The interpreters (docents) at the National Zoo are a passionate and committed group of people. They help visitors understand and better appreciate the animals even in Washington’s bone-chilling damp winter days and on those blistering summer days when the temperature and the humidity are both racing towards 100. Every zoo is always in need of funds and the interpreters see the need on a daily basis and are acutely aware of what needs to be done. The challenge is how to help those volunteers further support their passion without having interpretation become synonymous with fundraising. This is the story of one solution at the National Zoo.
The Smithsonian National Zoological Park (NZP) sits on 163 acres in Washington, D.C. In additionto the location in Washington, there is another campus in Front Royal, Virginia, 60 miles to the West. TheSmithsonian Conservation Biology Institute(SCBI) serves as an umbrella for the Smithsonian’sglobal effort to conserve species and train future generations of conservationists. As part of the Centerfor Species Survival the zoo conducts extensive research on reproduction in clouded leopards. As partof this research, in 2010, the Zoo’s capital campaign focused on raising funds for a new clouded leopard facility at SCBI(Please note, SCBI is not open to the general public).
Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) is the dedicated partner of the National Zoological Park. FONZ provides exciting and enriching experiences to connect people with wildlife. Together with the Zoo,FONZ is building a society committed to restoring an endangered natural world. FONZ manages the education and interpretation programs for the zoo. The interpreters are divided into groups, most groups focusing on one specific section of the zoo. Clouded leopards are exhibited on the Asia Trail, along with such diverse animals as Giant Pandas, Japanese Giant Salamanders and Asian Small Clawed Otters. Last year 42 Asia Trail Interpreters spent 1,265 hours interacting with 215,199 visitors.
In 2010 several Asia Trail volunteers approached their FONZ program supervisor, Rebecca Sohmer, with an idea to help raise both public awareness of clouded leopards and, as a consequence, increase the funds raised for the new clouded leopard facility. A steering committee was formed. The initial committee consisted of animal care staff from Asia Trail; several volunteers and the Asia Trail coordinator. The committee gathered input from Asia Trail volunteers, the FONZ development office, the FONZ business office and several other parts of both FONZ and NZP. After considering many ideas, the committee developed three project goals:
- Education: to raise awareness of the clouded leopard and the NZP conservation effort with both visitors and volunteers
- Fundraising: to directly raise money for the new clouded leopard facility at SCBI
- Innovation: to serve as a pilot project to connect education-based volunteers to a fundraising campaign
In addition, the group developed several operating principles:
- This is not a new interpreter program
- Support from animal care staff was essential
- Education was the first priority; fundraising the second priority
The project was implemented in three phases. Phase I consisted of providing additional training in clouded leopard conservation and the SCBI clouded leopard initiative to all Asia Trail volunteers. Volunteers could choose to wear “Ask Me About Clouded Leopard” buttons during their interpretive shifts.
During Phase II the Clouded Leopard Ambassador program was created. The ambassadors staffed a clouded leopard display table which included both educational materials and fundraising information. There were concerns that the ambassador program would be confused with the interpreter program. To avoid such confusion the ambassadors wore a different uniform during their ambassador shifts at the clouded leopard table. Requirements to be an ambassador included being an active interpreter in good standing in any zoo program and a willingness to work at least one additional shift each month. In the end there were 22 ambassadors from 5 different interpreter programs.
On a typical day, ambassadors greeted visitors at the table and discussed clouded leopards with them using traditional interpretive objects. There was a sign with suggested donations levels and a benefit for each donation level (gift cards, buttons, and t-shirts). There was also a “loose change” jar. There were free hand stamps of a clouded leopard paw available (this proved to be a great hit with our younger visitors). During summer 2010, working primarily for 4-6 hours on weekends days, the ambassadors spoke to 4,789 people. 94% of the interactions were rated positively by the visitor and 61% of the groups spoken to made a donation at some level. This table raised $5,000 in direct donations. Phase II also included interpreter-led tours of the Asia Trail for a suggested donation. The tours booked quickly, especially after a mention in the Washington Post Weekend section, and averaged ten participants per tour, raising $930.
Phase three was a final event with a goal of both education and fundraising. A special screening of Ghost Cat, a Smithsonian channel video, with a panel discussion by noted clouded leopard experts was followed by a cocktail reception with a silent auction, a merchandise table (in coordination with the FONZ photo club) and a chance to talk with panelists and keepers. This event was advertised as part of an on-going Evening Lecture series. 125 tickets were sold, the silent auction and merchandise table raised over $2,000 and the George Mason University students working at SVCBI contributed more than $300.
At the end of the project, the total raised was a net amount of $21,760 which included all ambassador table donations; the final event proceeds and direct donation that were made as a result of ambassador efforts. The project spoke to more than 5,000 people and surpassed it’s “stretch” fundraising goal of $20,000.
The challenge then became, can the project be replicated in the future. To that end, the elephant ambassador program was created in spring, 2011. It began with a meeting between the Clouded Leopard Ambassador steering committee and the new Elephant Ambassador steering committee. After discussing all aspects of the ambassador project the new Elephant Ambassadors took over the lead and the Clouded Leopard ambassadors stepped aside. The Elephant Ambassadors are following an almost identical model, and raising funds for elephant enrichment items in the new Elephant Trails exhibit at NZP.
Because of the groundwork laid by the Cloud Leopard Ambassador project the Elephant Ambassadors were able to start their table work much earlier in the season. As a result, as of June 19 of the 21 Elephant Ambassadors have spoken with 10,476 visitors and has collected $3,971.17. This success has happened despite the excessive rain and heat in the Washington area this summer.
This project allowed visitors to learn about a specific conservation effort by highly-trained volunteers and connected them to a specific solution. It fostered a very strong sense of ownership among the volunteers and gave them an opportunity to “do more” about an effort they care passionately about. It also served to strengthen relationships between animal care staff and the education department. All of these tremendous benefits happened within a one year time frame, minimizing burnout among project participants. For these reasons, and many more, we recommend trying an ambassador program at your zoo; looking beyond the traditional role of interpreters and capitalizing on this incredible resource to augment your fundraising efforts.