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Focus On

Fundraising through Presidential Transitions

With a president’s departure, Advancement teams are put to the test – success comes from a steady hand and strong focus on institutional mission

Reduced state support. Recession-stressed endowments. Increasing student costs and debt. A never-ending drive to grow institutional excellence and distinction.

Those factors and more contribute to an increased fundraising remit for colleges and universities, and presidents are spending a lot of time leading the charge. More than 53% of presidents report working on fundraising activities daily, according to a 2013 survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education. By comparison, only 25% of college presidents reported daily interaction with faculty.

Presidents and chancellors lead fundraising priority-setting. They are philanthropic champions-in-chief and de facto principal gift officers. They are – wherever they go, anytime day or night – evangelists for the cause.

The average campaign length is now seven years, precisely the same as the average presidential tenure. Retirement, ill health, poor performance, tricky politics, new opportunities elsewhere – presidents and chancellors leave their posts for all kinds of reasons.

The long view enables a broader perspective: Leader transitions are normal and healthy. They foster new thinking and focus, and they breathe new life into institutions and philanthropy.

But the immediate weeks and months following announcement of a leader’s departure are often challenging. A campaign’s most valuable assets – amplified attention on the role of private giving to advance an institution’s mission, heightened awareness of the institution’s brand, accelerated outreach to alumni and supporters – can become the source of sleepless nights for a chief development officer. When the departing chancellor or president has been a highly effective fundraiser and public face of the campaign, the challenge is all the more acute.

Presidential Tenure and Fundraising

Whether an institution is in a campaign or not, presidential transitions impact fundraising. People invest in vision, as articulated by the top leader. And the longer a president is in place, the more successful the institution’s fundraising becomes.

An assessment of the United States’ top-performing fundraising colleges and universities during the past two decades illustrates the correlation between philanthropic performance and presidential tenure.

During a recession, length of presidential tenure matters little to fundraising success: 0.5% median growth in total private support at institutions with presidents in place three years or more years, compared to 0.4% growth for universities with newer leaders. When the economy is strong, however, the pace of fundraising is accelerated at institutions with longer-serving leaders: 11.7% median growth, compared to 9.8%.

Dr. Kimberly Nehls, Executive Director of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, researches the effects of presidential transitions on philanthropy. Her 2011 study, “Leadership Transitions During Fundraising Campaigns,” found that “even when the transition was a welcome one, the transition still impacted the campaign in a negative way, either by delaying it, confusing donors, producing negative publicity, or contributing to low morale on campus.”

Nehls also found that experienced senior development leaders, combined with strong informal leadership, eased the challenges and enhanced results.

To understand best practices of guiding fundraising operations through presidential transitions, GG+A reached out to three longstanding leaders in higher education Advancement.

It’s not about you

Within the academic constellation, chief development officers and presidents have unique relationships, working shoulder to shoulder to strengthen partnerships with the institution’s closest allies and to fuel its mission through philanthropy.

“Relationships with presidents are very close,” explains Michael Eicher, Senior Vice President for Advancement at The Ohio State University. “We travel with them. We strategize with them.”

Whether long-planned or sudden, presidential transitions cause a shock to the system. The demands of the moment call for chief development officers to intensify their commitment to all of their constituents – the university’s senior leadership, their own team, and volunteer leaders and donors.

Having led Advancement teams through presidential transitions at UCLA, Johns Hopkins, and Ohio State, Eicher has experience and perspective. His advice is succinct: “Get over it,” he says. “It’s not personal.”

Scott Rosevear, Vice President for Development & Alumni Relations at Bucknell University, has experienced four leadership transitions at the University during his 17 years there. During the search for a new president, Advancement leaders can’t spend time worrying about who their new boss is going to be, he says. “You have to compartmentalize that. Trust the process. Otherwise you’re going to get distracted and seem uncertain to your team.”

Marshall the troops

The announcement of a president’s departure can understandably send Advancement staff into a tailspin. How will the campaign continue without the chancellor leading the charge? Will major donors delay their gifts, waiting to size up the new leader? And how can gift officers possibly meet their own fundraising goals?

Keeping the team focused and motivated during a leadership transition isn’t easy, but it’s essential. It’s a time for additional positive reinforcement and for celebrating success, Rosevear says, whether that’s a development officer closing her first major gift, a deepened partnership with a dean, or a great event with a parents group.

“Individuals, whether they be staff or volunteers, react differently to these situations in terms of what they need from leaders and colleagues,” he explains. “You have to be careful not to lose sight of that.”

With strong leadership and support through the transition, junior staff members can grow in important and lasting ways. “It does mature folks,” says Eicher. “It’s the tough times when you learn. We grow in those moments of examination and stress.”

“My job in that environment is to build that sense of direction and momentum,” he continues. “The best staff want to get stuff done. They want to move the needle.”

When the new president begins in the role, finding the earliest possible opportunity to get him or her in front of the Advancement team will build confidence and direction and catalyze action.

For Fritz Schroeder, Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations at Johns Hopkins University, President Ronald Daniels’ first meeting with the team was a home run: “He did an excellent job of conveying, ‘You all are the storytellers of this university. I cannot tell you how much I value what you do.’ That was a really powerful moment for the group.”

Keep your friends close

Maintaining momentum through an interim leadership period can be tricky, with communications and relationship stewardship taking center stage for Advancement leaders.

For many donors, a president’s departure feels like a personal loss. “They need people to talk to,” says Eicher. “They’re looking for stability. They’re looking for continuity.”

Providing regular updates on the search process – and soliciting advice on activities and messaging – keeps donors and volunteers in the inner circle and assures them that the institution is marching ahead. “We personally communicated very clearly with our campaign volunteers, which only strengthened our relationships with them,” says Rosevear.

“The place needs some anchors,” continues Eicher. “It needs some rocks, some things that feel immovable. You commit to the mission. You commit to the place. You commit to the direction.”

Mind the message

On top of questions about how to talk about the president’s departure, Advancement officials sometimes worry about how to position specific campaign priorities, knowing that a new leader might take office and reframe things – particularly if a campaign is in its earliest stages.

Such was the case when a previous president left Bucknell during the quiet phase of its current campaign. Rosevear and his team returned to first principles and thought hard about the philanthropic objectives that were most central to University’s long-term success.

“We decided to focus on things we knew were core to the campaign,” says Rosevear. For Bucknell, that was the annual fund, financial aid, and a major new academic building. “We sharpened our messaging around those things. It gave us a foundation to passionately talk about.”

He and his team made sure internal partners were clear about the interim campaign messaging, knowing that alignment was important when deans and others were on the road meeting with alumni and friends. Donors responded well to the clarity. “We didn’t go backward,” Rosevear says. “Our annual fund actually went up.”

Leverage internal partners

Without question, there’s no substitute for a strong, seasoned, beloved chancellor who ties fundraising goals to institutional objectives in compelling ways. But a departure at the top doesn’t mean the college is without academic leaders any more than it means fundraising comes to a standstill.

Transitions are a chance to engage new partners in philanthropy. For faculty, physicians, and deans, it’s a chance to communicate the value and promise of their work directly to those who might invest in it. “You say to the dean, ‘This is a great opportunity,’” explains Eicher.

More generally, presidential transitions are times for academic and administrative leaders to join forces for the greater good. “Whether there’s a campaign or not,” says Rosevear, “it’s incumbent on senior leaders to come together and make sure the right things are happening for the institution.”

Introducing the new leader

Being prepared for announcement of the new president or chancellor is critical, and a formal plan to reach advancement audiences is key.

In early 2009, when Schroeder and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins learned that Ron Daniels would be the University’s new president, they were ready. “We did all the textbook stuff,” he says. “Even in the months before he arrived, we were working with him to reach out to individual donors.”

President Daniels – who joined Johns Hopkins from the University of Pennsylvania – held a dinner with Philadelphia-area Hopkins alumni and donors, made dozens of short phone calls, and wrote notes to donors. All of this early outreach was carefully strategized and prioritized by the development team.

Not only are planning and preparation essential to accelerating the new leader’s start, but they also provide a positive, productive way to focus the team and volunteer leaders. Drawing volunteers and board members into the process builds personal investment in the new president’s Advancement efforts and success.

At Bucknell, Rosevear and his team created a 90-day plan to help guide President John Bravman’s early engagement with alumni, parents, donors, and others. Vetting the plan with lead campaign volunteers and the chair of the Board of Trustees made them part of the team in a deeper way. “It enabled us to re-start the presidential relationship,” he explains.

When the new chancellor or president hits campus full-time, it’s time to talk a little and listen a lot. “The new president comes in and wants to put their stamp on things,” explains Eicher. “They don’t just say, ‘show me the file.’”

Understanding the new leader’s style and the fundraising priorities that most resonate with him or her ensures that Advancement strategies, communications, and events are well-targeted, authentic, and successful.

Leading through presidential transitions requires heightened sensitivity, awareness, and a focus on relationships – internal and external. Rosevear sums it up this way: “People want to give to a ship that’s cruising towards important goals, not to a ship that’s directionless.”


 Examples of Institutional Fundraising, Presidential Tenure, and S&P

Fundraising correlates most strongly with the financial markets




Pro Tips

“The faster you can build a relationship with a new president and not try to make him or her the old president, the better you’re going to be.”


Michael Eicher
Senior Vice President, Advancement
The Ohio State University

“Carve out the time and the discipline to plan out the new president’s early days. Plan for three options. The distinction between the three is the intensity and time you’re able to get.”

fritzFritz Schroeder
Vice President, Development and Alumni Relations
Johns Hopkins University

“Stay true to your principles, the mission for the division, and the mission for the institution.”


Scott Rosevear
Vice President for Development & Alumni Relations
Bucknell University


A Conversation With...


Q + A

Rhea Turteltaub Vice Chancellor, UCLA External Affairs

Rhea Turteltaub: Be Patient, Be Humble, Listen Intently, and Act Selflessly

Q: What drew you to a career in advancement?


A: I fell into it, just like a lot of people. I went to work for my alma mater, Trinity College in Connecticut. I had spent my sophomore year doing calls for the Annual Fund. Two months after graduating, I ran into the Dean of Students. He asked if I had a job, and pointed me to the Development Office, where there was a new internship being created for a member of my graduating class. I wandered into the office, had an early conversation, and ended up working there three months later. Had there not been the personal encouragement at the right moment, I doubt I would have focused on the job announcement when it was shared with the class. It was total serendipity.

What’s kept me in advancement for all these years is the great opportunity to continue learning. In this career, you are inherently surrounded by successful people – internally and externally – and you get to go to school every day to study what makes them successful and put those lessons into practice. Being in a learning environment is energizing, renewing, and infinitely rewarding.

Q: What leadership lessons have served you most?

Leadership is not about the leader; it’s about the team. “Coach” is an easy analogy, but “conductor” may be better: fine tuning the sound of each instrument or skill set to make a stirring symphony. I see my job as getting the very best out of each member of my team. In turn, they do the same with theirs. The key is working with and understanding each person individually to learn how they contribute to the team’s success. Another leadership lesson I call upon often is one learned from just a single season in a novice boat on my college crew team. In that sport, the leader is really the coxswain, the only person in the shell with the finish line in sight. Leadership is about vision and the ability to take a group of individuals and forge them into a cohesive unit, where everyone isn’t just pulling their weight but truly propelling the institution forward.

It’s also critical to keep your eyes and ears open. That should be your ready position in any aspect of this work – or any work. I learned so much in my first job while working for a woman named Connie Ware. After her kids were grown, she went back to work as a secretary in Trinity’s Alumni Relations office, and by the time I arrived, she was the VP for Advancement.

Connie had an incredible capacity to engage with people of all ages, all professions…all stripes. She was an exquisite communicator, she wrote beautifully, and spoke with passion. She paid attention to individual people. Connie showed me that success comes from engaging people in personal and meaningful ways, expressing encouragement and appreciation always. She also showed me that success comes from loving what you do and letting that show…living in the moment, honestly…and most importantly, being authentic to who you are.

Q: What is your formula for success working with internal institutional partners on campaign planning?

The key to success in all of this work is developing genuine relationships. Don’t behave with internal partners any differently than you do with external partners. Our jobs are just about being honest brokers between the two.

When working with our campus leaders, job number one is to convey that we respect their leadership and respect the academy. That’s why evidence-based or data-driven decision making is so important in our conversations and deliberations, in priority-setting and in setting campaign strategy. That’s how you earn mutual respect, which is the basis for developing any honest and forthright relationship.  After that, you can agree to disagree in a respectful way.

You have to know what motivates people, what drives them; you have to tap into what they aspire to do, and be, and become. In the end, we all work for the benefit of the faculty, staff, students, and the communities our campuses serve. Everything we do is about moving the institution forward and creating an environment in which all can thrive.

Q: How do you keep your staff motivated post-campaign?

Around here, we’re very fond of quoting Coach [John] Wooden [former UCLA basketball coach]. One of my favorites is, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” If you don’t have a plan for what comes next, it’s hard to keep people motivated. So part of our campaign planning is the plan for what comes next.  Having a strategy by which you’ll organize coming out of that campaign is just as important as the strategy going into it.

We like to have some breathing room in between campaigns. It’s healthy for our philanthropic partners and those on campus to have a space in which people are allowed to celebrate and reflect. That time also provides a chance to thoughtfully recalibrate for the needs of new leadership. One of the challenges, but also a benefit, in academia is that deans serve five- to ten-year tenures, but rarely do any of them perfectly align with the duration of one campaign. There are transitions, always. Deans often have time in the course of a campaign to put their stamp on it, depending on when they enter the campaign cycle, but successors can always build on the success that attracted them to the campus and inspire momentum with their own visions when campaigns end.

When we neared the conclusion of our last campaign, we set up a goal of raising more money for student support. We talked about that as a slingshot campaign, a Chancellor’s initiative that began in the last year of the existing campaign with goals set for the post-campaign environment. We also had two professional schools – business and law – that were very focused on generating more endowment, and for which we created mini-campaigns. We also conducted a signature campaign for renovations to the Pauley Pavilion, our storied basketball arena in the intervening period.

Through these initiatives, and no let-up in other programs across the campus, we raised more private support in the post-campaign period than during the campaign.  Once a campaign raises the bar, it’s important to sustain that success.  That means not decreasing the budget. Diminishing the resources that made you successful will only serve to dilute the achievement over time.

Q: Do you have a favorite quote or inspirational saying that motivates you?

I have many. Two other great ones from Coach Wooden are, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” and “Ability may get you to the top, but you need character to keep you there.”

In late 2008 and in 2009 during the economic downturn, when budgets were really challenged, I spent a lot of time learning from donors and volunteers who had led big organizations. Their best advice for a budget-cutting environment: “Never waste a good crisis.”

Another favorite is “Take all vacations.” If you don’t make time for you, for adventure, exploration or personal growth of any kind, you aren’t all that interesting. Whatever your role in the organization, be someone that people want to invite back to their home or office, even if that office is down the hall. Whatever it is that restores and stretches you, make time to nurture you!

But I am also fond of reminding myself – and I surprise a lot of people when I say this – that there is no such thing as work-life balance. It’s a juggle and a struggle every day, and the joy of living is in the chaos. Whether you are a working parent, tending to the needs of aging parents, caring for a spouse or sibling, whatever…If you go chasing balance, you will never find it on a daily basis, and you will always be stressed. Let go of the illusions. Don’t look for perfect balance, because it doesn’t exist. The minute you let that Holy Grail go, you’ll settle into the rhythm of life.

Q: How do you nurture and retain talent?

You have to invest time in building quality relationships, and cement personal and institutional bonds. I have long encouraged staff to engage in ways that go beyond the office and the workplace. When you attach yourself to something else on the campus, whether it’s the arts, athletics, the vibrant academic offerings – and especially the institutional values – you don’t want to leave. Once I got here, I never wanted to be anywhere else.

Q: What single piece of advice would you give a young person entering the profession?

Be patient, be humble, listen intently and act selflessly. Gifts flow from deep and abiding relationships, which are nurtured intentionally, with care, and with authenticity. Our role is to listen and figure out how to make what we hear a reality. When we can connect those with shared passions – to cure disease, provide educational access and opportunity, to search for truth and beauty, whatever unites those with needs and those with capacity to meet them – that’s when we make magic happen.


Rhea Turteltaub was appointed the UCLA Vice Chancellor, External Affairs in March 2008. She oversees a diverse, yet integrated department of approximately 600 staff comprised of Development, Alumni Affairs, University Communications & Public Outreach, Government & Community Relations, Advancement Services, Alumni Association and The UCLA Foundation.

She is actively leading UCLA’s $4.2B billion Centennial Campaign which launched in May of 2014 and is working with campus leadership in preparation for the University’s 100th anniversary celebration in 2019.

Prior to arriving at UCLA in 1994, Rhea held leadership positions at Otis College of Art and Design and The University of Chicago, as well as campaign positions at the University of California at Berkeley, and Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where she also earned her Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and currently serves on the Board of Trustees.


Someone You Should Know

"Grandiosity is a Virtue"


Juli Staiano Chief Philanthropy Officer, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)

Strategic. Innovative. Dynamic. Fun. When Juli Staiano’s colleagues at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) describe their Chief Philanthropy Officer, a clear theme emerges: Juli is someone you want to know.

There are both professional and personal reasons for this, but one stands out: Staiano is a big-picture thinker who, in the words of AAAS Chief of Staff Andrew Black, makes things happen with “infectious enthusiasm.” Rush Holt, Chief Executive Officer of AAAS, former Member of Congress, and Staiano’s boss, describes her ability to keep the interests of the whole organization foremost in her mind, while remaining sensitive to the individual interests of key stakeholders: “Juli works to broaden the perspective of those whom we represent as an organization,” explains Holt. “Not only is she knowledgeable about the many different programs we have underway, she involves donors in their development and is constantly cheerful and warm to the people she works with.”

Following early roles at the National Museum of Women in the Arts and a seven-year tenure at the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, where she served as Director of Partnership Development, Staiano joined AAAS in 2008. At AAAS, Staiano is charged with driving philanthropic support and partnerships for the nearly 170-year-old organization. Publisher of Science, one of the world’s foremost peer-reviewed journals, AAAS counts over 100,000 members throughout 91 countries.

“Juli works to broaden the perspective of those who we represent as an organization. Not only is she knowledgeable about the many different programs we have underway, she involves donors in their development, and is constantly cheerful and warm to the people she works with.”

“Coming to AAAS was a logical next step for me,” Staiano explains, “as it allowed me to take my love of science and NIH experience to an historic organization with a relatively small fundraising program. The program my team and I were able to build here brought AAAS from $400,000 in annual giving to $1.2 million.” More important, Staiano emphasized, is the opportunity to create “a different way of thinking around philanthropy,” which is key as Staiano and her team turn their focus to building a major giving program and creating new opportunities for corporate and foundation partnerships.

When asked what leadership lessons have served her most, Staiano immediately goes global. “It’s critical to think about your organization’s context within the world,” she says. “If you’re a big-picture thinker, that’s a huge asset to your organization. I am surprised over and over again that this isn’t how many people think about things.”

“Everyone is mission-driven, but Juli takes that to a whole new level.”

Staiano’s personal experience makes her appreciate the impact of AAAS’s work on important research even more. Two years ago, she lost her three-year-old son, Matteo, to cancer. She speaks about this with remarkable candor, explaining how she finds meaning in helping people understand the impact they can have on our health and wellbeing through advancing scientific research. “Some of the work we do feels very academic, but to me, it’s not. These kinds of investments can feel so far away from patients—from people. But they pay such major dividends.”

Staiano’s open, positive approach has endeared her to colleagues at all levels of AAAS. “I have never met anyone as passionate and excited by what we do as Juli,” says Black. “Everyone is mission-driven, but Juli takes that to a whole new level.”

Celeste Rohlfing, AAAS Chief Operating Officer, agrees, calling Staiano a “strategic thinker” with a “sparkling personality.” From robotics to science in the national parks, Staiano absorbs AAAS’s mission and engages everyone in the work. “Juli has the gift of approachability,” Rohlfing explains. “She is completely at ease in any environment, and has a passion for advocacy and science policy.”

That combination makes Staiano a perfect fit in the philanthropic landscape, enabling her to engage donors of all stripes in AAAS’s mission to advance scientific innovation across the globe.

Staiano brings this approach to her team, where no task is too big or too small. It is not uncommon to find her taking a credit card donation by phone. “Juli is completely and totally collaborative, and her team fosters a collaborative spirit in all they do,” says Black. “She leads quietly and by example, and doesn’t ask anyone to do anything that she wouldn’t do herself.”

“Juli has the gift of approachability. She is completely at ease in any environment, and has a passion for advocacy and science policy.”

Staiano is quick to credit her team with any accomplishments, and she highlights the importance of building an atmosphere where team members care about and support each other. In order to further empower her team, she is working on a self-described bad habit: “I tend to be a big procrastinator, which I thought was fine as long as I got the work done. Recently I realized that this keeps me from bringing in my team earlier, and increasing their participation in the work.” This is a lesson Staiano is working to apply beyond her team, too. “Fundraising is something that everyone plays a role in. It’s not departmentally driven. The more that people become involved, the more effective our work will be.”

In her office, Staiano keeps a token she received from former AAAS CEO, Alan Leshner: a mounted version of her now-favorite saying, “Grandiosity is a virtue.” “I feel like it ties into big picture thinking,” Staiano says. “If you start big, it’s the best backdrop to have.”



“I really hope that the philanthropy movement is seen not just as people giving money away, but people also giving away their time, their energy, and their ideas.”

David M. Rubenstein is a Co-Founder and Co-CEO of The Carlyle Group, one of the world’s largest private equity firms. Among his many philanthropic commitments, Mr. Rubenstein is Chairman of the Boards of Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Duke University. He also serves on the boards of Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins Medicine, the University of Chicago, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and the Institute for Advanced Study. He was recently appointed Chairman of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, where he also serves on the boards of the National Museum of American History and National Museum of Natural History.

From The Desk Of...

Philanthropy for the Animal Kingdom: Member Fees aren’t Enough

Bob Ramin, Senior Vice President, GG+A

Animals can’t raise money to help protect their habitats, improve their health or ensure their survival. Animal welfare advocates were not yet ready to protect the Passenger Pidgeon from extinction, and almost missed saving the Arabian Oryx and Mountain Gorilla. However, today there are many organizations focused on the protection and survival of the animal world, as well as vibrant zoological institutions furthering education and research so that we may cherish these magnificent animals and share them with future generations.

Historically, many zoological organizations focused on operational measures such as attendance, revenue and expenses, with primary funding coming from the gate and from municipal assistance. Metrics are now essential to track philanthropy: membership growth, renewals and long-term member value; wealth indicators to find the best prospects and improve annual support; and using moves management to support major donor solicitation.

As government subsidy of cultural institutions has further declined or vanished completely, the trend will be counterbalanced by the transference of wealth and an increase in charitable giving. Zoos and aquariums, in particular, have historically relied less on philanthropy than other non-profits.   Conservation goals and education programs co-exist with critical needs for buildings and operating funds, raising the overall revenue needed with the shortfall to be found in increased charitable donations.

In partnership with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), Grenzebach Glier & Associates (GG+A) surveyed member organizations regarding fund raising and found the following significant findings:

  • Development benchmarking will help leadership set aggressive, yet attainable philanthropic goals and create greater accountability
  • Institutions must make strategic, data-supported decisions in areas like resource deployment for increased investment in development staff and operations
  • Institutions should share best practices which helps all to raise more funds

Turning visitors and subscribers into donors is a vital step in ensuring an organization’s survival. A member or a concert-attendee may think that they are “donating” to the cause, but calculations that show that a ticket price is often a small percentage of the cost of mounting the performance, heating and cooling the facility or providing the correct nutrition and food for the animals in their care.

Zoos and aquariums are under pressure to keep ticket price increases to a minimum, yet the pressure is on to provide upgraded exhibits, education
programs and participate in conservation initiatives (locally and internationally). With admission fees and earned revenue covering a decreasing percentage of operating budgets, becoming more adept at raising contributed dollars is essential. When I arrived at the National Aquarium, admission fees only covered 58% of the annual operating budget. We were able to show the visitors, and donors, why their philanthropy was vital to our institution.   For every Aquarium visitor and program participant – from the student who enters for free with their school group to the person who participates in an off-site outreach program to the visitor who buys a ticket at the gate – the Aquarium subsidizes a portion of the experience.

From a national perspective, earned revenue accounts for a varying percentage of total operations costs, with some institutions falling behind. Aquarium X has allocated significant funding to program delivery while efficient use of fundraising resources has not kept pace with best-practices, and only provides 16% of the total operational budget. Zoo Y is raising 45% of their operational needs, with a modest fundraising budget, and could contribute more if extra resources were allocated. Zoo Z is contributing 32% through fundraising, with government grants helping operations and perhaps taking the edge off private sector development efforts.

Growing donors from members was essential to expanding our base and allowing the National Aquarium to expand and provide the world-class experience our visitors and supporters expected. Zoos and aquariums throughout the country are facing similar widening gaps between earned revenue and operational needs.

Elizabeth T. Fowler, Executive Director of the Cleveland Zoological Society, had similar experiences. “We recognized that our traditional sources of revenue were not keeping pace with the demands of supporting innovative new habitats for the animals, investing in conservation initiatives and allowing us to enhance education programming. While it was a paradigm shift, we chose to invest the time and resources in individual philanthropy.”

Building a culture of philanthropy and providing support for fundraising efforts is essential. Creating a viable and growth-oriented philanthropic revenue stream, which will address both operations and capital needs, is essential for the health of these organizations. GG+A’s mission is to leave them stronger and better equipped with improved fundraising programs, and to align those programs with their core mission, and ensure their sustainability.

“We recognized that our traditional sources of revenue were not keeping pace with the demands of supporting innovative new habitats for the animals, investing in conservation initiatives and allowing us to enhance education programming. While it was a paradigm shift, we chose to invest the time and resources in individual philanthropy.”

Animal and wildlife organizations are catching up with non-profit peers in terms of building annual, major and planned giving programs. Focus is now on the transformational, vs. “transactional” philanthropy that will fund the future of these institutions. Specifically, these efforts have been targeted at:

  • Moving visitors from the “value-proposition” of buying an annual family membership where the “free” admission is the draw, to upgrade incentives, improved renewal rates through innovative pricing and timing strategies, looking at quality vs. quantity and maximizing length of the relationship with the institution. Many organizations are now using metrics to determine the long-term value of members and improving renewal programs to find and retain quality members.
  • Moving members into donors by identifying strong prospects using demographic information, consumer and lifestyle indicators and giving history analysis.
  • Moving supporters past the “adorable stuffed dolphin” you receive for “adopting” an animal to actually donating directly to that animal’s care and conservation of the species (and the institution doesn’t have to redirect funds from programs to fulfillment).

A wealth of prospects are often found in the database of the institution’s loyal annual supporters, often donating for decades and at levels far below their capacity. The identification, cultivation and solicitation of these donors must become a priority, and will lead to gifts to animal-centric programs that are indeed transformational. At the Washington Animal Rescue League, we used demographic overlays to identify many twenty-plus year donors that had tremendous giving capacity, reach out to them personally, and were rewarded with many cases of increased support at major gift levels. These donors are now being cultivated for capital campaign and planned giving support. GG+A has the tools to deliver timely screening of donors for capacity and propensity to give, as well as providing best practices to build internal fundraising capacity.

Contact the author of this piece, Robert Ramin, at

Robert Ramin

Robert Ramin Bob Ramin, Senior Vice President, has spent his career directing and developing institutions on behalf of animal welfare, combining his breadth of fundraising and philanthropic knowledge with his passion for wildlife conservation efforts. Bob’s 30 plus years in the voluntary sector have been focused on building organizational capacity and transforming members into major donors.