Putting the 'Fun' Back in Fundraising

by Jodi Helmer

In 2002 zookeepers at the Denver Zoo started giving their black rhinoceros, Mishindi, art lessons. It was their goal to teach the rhinoceros to hold a paintbrush, choose colors, and move the paints across the canvas as a means of mental stimulation.

“It started out as an enrichment tool, but donors started asking what we were doing with the paintings the rhino produced,” explains Patrick Phelan, director of marketing for the Denver Zoo. “We decided to auction off a Mishindi original at a fundraising auction and got a great response.”

For the past decade, artwork created by animals at the Denver Zoo has been a staple of the fundraising program. Zookeepers have introduced art programs to elephants, parrots, cockroaches, gorillas, and orangutans; while the ­primates use their hands to create one-of-a-kind paintings, elephants paint with their trunks and cockroaches run through paint and track it across the canvas.

“The artwork is a creative way to get our constituents to support the zoo,” Phelan says.

Donations to charities dropped 13.4 percent in 2009 and might not return to pre-recession levels until 2022, according to Giving USA, a report released by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, making it more important than ever for nonprofit organizations like zoos, aquariums, and museums to come up with unique ideas to generate support from donors.

Respond to Demand
When the Denver Zoo realized donors were willing to pay for the paintings created by zoo inhabitants, the development department decided to embrace the demand and begin selling the artwork.

Before asking donors to raise their paddles to bid on the paintings, Phelan researched similar programs at other zoos and wildlife sanctuaries to assess the competition. The Denver Zoo proved to be the only zoo in Colorado offering animal-produced artwork to supporters. To protect their niche, the zoo only auctioned off a few pieces per year. As a result, donors are willing to spend between $250 and $2,000 for each painting. “Keeping the paintings rare helps to protect their value,” Phelan explains.

While the Denver Zoo resisted the urge to mass produce the paintings and sell them in the gift shop, Phelan wanted to ensure the zoo received attention for its creative fundraising strategies and generated contributions from new donors.

In 2009 the zoo placed paintings up for auction on the online bidding site www.biddingforgood.com. A total of 268 bidders competed to win paintings made by snakes, macaws, elephants, orangutans, gorillas, and a hyena, generating $4,438 for the zoo. “The community support for the project is fantastic,” Phelan says.

More Ways to Help
During a 2003 fundraising campaign for the Asian Elephant exhibit, UK residents began asking about ways they could support the Chester Zoo’s fundraising efforts. Their willingness to host car washes, silent auctions, and fun runs while raising funds for the elephants led the zoo to create a fundraising pack. “We needed to make it as easy as possible for people to get involved,” explains Lynsey Jones, assistant development manager for the North of England Zoological Society and Chester Zoo. “The pack has helped formalize the process of fundraising and … it makes our donors feel supported.”

At the end of the 2003 fundraising campaign, supporters continued to request information from the Chester Zoo about hosting fundraising events. To meet the need, the development department expanded the fundraising pack into a comprehensive guide that includes ideas for activities and events, information on the legal aspects of fundraising, and tips on how to access zoo resources such as posters. To date, supporters have hosted events ranging from dance-a-thons to shark dives. “Our fundraising pack combines lots of useful information to guide our supporters, [and] happy donors means they will continue to support the zoo, which is great,” says Jones.

Jones acknowledges inviting the community to host fundraisers does not take the onus off the Chester Zoo to generate donations, but it does provide additional sources of funding to help support the nonprofit organization. “[It] definitely helps generate funds, especially when [the fundraising efforts are] linked to zoo campaigns and promoted as widely as possible,” she says.

Embrace Technology
Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle hoped launching a text-to-donate campaign would help them reach a wider audience. “Everyone has a smartphone, and we thought a text-to-donate campaign might be a way to get a donation from a non-donor,” says Steve Sullivan, membership and new ventures manager at the Woodland Park Zoo. “The potential is really intriguing.”

During a concert at the zoo in 2010 concertgoers were asked to take out their cell phones and send a text message to donate $10 to help fund conservation efforts at the zoo. It was the first time the zoo experimented with text donations, and participation was low. Less than 1 percent of attendees texted, generating just $300 in donations.

Undeterred, the Woodland Park Zoo launched a “$10 for Tigers” campaign in 2012 to raise funds for a new tiger enclosure. Signage with QR codes and instructions for texting donations were posted around the zoo, and information was listed on the website, www.zoo.org. To date, the zoo has raised $150,000 via e-mail, web, and text donations. As Sullivan suspected, requesting a donation for a specific campaign has increased the response. “One of the reasons that we’re having more success this year is because we have a very specific and compelling ask,” he says.

While technology has provided another avenue for the zoo to solicit donations, the text-to-donate option has been less successful than Sullivan hoped. At concerts, the zoo still averages just 12 donations via text. High hopes for a positive long-term impact have the zoo continuing its text-based donation requests. “We’re willing to overlook the challenges because the campaign puts tigers top of mind, and every mobile gift counts as one more person who voted to say, ‘This is important,’” Sullivan says. “It also gives us another opportunity to collect a donation. When someone is standing in front of a habitat and they feel inspired [to give], they can take immediate action. It’s instant and that’s incredibly powerful.”

Museums are also embracing technology to connect with donors. In Boston, the Museum of Science uses Fundrazr, a fundraising app that taps into social networks for donations, to collect $2,500 from its network of online followers to renovate the Charles Hayden Planetarium. 

Emphasize Experiences
The Neversink Valley Museum of History and Innovation in Orange County, New York, launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2009. Through the online pledge system, the museum exceeded its $11,000 fundraising goal to help fund a capital campaign for a new cultural and community center.

In exchange for donating at various levels, the museum offered benefits to donors: Those who gave $200 or more received an invitation to a special event in New York City; donors who pledged at least $1,000 were honored with their names on a stone paver at the new center.

The Denver Zoo also offered a special experience to bidders to increase the likelihood of receiving high bids on animal artwork; each piece of art was auctioned off with an animal encounter. The winning bidder is invited to participate in enrichment activities with the animal, picking the colors for their painting and watching the animal create the piece, allowing them to have an interactive experience as well as a one-of-a-kind painting. “Pairing the painting with a special experience drives up the value,” says Phelan. “Instead of bidding on a painting by a rhino, the bidder wins a painting by Mishindi, the rhino that they interacted with at the zoo.”

When the bidding starts, auctioneers not only emphasize the uniqueness of the piece but the impact the enrichment activity has on the animals and how their donations benefits the zoo. “We work hard to convey that it’s not just about buying a painting but supporting that institution; without conveying that essential piece of information, we are not getting the donation we could be for each painting,” Phelan says. “By putting a creative twist on the ask and giving supporters an experience and a piece of artwork in return, the program has been enormously successful.” 

Jodi Helmer is a freelance writer in Charlotte, North Carolina. Learn more about her work at www.jodihelmer.com.