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Saving the Alaska SeaLife Center

By Katie Morell

How Alaska’s Beloved Public Aquarium Pulled off a Lifesaving Fundraising Campaign

Nancy Anderson woke early the morning of Monday, 13 July, logged onto her computer in Seward, Alaska, where she’s development director for The Alaska SeaLife Center, took a deep breath, and waited.

At exactly 8 a.m., a Center email newsletter with the subject line We Need Your Help was dispatched to thousands of recipients across the globe detailing a fundraising campaign with an ask of $2 million. The email got straight to the point: because of the impact of COVID-19, the Center had to raise that amount of money by 30 September 2020.

If it failed to meet its goal, the facility would be forced to close permanently. 

Anderson had set alerts for potential donations, and within minutes, the alert function on her computer was dinging so frequently that she decided to mute the sound. By 11:30 a.m., her inbox had ballooned to more than 1,100 donation messages (up from 150 messages at 7:59 a.m.), each gift averaging $100.

Then, sitting in her home office as the sun shone through her windows with the promise of another hot summer day, the tears came.

Unique Challenges

Nestled on the coast of Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula, 126 miles south of Anchorage, the town of Seward is home to around 2,700 permanent residents. When The Alaska SeaLife Center opened in 1998, it brought tremendous attention to the small town, and today the Center is among the state’s must-see destinations.

Guest wearing masks looking at the sea lion exhibit

The Center’s operations and visitor patterns are unique: although it is open year-round, 90 percent of its revenue is generated during the summer, with cruise ship traffic among its biggest feeders. Because of its remote locale, Alaska residents only make up 25 percent of visitors, a stark contrast from the metrics felt by public aquariums in other locations, which, generally speaking, benefit from a larger percentage of visitors commuting within a short drive. For the Center, if someone from Alaska comes to visit, they are likely making a trip of at least three hours to get there.

Even with its out-of-the-way location, the Center has endeared itself to droves of people over the last 28 years with its 4,000 resident animals and its dedication to cutting-edge marine biology research. But when COVID-19 started spreading in the U.S. in mid-March 2020, the seasonality, location, and mostly-indoor operations made the situation quickly dire in terms of revenue.

The Center’s President and Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Tara Riemer, knew early that the facility would be hit severely by virus fallout. Right as Alaska was closing its borders, she and her management team flew into action, instructing those who could work from home to plan to do so for at least a month.

“I told them to take their monitors home, take their desk chairs if they wanted to,” she said. She also split the on-site staff into two teams who would come in during alternating shifts to take care of the animals.

At night, her schedule was the same: watch the 5 p.m. televised press briefings by Alaska’s Governor Mike Dunleavy and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anne Zink and go for a hike up the mountain behind her house to clear her head.

Horned puffin

“I had to keep myself mentally stable enough to lead the organization through this, so it was all about keeping up to date and communicating,” said Riemer. “Thankfully, I’m a good sleeper.”

The Fundraising Begins

Beyond some initial individual outreach to donors, the first major push for funding happened with an Earth Day campaign on 22 April, which consisted of an email to the Center’s list and a posting on Facebook. The concise, four-paragraph email explained that, as of that date, there was an anticipated loss of more than $500,000, and that funding was in order. The team was hopeful that the message would be well received.

“But we never anticipated the outpouring of emotion that would come from our community,” said Anderson. “We received so many messages from people all over the U.S. explaining what the Center meant to them. I’d try to pick the top five each day to send out the staff.”

Within a week, the campaign had generated more than $20,000 in donations.

The Center reopened in late May at a decreased capacity, and Riemer kept an eye on the revenue coming in. After two weeks reopened, she had enough hard numbers to prove a sobering reality: while the Center needed $4 million per year to operate, updated projections put them in at reaching only $1 million. While they’d received a $1 million PPP loan from the government, it wasn’t nearly enough to float them for the year’s remaining months.

Riemer did the math and quickly realized if the Center wasn’t able to raise an additional $2 million from donations by late September, it would need to close. She started messaging this to the Board.

“They were a little shocked at first,” she remembers. “But this wasn’t an idle threat. I explained how this was real, that we’d have to close by late September without this money and move our animals.”

Aviculturist feeding puffins

"I explained how this was real, that we’d have to close by late September without this money and move our animals.”

The team sprang into action yet again and hatched a wide-reaching plan to raise the $2 million they needed, enlisting the help of Board member Kate Consenstein, a public relations expert and principal at Rising Tide Communications. They choose 13 July to launch the campaign, contacted the Anchorage Daily News, developed a targeted social media strategy, filmed campaign-specific videos, and held their breaths when the email newsletter went out at 8 a.m.

Anderson wasn’t the only one shedding tears of joy that morning as donations came in. Riemer was sitting in her house, looking at the front page of the Anchorage Daily News with a story about the facility in the center in bold type. With Consenstein’s help, the Associated Press wrote a piece, the local television stations picked up the story, and social media was blowing up.

“The story was so big; it was everywhere,” Riemer said. “Other institutions: if you don’t have a PR professional on your board, get one now.”

The campaign kicked off a cascade of support. Within a week, the Center had raised $1 million from individual donors. It took no time for more people to start calling, including NatGeo WILD, who offered to do a Facebook Live with one of its photographers. Local Seward restaurants hosted their own fundraisers. Kids started lemonade-stand campaigns to raise money and dropped off physical piggy banks on the Center’s admissions counter.

By the second week, Riemer got a call from Alaska telecommunications company GCI with an offer for a $50,000 matching grant. Next came another email from the cruise industry for a $100,000 matching grant that would run in mid-August.

“I broached the topic with the company knowing we had some corporate dollars available for Alaska and that one of our priorities is marine stewardship and conservation,” said Wendy Lindskoog, past chair of the Center and Royal Caribbean Group’s assistant vice president for government relations in Alaska. “It was a great fit.”

Alaska SeaLife Center Wildlife Response team release seals Alaska SeaLife Center Wildlife Response employee holding a baby sea otter

Around the same time, the Center got a call from gas and oil giant ConocoPhillips with the offer of a $250,000 matching grant. The bonus: the company was willing to do its own public relations campaign that included newspaper and television ads, and, importantly, offered to make their push for the month of September.

“The ConocoPhillips match was huge for us because we knew things would start lagging in September; because of all the publicity, I was one of the most recognizable people in the state that month,” said Riemer. “And I didn’t even leave my small town.”

Success, Future, and Advice

The Center more than reached its goal by 30 September.

“We stopped daily tracking in late September, but projections at that point were more than $4 million in unrestricted funds,” said Riemer.

Get very clear on how much money you need and don’t be afraid to ask for it and justify it.

But what does this mean for the future?

“It means that we are totally revamping our strategy for donors and members to help us maintain a high level of engagement,” said Riemer. “We don’t know what will happen next summer, but we were able to balance our budget this year and that feels great.”

The impact of COVID-19 shutdowns has been felt by all Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities. For those interested in mirroring a campaign similar to the Center’s, Riemer and Anderson have some words of wisdom.

“Get very clear on how much money you need and don’t be afraid to ask for it and justify it,” said Riemer.

Anderson adds, “We found that the people who already support us really stepped up—the individuals, corporations, and foundations. I wasn’t sure how people would feel about making a donation, but we got a lot of feedback that it helped them feel empowered through the chaos of the pandemic to do something to help others.”

Katie Morell is a writer in Bend, Ore.

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