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Walk Your Talk

By Mary Ellen Collins
min read

Make Your Mission Work for You

What role does your mission play in your daily operations? The words are on your website and your staff can probably recite them at will, but are you mission driven? Can your visitors see your mission in action?  If not, you’re missing an opportunity to strengthen your institution’s financial health.

“How well an organization performs financially is related to how well they are perceived to be executing their mission,” said Colleen Dilenschneider, chief market engagement officer, IMPACTS Research. “Ongoing tracking of 224 visitor-serving organizations in the U.S. has long revealed that entities highlighting their missions outperform those marketing solely as attractions.

Additionally, the research indicates that the most trusted and admired zoos and aquariums are also perceived to be conservation organizations, a finding that supports the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ own findings.

“AZA public polling data shows that guests expect zoos and aquariums to be taking good care of animals in the zoo and doing conservation,” said Chris Kuhar, executive director of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Cleveland, Ohio. He recently led a marketing rebrand of the Zoo’s conservation program after a guest survey revealed that fewer than 50 percent of respondents knew that the Zoo was active in conservation.

“The new tagline, ‘Secure a Future for Wildlife,’ speaks to conservation in the field and securing our animal populations moving forward.”

After incorporating the tagline into messaging and signage and adding it to staff uniforms, that conservation awareness metric increased from 50 to 90 percent. Based on that success, Kuhar’s team will incorporate the language into the mission statement, which is currently being revised as part of a strategic plan review.

AZA members employ different strategies to make their missions work for them, but all agree on the importance of consistently walking their talk.

Engagement and Buy-In  

Sometimes an institution revises its mission, an approach Steve Burns took when he was director at Zoo Boise in Boise, Idaho.

“We were a regular zoo where you learned about animals and had a nice time, and the old mission was about inspiring and educating people about animals.  We wanted to be able to make a difference, so we added a third mission component—supporting conservation.”

But with a budget of less than $2 million, the small Zoo only generated about $1,000 a year for conservation. So they decided to engage visitors in their conservation effort by requiring a small fee.

“In addition to the admission fee, we started charging 25 cents per person, or $2.50 on a membership,” said Burns. “In the first year we went from generating $1,000 to $57,000 for conservation. And we only had two complaints.”

The Zoo created a partnership with Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, where the Park had been destroyed after 25 years of war. It also began supporting other conservation organizations through a grant program, giving visitors a chance to vote on which programs would be funded. Additional new revenue streams for conservation included fees from giraffe and sloth bear feedings, a boat ride, and visiting the Zoo farm.

Because the Zoo was publicly owned, Burns cites the educational process with the always-changing slate of city officials as the biggest challenge. “It’s easier to accept things like ‘We want to build a new exhibit.’ It’s different when you say, ‘We want to send $200K a year to Mozambique.” And with 10 percent of the budget not going to the organization, staff also required education. “The idea of [supporting conservation] is a no brainer, but the execution is much harder when people want to know why they can’t hire another staff member or have a new office,” said Burns. “We had to help them understand how their how their tasks fueled the conservation effort. We created new uniforms for staff and volunteers that had the Zoo Boise logo and the National Park logo, and told them, ‘You work for both.’ The Partnership eventually became a point of pride not just for the Zoo, but for the city. The Rotary Club started raising money for the National Park, and Boise State University sent researchers there.”

To date, the conservation fees have generated more than $2 million for the conservation of animals around the world, illustrating a mission that said, “Zoo Boise connects our visitors with animals to inspire and involve our community in the conservation of wildlife worldwide.”

Global Advocacy

Involvement in advocacy is a key component of the mission to “inspire conservation of the ocean” for Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif.  According to Chief Operating Officer, Cynthia Vernon, “The focus on advocacy began with the creation of Global Seafood Watch, a program that helps consumers and businesses make choices for a healthy ocean. Visitors started asking, ‘What fish should I buy?’ so we first focused on them. Then we worked with chefs and restaurants, then large buyers of seafood. And now we’re working with government agencies and NGOs around the world.”

The Aquarium advocates for projects that align with their conservation priorities: seafood, ocean plastic pollution, climate change, and restoring ecosystems and habitats.

A decade ago the Aquarium conducted extensive evaluation work to see how well their conservation mission was working with their visitors.

“The overall answer is that it was working,” said Vernon. “Guest experiences showed that the mission was seeping through our exhibitions, but more people than not thought we could go further on what we were putting out there about conservation.  It was gratifying, but it helped to drive our internal work, especially how we interact with our visitors.”

The research emphasized the importance of meaningful connections between visitors and staff.  “If a visitor had one interaction with a staff member, they were more likely to walk out with a deeper understanding of conservation,” said Vernon. “If they had two or more experiences, they left with more of a personal connection. So we added interpretive staff as a way to have more of a conservation impact.” For example, when they worked with a coalition on a statewide ban on plastic bags, their interpreters wore buttons that said “Ask me about this” prior to the vote.

“We do a lot of training with paid and unpaid staff so they can connect with what people are looking at. We also lean into the issues. Over the years, we’ve become one of the most trusted voices in the field of ocean conservation. We’ve earned a lot of trust because we’re science driven and transparent, and we keep our eye on the prize—what’s best for the ocean.”

“Taking a more active role as an activist for ocean conservation has strengthened our appeal as a destination. The more we talk about our mission of ocean conservation, the more trusted we become, and the more people want to visit.  We deliver a great visitor experience, but we are definitely informing the thinking on conservation.”

Relevant Storytelling

The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York, N.Y., which operates four zoos and an aquarium, has some unique challenges regarding brand and mission. Originally known as the New York Zoological Society, the WCS adopted the new name in 1993 because leaders thought it was too New York-centric and didn’t reflect the global conservation work they were doing, according to Jim Breheny, executive vice president and general director for zoos and aquariums, and Jonathon Little Cohen director of the Bronx Zoo.

“WCS has struggled with messaging our two mission elements: the global conservation program and the zoos and aquarium. We link our zoos and aquarium with the field conservation work under the WCS brand in all of our exhibits and graphics; but integrating the brands and messaging the relationship effectively has proven to be complicated, and we continually work on the effort.”

Breheny mentions several ways in which they successfully showcase the mission of the four WCS zoos and aquarium and the relationship between the parks and fieldwork.

“If we want to remain effective, we need to demonstrate relevance. We need to continue to evolve—not by changing the core of who we are and what we do—but by capitalizing on and incorporating new trends in communicating our mission and engaging our visitors. People are experiencing the world differently, and we need to figure out how to integrate these techniques into the way we engage our audiences. What turned that around for us was the TV show [THE ZOO]. We let people see what’s behind the scenes. We say, ‘Here’s what we do. Make up your own mind.’ People are now coming to the Zoo because of the TV show. They’re already invested before they come.”

Another effort involves the Zoo’s Congo Gorilla Forest, which has a separate fee that generates funds for conservation in Central Africa. People leaving the exhibit can vote for which project they would like their fee to support. 

The IMPACTS research confirms what many zoo and aquarium professionals already assumed, said Kuhar. “By aligning business and mission, you don’t have to split the marketing budget or focus. It’s not an either/or. Being mission driven is good for business, as is giving your visitors what they expect.”

“There’s no future for zoos and aquariums if we aren’t relevant,” said Breheny. “People aren’t going to support a menagerie, no matter how well run. We need to relate the exhibits we have to the species in the wild and the challenges they face. There needs to be a higher purpose.”

Mary Ellen Collins is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.

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