Philanthropy in Zoos and Aquariums: Connecting the Donor Community with Wildlife Health Programs
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2003
Robert A. Cook1, VMD, MPA; Luanne McGrain2, MA, MSW
1Wildlife Health Sciences, Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx, NY, USA; 2Development Department, Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx, NY, USA


The important work performed by zoo and aquarium health professionals is fundamental to the responsible care of wild animals. Frequently core funds to support these efforts require supplementation in order to acquire new technology, initiate or maintain innovative programs, or build facilities. The donor community serves as essential supporters and valued advisors. They are partners on a team committed to a joint mission. The process of achieving fundraising goals can be long and difficult. A clearly defined vision and mission are essential to gaining donor interest in health activities. Understanding the potential donor base and applying development techniques can assist in positive outcomes. Thereafter a commitment to on-going education and attending to the needs of this special donor community are primary to long-term success.


Donors to wildlife programs are mission partners that provide both funding and a connection to the broader community. In an environment where competition for donor attention is often intense, it is important to develop sound methods to secure operating, capital, and endowment support. These methods include developing a strategic plan, creating a compelling vision and mission that includes connecting wildlife health with the greater organizational goals, integrating wildlife health with the community’s interests, and matching donor wishes with programmatic efforts. To institute development plans, one must define the type of funding to be sought and define the type of donors one wishes to attract to the mission. Lastly, it is important to apply those tools and development strategies that will enhance the potential for sustainable funding.

Creating a Compelling Mission and a Fundraising Strategy

Prior to approaching the broader external community for support, it is essential that there be a strong internal commitment to the importance of wildlife health to the institutional mission. A strategic planning process is the first step in gaining this pledge. The process should be representative of key wildlife health staff and stakeholders while creating a design that maintains small, productive working groups. The stakeholders may include other departments within the institution, trustees, government officials, donors, or potential donors that have proven their interest in and understanding of the wildlife health program. The goal of the process should include the delineation of a compelling vision and mission statement, as well as clearly articulated objectives and strategies. The vision and mission should truly reflect the drive and commitment of the program and serve as a sincere expression of the dedication of the health staff. As trite as such processes may sometimes appear, a dynamic and passionate mission can be a very powerful tool to engage both staff and donor partners.

It is also essential that the wildlife health mission be closely aligned with the overall mission of the organization. A divergent direction will serve to create drift within the organization, may undermine institutional support, and ultimately, confuse the donor community. Therefore, it is of critical importance that the chief executive officer or director of the institution be engaged in the strategic planning process. Further, it is important to provide leadership with the information they will need to understand the value of your work and ultimately, express ardent support.

The mission should coincide with the perceived needs of the community that the institution serves. Inviting community leaders from the institution’s board, allied professions, or collaborating partners into the strategic planning process will help ensure broad support for the goals of wildlife health. The outcomes could include a strong emphasis on education, a commitment to the health of wildlife in the region, or a more global vision that reflects well on your constituencies and builds pride among your supporters.

Having defined a strategic plan, one must then create a detailed list of needs that reflect the mission, goals, and objectives. This may take the form of a relatively narrow fundraising initiative or, in its most ambitious form, a large capital campaign. In either case, the undertaking will require extensive efforts in disseminating the plan and educating the donor community. The process of cultivation of potential donors and maintenance of existing donors is one built on a solid foundation of education, making the mission come to life in the form of the good works of wildlife health. Proper visualization of the wildlife health efforts ultimately serve as an extension of the donor’s desire to have a positive impact—whether it be on the life of an individual animal or the preservation of wildlife in a broader conservation context. Since they may not have the training to do the work themselves, they want to see that their contributions have that same effect. Keeping the donor informed and continually enhancing their level of understanding and involvement will result in an intimate connection that conveys that they too, have a stake in the program’s success.

Defining the Types of Funds

A basic knowledge of accounting and development principles are important to directing and managing the donor’s philanthropic interests. The head of the wildlife health program is not expected to be either an accountant or a development officer. However, in order to interface with those specialists within the organization, a fundamental understanding is essential. Ultimately the donors want to be close to the action and feel that they are interfacing with the people that get the job done. The health workers are the only ones who can fill this niche. Therefore, the program head must anticipate some development responsibilities within their job description. There are some basic decisions as to types of funds that will be sought.

Restricted or Unrestricted Funds

Unrestricted funds do not stipulate how the money is to be spent. In any nonprofit these monies are most highly sought after since it provides the organization with the discretion to direct the funds as the institution deems best. Unrestricted gifts are typically provided by those with a high level of institutional knowledge and are those that believe strongly in its good works. Restricted funds are gifts that the donor stipulates must be used for specific purposes.

New or Existing Program Support

New initiatives can be thought of almost as a type of venture capital investment. They are often attractive to the more entrepreneurial donors since they are typically very exciting and innovative. However, much like any other venture capital investment they contain a higher level of risk for failure. In general, measurements of success or failure are becoming increasingly more important in conservation. The outcomes may be measured in lives saved, welfare insured, diagnostics performed, diseases discovered, scientific publications written, etc. In contrast, funding existing programs are in a sense lower risk since the goals and achievements have been historically defined. Securing on-going support for such programs can be a challenge as donors are frequently attracted to the new initiatives. Often it requires greater education of the donor to connect them with the long-term and essential needs of ensuring the health and welfare of wildlife.

Equipment or Facilities

As opposed to program costs that are ongoing, pieces of diagnostic equipment or the building of facilities are discrete one-time needs. It is helpful to maintain a prioritized list of relatively low-cost diagnostic equipment needs that can be quickly referenced should interest be expressed. A gift of $1,000 to $5,000 that connects the donor with a tangible purchase can be a great start to a long-term relationship. Capital needs include more expensive equipment as well as construction projects. Such items, especially a building, can provide naming opportunities that will clearly connect the significant donor to your work over time. It may also be an opportunity for the donor to build their legacy if that is of importance to them.


These are perhaps the toughest funds to secure. Building endowment is an important long-term financial strategy and is the best source of protection against fluctuations in institutional revenues or broad economic downturns. Typically, endowment funds are invested by the organization and provide a 5% return on the principal. A $1 million dollar gift ensures an annual cash flow of $50,000 dollars. In the most effectively managed endowments, interest earned in excess of 5% is added to the principal and will over time result in larger annual payouts as a hedge against inflation. It can be difficult to find endowment donors because a large gift does not equate with an immediate commensurate product. It does, however, ensure a sense of perpetuity that is lacking in the large gift that is spent over a relatively short period of time.

Defining the Types of Donors

It is equally important to understand the type of donor to which funding requests will be directed. Each area has particular characteristics that make the fundraising strategy specific and unique.


Whether it is $10 or $10 million, philanthropic individuals have choices about where they give. Typically, they will want to know that their investment is sound and that there will be a defined return of some measure. Trust is fundamental to this relationship and must be established early on. It is important to determine what enlivens this person and in what way they can effectively partner. To ascertain where they find fulfillment in the mission and then seek to fashion a relationship that meets their needs without drifting from the department’s goals. It is most important to establish the connection such that the donors see themselves as enabling the wildlife health staff’s best efforts. Typically, individuals demand the same level of reporting as that required by foundations or government. Therefore, one is well-advised to provide such reports in a manner that is complete, detailed, truthful, and customized to the donor’s needs.

There are numerous ways to identify potential individual donors. These may include local media stories on individual giving, donor databases such as Lexis-Nexis, and internet web-search sites such as Prospect Research Online ( [VIN editor: link was not accessible as of 2/10/2021.]). Trustees or established donors may help identify and cultivate potential givers. One may also research donor giving lists in annual reports of other nonprofits, many of which are now available on the internet. Periodicals such as Forbes Magazine (Forbes 400 annual listing) and the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a monthly publication that provides an annual list of the biggest gifts to nonprofits, are also valuable aids.


The traditional foundation is one where the original donor is deceased and there is a paid staff that adheres to a defined mission. A family foundation is one where family members are integral to the decision making process. In both cases the foundation usually seeks to maintain or grow the principal and uses the interest earned to provide grants to worthy recipients in a manner that is stipulated by their mission. The grant range varies considerably but in general, the larger the grants, the more information one must provide initially and over time. The program officers are charged with ensuring that the resulting product of the grant reflects the foundations mission and in the case of small family foundations, the wishes of the family. Often with larger gifts, naming opportunities are an attractive incentive for funding. In recent years, many foundations have incorporated collaboration requirements into their missions. As such, where possible, finding multiple partners in a larger effort will improve the chances of funding. Research tools for finding foundations that fund wildlife health are Prospect Research Online (wwwl and the Foundation Center ( (VIN editor: links were not accessible as of 2/10/2021)


Direct corporate donations typically require a more public recognition to satisfy their need to be visible in the community or with their stockholders. Naming opportunities are frequently a higher priority. Other forms of recognition such as media articles, in-house publications, or use of images and descriptions for annual reports may also be appealing. Reporting is most similar to that of individual donors and often a connection with a corporate officer may establish a long-term relationship with the company, as well as the individual. Corporate foundations typically derive their funds from the company’s profits. Their needs are less like those of traditional foundations, being more focused on connecting the gift to corporate marketing priorities.

Gifts-in-kind are another form of corporate giving which can be used to great advantage. Corporate representatives may find the novel application of their technology a compelling reason to donate equipment. Alternatively, there may be an interest in adapting their product to a new market. Often, due to the limited market potential of wildlife health products, this is of lower corporate value. It is important when such offerings are made to seriously consider whether the equipment fulfills the needs of the program. The goal should be to fulfill the programs needs while building a long-term relationship.


Local, state, or federal funding can be an important cornerstone for both programmatic and capital initiatives. These funds may come in the form of budget appropriations or grants. Proper review of this subject is beyond the scope of this paper.

Choosing the Right Strategy

Once one has a well-defined strategic plan, charted a fundraising initiative or capital campaign, and identified the types of funds and donors, there are a number of strategies for engaging the potential donor community.

Personal Meeting

Creating an intimate connection between your efforts and the donor’s interests is the most powerful way to cultivate a philanthropic relationship. This may take the form of a presentation in a location of the donor’s choosing or an invitation to visit the hospital and facility grounds. The decision on approach should be driven by the donor’s desires; however, whenever possible, it is preferable to host the donor at the facility to give a first-hand view of the action.

Prepared Information

Brochures, architect’s renditions, and case statements are valuable tools that serve to connect the potential donor with your efforts and typically work best as an adjunct to a personal visit. Newsletters, timely reports, and/or electronic updates can be important ancillary products that serve to keep the donor community connected and educated about your work. They are not a replacement for personal contact but can enhance the relationship.

Special Events

Lectures, tours, luncheons, and dinners can serve to cultivate the potential donor, as well as maintain the engaged donor over time. Once a core group of donors has been established it may be helpful to create a forum for interaction, such as a wildlife health committee. This may serve as a forum for information dissemination, as well as to gain feedback on program direction.

Direct Mail Campaign

A direct mail campaign is an impersonal undertaking where program or initiative information is distributed to a cross-section of the community along with a request for donations. Such a solicitation can serve to connect with many more individuals than can be done with personal meetings but typically will only result in a small percentage of respondents. This can be used as a low-effort first step to garner entry-level support. Once such donors have made themselves known, a more personalized follow-up can be initiated.

Defining Success

Building a donor community for wildlife health programs can be a very rewarding process, but not without challenges. It is essential to nurture these positive relationships based on trust in order to fulfill the important mission of wildlife health and the conservation of biodiversity. Establishing a strong foundation of support is a long-term process. Cultivation of donors can take years and it is important to remain on mission and positive about the value of the effort. Maintaining these relationships over time is equally important. Demonstrate that your donors are your mission partners. Keep them informed, engaged, and most of all, be certain to express sincere appreciation for their contributions to your shared vision.


Speaker Information
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Robert A. Cook, VMD, MPA
Wildlife Health Sciences
Wildlife Conservation Society
Bronx, NY, USA

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