Taking the Long View

April 2017

By Mary Ellen Collins

Engaging the Next Generation of Leaders

Staffers at Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited facilities happily greet visitors of all ages, but they are working hard to get one particular demographic through their doors. They know that millennials—a group that ranges from college students to young professionals in their 20s, 30s and 40s—will be the future volunteers, donors and leaders of their facilities. 

“I often say that we know how to get moms with kids in strollers to the Zoo, but single professionals and college students don’t think the Zoo is for them,” said Ginnie Westmoreland, director of marketing at the Saint Louis Zoo in Saint Louis, Mo. “I think if this age group can just visit our facilities, then they can see the work we do and embrace our purpose. We’ve had pretty consistent success with our events targeted to this group.”

She oversees a group of millennials called the Young Zoo Friends, the purpose of which is to enhance the Zoo’s volunteer base and create revenue through membership and fundraising events.  The Zoo has been doing events targeted to the 21 to 40 age group since 1999, with Jammin’ at the Zoo, a beer and wine tasting with lively music, being particularly popular.

At the Cleveland Zoological Society, the nonprofit partner of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Cleveland, Ohio, Trisha Vaughn, campaign relations manager, manages a similar group of young professionals called the Ambassadors Circle.

“I think if this age group can just visit our facilities, then they can see the work we do and embrace our purpose. We’ve had pretty consistent success with our events targeted to this group.”

“It’s important to tap into this group that has purchasing power and influence in the market,” she said. “They know they’re young, but they’re eager to give and they want to be taken seriously. They are very concerned with animal welfare, they’re in tune with the media and they’re very responsive to things in the news. Zoos are the only conservation organizations with built-in audiences, so we have a real opportunity to engage and educate this group.”

Some facilities have official, structured groups that receive membership perks including ticket discounts, special volunteer opportunities, and invitations to events that are designed specifically for them. Others forego the formal structure and simply market new or existing programs and events to this demographic. But whatever strategy they adopt, the pros agree that continually filling the pipeline with a new generation of advocates is critical to the continued health and success of their facilities.

Fun and Fundraising

Offering special events targeted for millennials is a popular and effective way to engage them. When the Cleveland Zoological Society’s Ambassadors Circle organized the facility’s first Adult Scavenger hunt in 2016, they exceeded attendance and revenue expectations, and there was more social media engagement than there was for any other Zoo event. “We were really surprised by the buzz, the positive feedback and the revenue,” said Sarah Crupi, manager of external relations at the Society.

The Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, La., does not have an official young professionals group, but they, too, have found that targeted events are the perfect way to raise the profile of the facility among millennials.  “We have our 40-year-old legacy fundraiser, the Whitney Zoo-To-Do, which is a black tie gala,” said Lani McWilliams, senior director for advancement at the Audubon Nature Institute.  “And we have Zoo-To-Do for Kids, presented by Tulane Pediatrics. But we started thinking about doing something more casual for younger adults who don’t know what it was like 40 years ago when the Zoo was failing. They may not know how far we’ve come, or know New Orleans without the Aquarium.”

They created Scales & Ales, a casual, annual event that draws 3,000 college students and young professionals to Riverfront Plaza to experience the Aquarium at night while also enjoying food, drinks and live music.

“We recruit 35 to 40 young community leaders to serve on a Scales & Ales host committee, and they are expected to sell tickets and invite folks to the event. And we hope they will become future Zoo-To-Do sponsors and supporters.”

McWilliams also says it isn’t always necessary to create new events for this group. “Take a good, hard look at what you are doing now and see what can be marketed or packaged slightly differently to appeal to this demographic.”  She offers the example of Audubon’s sustainable seafood dinner series hosted at Audubon facilities and featuring well-known chefs from the Gulf United for Lasting Fisheries Chef Council. “This is a unique event for a great cause in a foodie town, and it really appeals to younger supporters.”

Leadership Development

In addition to introducing millennials to the work being done by AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, it is important to keep them engaged and identify those who can eventually take on a more substantive role. The Young Zoo Friends at the Saint Louis Zoo also has an advisory board with up to 40 members. “Many people who attend Jammin’ at the Zoo want to be more involved, and through the advisory board they became more engaged with the Zoo,” said Westmoreland. “They get to hear from curators, veterinarians and research scientists at their meetings; and they discuss and plan their involvement in general and fundraising events. The challenge is to keep them engaged when they start to have families, but we’re hopeful that as they learn more they will stay involved. The Advisory Board president serves on the Saint Louis Zoo Association Board, and several Advisory Board members have become members of the Association Board.”

Guests at the Saint Louis Zoo's Jammin at the Zoo event enjoy a polar bear encounter. © Saint Louis Zoo

In 2012, Indianapolis Zoo in Indianapolis, Ind., formed the Indy Zoo Council when an individual approached the Zoo about creating a young professionals group and doing a fundraiser. They created a signature event, Zoolala, an evening of music and dancing, food, fun and philanthropy. And they raised more than $100,000 in the first three years.

Within the Indy Zoo Council, there is a Council Leaders Group that has officers as well as committees on membership, social activities, education, the zoo experience and Zoolala.

“This is a formative time in their careers and attrition is high,” said Betsy Busald, annual giving officer at the Indianapolis Zoo.  “We wanted to make sure we identified people who would stay involved, so the president of the Executive Committee has to commit to a three-year term of service. The main purpose is to educate them about the Zoo and hope they maintain a lifelong connection as donors, leaders and members. We have the opportunity to engage in a meaningful way in this formative time of their lives so they can be future advocates who provide a base of support.”

Spreading the Word

Engaging individuals who may be balancing work, school and/or family with an interest in conservation requires relevant outreach and communication. Social media continues to play an important role for millennials, and staff at the Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Ill., has used different channels to disseminate interesting and informative content. They started with a microsite on which they could “tell stories about animals at Brookfield Zoo and the people who care for them in a visually compelling way,” according to Steve Pine, digital marketing manager. Since developing the site, Pine has been more focused on sharing the content on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter instead and said, that Facebook Live videos in particular generate high engagement from millennials.   

“The biggest challenge is keeping our voice and messaging on our platforms interesting and relevant,” he said. There is so much content on the web that it can be difficult to break through the noise and maintain this demographic’s attention. Millennials reinvent themselves somewhat regularly through the stream of new social media platforms that are always the ‘next thing,’ and it can be difficult keeping up with the procession of new platforms, figuring out what channels make sense for the Zoo to use and staying relevant.”   

At the WAVE Foundation, the nonprofit partner of the Newport Aquarium in Newport, Ky., a job shadowing program is proving to be a successful way to engage people of all ages, including millennials. The three-hour shadow experience includes a behind the scenes tour, water testing, animal feeding and career information.

“We‘re trying to get people engaged early and we get a lot of college students,” said Scott Wingate, executive director of the Foundation.  “Millennials want purpose in their work, but they come with some baggage.  They say, ‘I want purpose but I want change now.’ We say that education is easy but change is hard, and it takes a long time. We have to show them what conservation change looks like.”  He does that via a three-step educational philosophy: Wonder, Knowledge, Action.

“Conservation needs an action component, so we ask people what they can do, personally. That can be anything from starting a recycling program to being an informed shopper who purchases only sustainable palm oil products.” He adds that the project evaluation information he provides to funders also appeals to millennials. “One thing that attracts them is proof of impact. We’ve created a robust assessment and evaluation packet that provides quantifiable information on how we create change. It’s something that our funders want to see, and it’s something millennials want to know.”

No matter how strong a pool of volunteers, donors and leaders you have, change is inevitable. Winning teams always pay attention to bench strength, so plan ahead, engage millennials now and ensure a strong future for your facility.

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


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