Close Encounters: Nonprofits offer unique experiences to raise both money and awareness
Gone are the days when a museum or zoo could open its doors to the public and call it a day. Today’s nonprofit educational institutions are finding innovative ways to both bolster their bottom line and reach new audiences.
“You have to make money to sustain your mission,” says Jared Springer, director of sales and events at Loveland Living Planet Aquarium. The philosophy has been embedded in the aquarium’s model since the current location’s opening in 2014, owing to advice given to Brent Anderson, founder and CEO, at another aquarium—just because it’s a nonprofit, he was told by a mentor, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be run as a business.
The aquarium hosts more than 200 events per year, most of which are accommodated nicely by events rooms built specifically for that purpose. Many of those events are weddings, school dances or corporate parties (to get a holiday party scheduled at the aquarium requires planning several months ahead; most slots are filled by late spring). But over the last two years, Springer and others in his department have been branching out.
“We want to go out and find segments of our population we’re not quite reaching through normal channels,” he says. General admission is still the biggest line item in the aquarium’s budget, and grants and private donations help tremendously, too, he says, but events have become the second-largest financial contributor for the aquarium.
Some events are instant hits, like Sips Under the Sea, which paired beer and wine with tastings of chocolate and cheese. The event was shockingly popular, especially given Utah’s reputation of not being a drinking state, Springer says. All but a narrow percentage of tickets were sold through social media, and the audience was an enthusiastic bunch of those very demographics Springer was hoping for. The success of the event has prompted the aquarium to make it a recurring feature, four times a year.
Yoga with Sharks was somewhat less popular initially, Springer says, because they as marketers didn’t initially understand the event’s audience. The first event had a bar at the back, but it was virtually ignored. A few different demographics of attendees did emerge, though, that allowed future events to be marketed much more effectively. The event has since become successful, Springer says, and he is hoping to expand it by partnering with businesses to do corporate events as part of wellness programs.
In the beginning, Springer and the marketing staff frequently clashed with the scientists and animal keepers over events—although there are dedicated rooms for events, guests are usually allowed a more or less private tour of the aquarium, as well. Hosting after-hours events was good for the budget, but bad for birds and other animals with strict bedtimes. Both sides eventually struck upon a compromise: for after-hours events that took place after the sun had gone down, staff would dim the lights to a level low enough for those animals to settle in for the night but bright enough for human voyeurs to safely walk through those rooms.
“[The animal keepers] understand without things like this it would be hard to have money to feed the animals,” Springer says. “It’s fun. We’re always talking about new ideas, new ways to fulfill our mission and fund it at the same time.”
That balance between animal welfare and event accessibility is one the Hogle Zoo has tackled, as well. During the zoo’s popular wintertime Zoo Lights event, attendees used to use the small animal house as a place to come in from the cold and see some cute critters while they were at it, says Erica Hansen, community relations manager for Hogle Zoo. Unfortunately, the bright artificial lights stressed out the animals, who had adjusted their sleep schedules to coincide with what daylight they could see from the building’s exterior windows. So they closed the small animal building after hours, despite protests from visitors.
“Obviously, our main goal is the health and wellbeing of the animals, and we’re not going to jeopardize that so we can show people lights at night,” Hansen says.
Besides Zoo Lights, the zoo has plenty of way to keep busy after hours, and despite the wintertime issue with the small animal building, some species are more active in the evenings than during the daytime. One of the most popular is the recurring Zoo Brew, which offers affordable drinks at an event that benefits one of the zoo’s “Big Six” species: African elephant, African lion, boreal toad, Bornean orangutan, polar bear and radiated tortoise. “What you quickly learn is people just want to experience the zoo—and experience it without kids,” she says.
Hansen says due to the nature of the zoo and its visitors’ attendance habits, people tend to visit the zoo in chunks with 20-year-or-so gaps between those chunks. For example, a person might go as a child on a school field trip, then 20 years later with their own children, then a couple decades later with their grandchildren. Zoos can change radically during those gaps.
In the last 20 years, for example, the entire philosophy of zoos has changed from one of getting as many species in one place as possible to having fewer animals in larger, more natural habitats. Sometimes that means making hard decisions—the zoo had to send its hippo to a facility in New Mexico better equipped to give him a comfortable life—but ultimately, zoos are better because of it, Hansen says, and that’s an attitude and change Hogle Zoo wants to convey to people who might be in those gaps.
“We can’t show everything, but what we do have, we show better,” she says. “[Events have] really helped bring in those nontraditional audiences.”
The zoo also celebrates holidays recognizing specific species—World Rhino Day, for example, is on September 22—rotating through them because of the sheer number of species-specific holidays that would require observing. Those events are popular with patrons and with the keepers passionate about that species who get to share that love to the public.
And the zoo has found that getting people up close and personal with the facility’s tenants serves a dual purpose of fundraising and promoting its mission of education and conservation. Patrons can pay to feed the giraffes (using provided and approved food), for example, and zookeepers give demonstrations with the elephants that also help them keep tabs on the animals’ health. The proceeds from various events are split between supporting the zoo’s bottom line and going towards animal conservation organizations.
Using events to increase awareness of a facility has been part of Red Butte Garden and Arboretum’s model since its large, shady trees were mere saplings. In 1985, the very year the garden opened to the public, the first concerts featured local bands playing on a small stage. Thirty-two years later, the garden has earned national and international renown, and the 31-show concert series has developed a strong reputation all its own. In this past concert season, acts including Jason Mraz, Santana, Herbie Hancock and ZZ Top graced the amphitheater.
“The bands are expensive, security’s expensive … all of that has a cost to it, but it still is a revenue stream, and the concert series drives membership,” says Bryn Ramjoué, communications director for Red Butte Garden and Arboretum.
The relationship between garden membership and concert attendance goes both ways: Concert-goers often later buy memberships because of their new awareness of the gardens or to get discounts on future concerts, while members often take advantage of the membership discount and early access to tickets. Of the 11,000 or so members, roughly half buy tickets, says Ramjoué.
But the garden is more than a backdrop for concerts. Twenty-one of the 100 acres have been developed into more than a dozen display gardens. The garden is growing, as it were, though Ramjoué says each expansion or development has to be done with the budgetary future in mind.
“Anytime you increase a display garden, it means more staff, more maintenance. The garden has grown at a reasonable pace as funding would allow,” she says.
The children’s garden is a relative newcomer, designed in the garden’s original plans but not planted until 10 years ago. That area in particular has allowed Red Butte to carry out its mission—to educate and cultivate appreciation for plants local and foreign alike, as well as promote conservation and environmental education—to its youngest visitors. Gardeners give the area an annual theme; this year, Max’s bed from Where the Wild Things Are and Peter Rabbit’s sweater on a stick peeked out from the midst of flourishing, book-themed fauna. The area also has a hands-on workspace for children to do crafts and learn more about the plants all around them. Kids are also taken to unfinished, unmanicured areas of the garden to get a sense of what plants look like in a more natural space.
That early education, which continues as they get older through the teen camp advisor program, helps give them a sense of ownership of the world around them, she says. “They learn a sense of ownership. They learn to think about downstream. They learn the fragility of that ecosystem that humans rely on,” she says. “They just get to ask any kind of crazy question that pops into a kid’s head. … I think it feels somewhat special to them. They’re behind the scenes.”
For adult visitors, the gardens often play host to weddings—the garden can host up to four per day—or corporate events. For the latter, Ramjoué feels the space is underutilized and hopes to change that in the future.
“There’s a lot of versatility and education that can go along with it just being a nice spot,” she says, noting companies could have breakout sessions in the various areas of the garden in addition to using the arboretum for a lunch or meeting spot. “There’s so many different ways to use the space.”
Finding ways to marry its mission and extracurricular events, as it were, has been one of the chief considerations for the Utah Museum of Fine Arts during its 18-month renovative closure. The museum just recently reopened after the “most comprehensive rethinking” of its permanent galleries since 2001. The reorganized galleries aim to help visitors make personally meaningful connections to great art and ideas.
With all that in mind, the museum is weighing and choosing events for their ability to raise awareness of the museum and its mission rather than for monetary potential, says Gretchen Dietrich, executive director of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.
The museum has kept its two free days per month, as well as reduced or free admission for those on EBT and free admission to students and active military. “That is the way we’ve attracted people to balance the need to raise revenue with our belief that everyone should have access to the Museum of Fine Arts,” she says. “We’ve been thinking as much about people as we have about art. If people don’t feel comfortable, they’re not going to come.”
The bulk of the museum’s budget comes from donors, Dietrich says, and it helps when trying to convince someone to give to the museum rather than another cause to show the value the museum brings to the community. But in planning the annual fundraising gala, they have been budget-minded in putting the emphasis on the former rather than the latter and have made it a more effective means of raising money in doing so. Dietrich says they have also been thinking more strategically about their membership. So far, it’s working. Six weeks into the current fiscal year, the museum had already raised half of its target funds for the year.
“Nonprofits have to be able to explain in a compelling and easy to understand way why you should give to them,” she says. “I like to think we in Utah have gotten better at explaining that.”
The grand re-opening included a free yoga class, something Dietrich says they plan on continuing and adding to with other events that promote mindfulness, such as journaling. While Dietrich says they’re considering adding a small admission fee to those activities at some point, there is value in promoting their mission of connecting people with art.
“I think it’s super welcome,” she says. “We’re trying to make a point that it’s for everyone. You can find yourself here.”