Philanthropy for the animal kingdom during COVID-19

While your zoo, aquarium, museum or cultural institution may be closed to the public due to social distancing, much of your important work still goes on. Certainly, the animals living in your habitats still need enrichment, care and feeding. Without gate receipts and other income, your institution is more reliant than ever on your supporters to ensure that your critical work and mission continue.

This is the time to reach out and appeal to your “family”—to your current and past members and donors—about your immediate and longer-term needs in light of the pressure you are facing from the global pandemic. It is essential to remind them of your core mission and to enlist their support to help you in the cause. We did this while I was at the National Aquarium in Baltimore in 2008, and our “family” responded with enthusiasm.

Here are four ways to help your advancement team move forward through this pandemic.

Tell your story

The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis that has impacted every institution. But it’s your particular story that will resonate deeply with your most ardent supporters. Be sure to share the specific stressors that COVID-19 has wrought upon your institution and, more importantly, how your mission and program delivery have been impacted. Striking the right chord in telling your tale with your members and donors will most certainly reap rewards, and there is no better time than the present to do that. Circumstances are dire and your message can, and should, reflect that.

Our institutions are providing care for their collections, but also pushing out innovative virtual programming. At the same time, they are maintaining support of national and international conservation initiatives. We will need philanthropy to help us emerge from the current crisis, and to continue to provide these mission-centric programs into the future.

Transformative times call for transformational gifts

While zoos and aquariums, in particular, have historically relied less on philanthropy and more on gate revenue than other nonprofits, COVID-19 has shown that this isn’t a viable path during these difficult times. With conservation goals and educational programs taking a back seat to the more urgent and critical needs of nurturing the animals and habitats in your care, this is the moment to ask for those transformational gifts that can help fund and sustain your institution through this crisis and beyond.

Introducing an emergency fund would provide an option for donors to address current critical needs, while giving your institution the opportunity to address future issues with an endowed fund providing operations relief.

Initiate an urgent appeal to your members and donors

Now is the time to ask for more from your supporters, not less. Initiate a special appeal—whether as a standalone mailing or a digital campaign—asking for an additional gift, as you tell your specific story about COVID-19’s impact on your mission. Ask your Board and top supporters to consider a challenge grant. And remember to tailor your appeal to all your member and donor demographics.

Review and refresh member and donor wealth ratings
Look at your institution’s longest giving and most loyal supporters. You will most certainly discover many who have been donating for decades at levels far below their capacity. During my tenure at the Washington Animal Rescue League, we used philanthropic analytics to identify many 20-plus-year donors who had tremendous giving capacity.

Predictive modeling, which utilizes demographic information, consumer and lifestyle indicators, past giving and engagement data, can take this prospect analysis to a higher level to help you pinpoint individuals in your database or prospect pool with the greatest ability and likelihood to contribute to a well-crafted ask.
The identification, cultivation and solicitation of these donors can then become a priority for your advancement team during this critical time. This process may even eventually lead to the transformational gifts that are so vital to your institution’s survival.

Mission critical

As you go forward into this new reality, it’s critical to never lose sight of the most important aspect: your organization’s mission. We must ensure that your institutions survive this crisis so that the animals within them continue to thrive and the communities that engage with them continue to experience and learn. Protecting these institutions can mean protecting an entire species and their roles within our fragile ecosystems.

In the zoological world, our supporters are often conservationists and animal welfare advocates. Let them help you make this world more hospitable for the species you work so hard to care for and protect.


If you need assistance adjusting to the current moment, please contact Bob Ramin at bramin@grenzglier.com.

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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…