This paper examines the evolving and innovatory role of the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), an NGO with charitable status, in dealing with the challenge of protecting wildlife outside state-protected areas. Drawing on the theoretical framework of institutional entrepreneurship, we historically trace AWF's engagement in conservation tourism, describing the complexities of how its actions evolved into the new organizational form of tourism conservation enterprises. We identify four key mechanisms – its “glocal” scope of action, awareness of policy and market voids, experimentation and hiring business professionals – that explain why AWF became aware, motivated and open to developing this organizational form. Lessons emerging from this process include that conservation NGOs should act as “opportunity seekers”, focus on incremental rather than radical innovations, note voids and ambiguities in governmental policies that provide opportunities for non-state actors to assume the role of institutional entrepreneur, and hire staff skilled in business, tourism and strategic management besides staff with the more conventional conservation skills in order to effectively engage in conservation tourism. Overall, the paper notes the importance of commercial conservation tourism approaches for the work of protected areas worldwide, and in using tourism as a poverty alleviation tool in less developed countries.