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

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.

“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.”

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.

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.

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About the author

Bob Ramin

Senior Vice President

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 more than 30 years in the voluntary sector have been focused on building organizational capacity and…