I was supposed to intern for about three months but I ended up staying there for about a year. I just couldn’t tear myself away. Then, The Animal Guys, who were also graduates of CSU Northridge, came to talk to us and we got to learn about them and I thought what they were doing was really cool. I applied to work with them and then started teaching wildlife biology with The Animal Guys. I just submerged myself in learning about animals and I wanted to do something similar to The Animal Guys, but maybe not in the same area code. Then, I came to Thailand thinking that I’ll get more experience here and then I’ll go back and do this in the US. I picked the Love Wildlife name already before I even moved here. I didn’t know what I was going to do with it but I knew that I wanted the name. Then, I ended up staying in Thailand.
Mickey: [laughter] This seems to be your story so far. You were supposed to stay for three months, you stayed for a year. You were supposed to stay for a short while and now it’s been eleven years.
Nancy: [laughter] Yeah, part of it was that I was interning with the zoos here, the Dusit Zoo (สวนสัตว์ดุสิต) and the Chiang Mai Zoo (สวนสัตว์เชียงใหม่). When I was at Dusit Zoo, someone came in on a motorbike with a slow loris and said that he found the creature on the tree, near his house, and so he brought the animal over to the zoo. The vets were like, “There’s no way he found her in the tree. Her teeth has already been cut. She was definitely a pet.” At that time, I was helping the Dusit Zoo with the education program and the vets told me to take her home and see if we can work with her. If it didn’t work, I can bring her back to the zoo. So, I took the slow loris home and look for information about how to care for her but I could barely find anything. The only thing I could find was one little manual and it wasn’t even on that specific species! It was a different species — a slender loris which didn’t even live here. The slow loris had so many problems with her teeth and I just discovered a whole lot about the animal itself and then decided that Thailand was where I needed to do this the most because there are so many wild animals here that people don’t know about. That’s why I decided to start Love Wildlife and that’s why our logo is a slow loris.
Mickey: How long did it take from your arrival in Thailand to start this foundation?
Nancy: It took some time. I’ve been here 11 years. Love Wildlife is five and a half years old.
Mickey: About half the time.
Nancy: Yeah, but I started it as a project before. In 2008, we were at first a project under another organization. We were able to legally work, do things, and have credibility. About a year later, in 2009, I decided to put it together and set it up as a foundation.
Mickey: Did you have mentors or you just read up and then plunged into this?
Nancy: Sort of plunged into it. Non-profit world in Thailand is a little bit different from the US. Most of the stuff I researched pertained to the US because I wanted to set it up there, get funding from the US, and use the fundings here in Thailand but that proved to be a lot harder than I thought. Nobody wanted to take on that burden. I spoke to non-profit lawyers and they said that without a physical presence, you can’t get things done. That’s why we ended up doing it here in Thailand and I ended up asking friends with legal backgrounds in non-profits to help us through the process.
Mickey: The mentors then are mostly lawyers?
Nancy: Lawyers and other conservationists at the zoos. Actually, I just experimented with a bunch of methods. When I first set up Love Wildlife, I didn’t really know what we were doing either. People asked me, “What do you do at Love Wildlife?” and I’m like, “I don’t know.” [laughter]
Mickey: You were just finding your way or mission.
Nancy: Yeah, the mission and the niche. We always had the mission but people still needed more explanation of what’s going on.
Mickey: You read up on setting up in the US. How different is it between setting up in the US and in Thailand? Is it easier? More difficult?
Nancy: They’re both difficult. I think in the US, it’s easy to set up as a non-profit. You can do it on your own. You don’t need lawyers. That might be because I’m American and I’m fluent in English. But here, in Thailand, especially in the beginning, I couldn’t read or write Thai at all. I can speak Thai but when I had to go through documents and writethings down, there was just no way I could do it. We had to use attorneys. Even if I could read Thai, I don't think it’s an easy process for someone to do on their own. All the organizations I know of have used lawyers to do it. It’s just way too much to try to do it yourself. The tax-exempt status is also difficult here. They changed the laws recently. Before, you had to be established for 3-5 years and then you had to send them all these documents before you can actually get it. Now, you don’t have to wait that long but it’s still a big hassle to get all the documents prepare for them to evaluate and you have to justify everything. If you fail it, you'll never ever be able to apply for it again.
Mickey: Oh wow. That’s serious.
Nancy: Yeah. So, if they think that you don’t have all of your documents in order yet, they'll tell you to not do it that year. You’ll have to come back next year. Otherwise, you won’t get to do this anymore.
Mickey: At least they give you a warning. Better than they take the documents and tell you too bad.
Nancy: I’ve been doing the accounting myself in English but for the evaluations, it needs to all be in Thai. They don’t understand a lot of English words that is being used and a lot of it has to be translated. I’m hiring an accountant from now on. I can’t do this anymore!
Mickey: Speaking of accounting, how difficult was it to find funding in the beginning? I imagined it was difficult because it was difficult to set up as a non-profit but was it easy because there were a lot of people passionate about your mission?
Nancy: It was a struggle. Thai people like to give money, but they like to give money during an emergency or to big organizations that they're familiar with. These big organizations have people out there actively showing what they’re doing, trying to get your credit card information, and signing you up for monthly installments. For us, we don’t have those resources and people don’t know us. In the beginning, all the funding was coming from me. I was teaching and I used my salary to run Love Wildlife. That’s what I did for the first 2-3 years. After that, we started to receive little fundings here and there. We were able to get an office and one extra staff member. My little funding source came from a lot of the international schools here in Thailand.
Mickey: That’s a good source.
Nancy: Yeah, it’s a good source for donors but it’s also not stable. You don’t know how much you’re going to get each year because they always change the organizations that they support. You’ll have one year where they’re really interested in Love Wildlife and the whole school does the fundraiser and you get quite a bit. Some years, you only have a couple of clubs that are interested and it’s on a smaller scale. It’s not fixed.
Mickey: How does non-profit organization work in terms of fundraising? Do you keep any excess and use it for next year? Or do you have to use all the funds that you’ve raised for that particular calendar year for tax reasons?
Nancy: We have two different types of funding — restricted funding and non-restricted funding. The ones that come from the schools, unless they were fundraising for something very specific, are usually non-restricted funding so you can use it for anything in the organization. You don’t have to use the whole thing. Restricted funds, however, you have to use based on the budget that you asked for and you have to use it for that purpose only. You can’t use it for something else. If you have excess from those funds, you’ll have to ask the donors whether you can use it for some other project instead. Sometimes they say yes, sometimes they say no and you’ll have to return the funds. For large grants, if you don’t use all the amount, they’ll generally take it back. Luckily, we haven’t had to give donations back but it is an option for them.
Mickey: Love Wildlife has been around for about five and a half years. In which year did you feel that this was going to work?
Nancy: It’s weird because you have up-and-down moments. One moment, you have a team together and you know you can do this. Another moment, you’re like, “Oh my god! Are we going to be okay?” It’s really a rollercoaster.
Mickey: When did you realize that Love Wildlife was sustainable?
Nancy: You don’t [laughter]. When you’re a smaller organization, nothing is certain. You’re depending so much on outside funding. Right now, I’m trying to change that by looking into the sustainability of our programs. I’m trying to make sure that we have programs that can sustain itself and the administrative cost that goes along with it. For example, we have a whale-watching program. We contribute to the conservation, whale ID, GPS location, behavior studies, but we take guests on the tripwith us and the guests pay for the trip themselves. Part of their payment pays for the research that happens. The guests also get educated and learn about the environment, the fishermen in the villages, the culture in the area, anything to give them more knowledge about the environment. We’re trying to do a social enterprise type model. Anything extra goes back into the organization and we’re trying to use that type of model so that we don’t have to go outside and beg for money. If we’re self-sufficient, then we can become a full-on foundation and give money to other people. That’s what I want. I want to give scholarships to students to go into environmental science or veterinarian school. I want to do that and it’s still in the process for me.
Part II of this conversation will be posted later this week
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.