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Raising Funds in a Pandemic

By Alina Tugend
min read

Development Staff Adapt to COVID-19 Realities

When Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities say everyone is on board to help raise funds to offset losses during the pandemic, they mean everyone.

That includes Fernando the sloth, who beginning in April has been making virtual appearances everywhere from corporate events to birthday parties on behalf of the Phoenix Zoo in Phoenix, Ariz. Using a platform called Cameo—where customers can buy personalized video shoutouts from celebrities—the Zoo has offered appearances by a giraffe, flamingos, and a stingray, but Fernando has proved the most popular. At $50 a pop, he has filmed 279 videos and brought in about $8,700.

 “We try to get him when he’s awake,” said Bonnie Mendoza, the Zoo’s chief financial officer.

The dire economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic on AZA facilities—most were closed from mid-March for at least three months—has forced institutions’ staff to join departments and brainstorm events that can raise money, engage community members, and be conducted safely.

Almost every facility had to cancel spring galas and Easter events. Some, in warmer climates, were closed during what would have been their busiest months.

Facilities across the country exchanged ideas, on whether to make planned events virtual, to cancel altogether, or to pivot to something entirely new.

The Nashville Zoo in Nashville, Tenn., decided to take advantage of what its city is known for—country music—and pitched a fundraising event to a local ABC affiliate: an hour-long event with country music stars and zoo staff. The television station enthusiastically came on board.

Screenshot of Keith Urban performing for Nashville Zoo's concert fundraiser

In seven weeks, they lined up such big names as Brad Paisley, Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Keith Urban and Sheryl Crow, all performing for free, said Suzanne Iler, the Zoo’s chief development officer. She also took care of the paperwork and licenses needed to ensure all could proceed smoothly,

On 8 October it went live, with singers, zookeepers and animals. When the donations hit $100,000, a newscaster agreed to hold a snake. At $200,000 it was a scorpion. The final amount came to more than $300,000 making it the Zoo’s most successful fundraiser to date, Iler said.

“We had 40,000 viewers—it was like an hour-long commercial for the Zoo,” she added. “It might become a permanent part of our fundraising.”

Other zoos and aquariums figured out ways to turn traditional gatherings into safe ones during the pandemic. Both the Rolling Hills Zoo near Salina, Kan., and the Phoenix Zoo, for example, have enough space to allow cars to drive through.

So, at Rolling Hills Zoo, the annual August Zoo Brew Craft Fest evolved into a family-friendly zoo drive-through in September, said Linda Henderson, director of development and marketing.

For $40 a car for members and $50 per car for non-members—no limit on the number of passengers per car—people drove past eight different stations, receiving treats such as cotton candy, popcorn or a toy dinosaur in honor of the Return of the Dinosaur exhibit.

Only 70 cars were allowed, and the Zoo sold out in two days, solely by advertising the event on social media. At the end of the cruise, the driver “popped the trunk and we put in two six-packs of craft beers,” Henderson said. “Guests have never been allowed to drive through the Zoo, so this was very special—people had a blast.”

Car drives through Phoenix Zoo

In fact, it was so successful, that next year the Zoo will hold the Zoo Drive Thru and their in-person Zoo Brew Craft Fest as stand-alone events.

The Phoenix Zoo extended the idea with its Cruise the Zoo experience. The Zoo was closed from mid-March to mid-June; then, as COVID numbers began spiking, the Zoo shut down again between 2 July and 14 September.

During that time, it hosted 43 drive-through events, Mendoza said, including a final one once the Zoo reopened, “because it was so popular.” People could advance order lunch for their car, buy binoculars to better see the animals, and Zoo vendors were scattered on the route.

About 400 cars participated each day at the cost of about $60 per car. Because Phoenix is so hot, the cruising more than made up for the foot traffic the Zoo would have seen in July and August, she added.

The Zoo’s normal fall fundraiser turned into a cruising event, which raised more money than the traditional event, she said; their holiday ZooLights exhibit also became a drive-through for 25 of 90 days.

Guests like the driving experience so much that the Zoo may bring some of it back next year because, Mendoza said, it was not only a fun event, but could include people who traditionally might not be able to attend, such as those with mobility issues.

“Having some nights of drive-through is a positive for the community,” she said.

The Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Ill., had not been able to open its buildings since 18 March but reopened its grounds for guests—who could see animals that had access to outdoor habitats—in July. There isn’t enough room to drive through, but fortunately, one of its big summer events at the Brookfield Zoo was an outdoor animatronic exhibition of 40 dinosaurs, said Cynthia Zeigler, the institution’s chief advancement officer.

To raise money, guests could “lease” a dinosaur for between $500 and $2,500; that allowed the lease to create a sign posted in front of the dinosaur and have a photo taken with it. Some examples: “I am extinct, you don’t have to be, wear a mask/social distance.” The Zoo raised $16,000 with that effort alone, Zeigler said.

Many zoos and aquariums found that the one silver lining during a very difficult time was that efforts to target a broader community widened the pool of supporters.

For example, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Ill., deployed its auxiliary board of young professionals to raise funds on behalf of the Aquarium; they also established their own fundraising pages on Shedd’s website.

“From peer networking alone, we raised $600,000, and of that $120,000 represented completely new contributions,” said Gina Rodriguez, the Aquarium’s chief development officer. In total, Shedd’s Reopening Mini-Campaign brought in $1.8 million, slightly more than the typical total net revenue of its two signature galas, she said. In addition, their social media followers doubled

Cars driving through Zoo-Lights holiday light drive-thru event

“This was one of our great findings,” Rodriguez said. “We have passionate supporters with great networks that extend beyond Chicago.”

The Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, the fundraising arm of the Los Angeles Zoo in Los Angeles, Calif., was set to send out its annual appeal right before the Zoo closed on 13 March, said Eugenia Vasels, vice president institutional advancement for the Association.

“The focus was going to be on the California condors and their conservation, but we pivoted immediately,” she said.  “It was abundantly evident that wasn’t the right message at the moment.”

Instead, the appeal focused on the Zoo closing—it remained shut for 166 days, throughout the typically busy spring season—and instead of targeting specific audiences “we said, ‘let’s just send it out to our entire database’” of about 400,000 emails.

The original goal was to raise $65,000. The final amount? $280,000.

“The response was phenomenal,” Vasels said. “Many were first-time donors. Some people made a $5 gift, saying ‘I was just laid off and this is the most I can do, but I care about the animals. Others gave $5,000.”

Many other zoos said they had the same overwhelmingly positive response, especially when the animals’ needs were highlighted.

The Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo’s major fundraiser, which to date has brought in $14 million, was called Above and Beyond. It focused on how much the care and feeding of all the animals in the Zoo equated to—$41,000—in one day, Zeigler said.

That campaign, along with its decision to make its gala and accompanying auctions virtual and open to the public, brought “a whole new group of donors in our database that we didn’t have before,” she added

The Denver Zoo in Denver Colo., which has an average of 2,000 donors a year, gained 5,100 new donors during the 87 days it was closed, said Noelle DeLage, the Zoo’s chief development officer.

For many, the lessons learned during the pandemic will change the way they raise money even when things are back to normal.  Some intend to keep part of their galas virtual to continue including and widening the audience they gained during their shutdowns.

And it’s not just fundraising. The Chicago Zoological Society/Brookfield Zoo marketing department created a Facebook Live series—a half-hour program called Bringing the Zoo to You.  The half-hour program ran every weekday at 11 am until the Zoo reopened and viewers could text in questions. Each program featured requests to adopt an animal, which helped raise more than $300,000.

Iler, of the Nashville Zoo, said it was particularly helpful during the pandemic that zoos everywhere traded fundraising ideas on listservs about what worked and what didn’t.

“The wonderful thing about zoos is that we don’t compete with each other,” she said.

First and Third Photos Credit: © Phoenix Zoo
Second Photo Credit: © Nashville Zoo

Alina Tugend is a writer based in Larchmont, N.Y.

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