Business Insider

Nancy Napier: Big goals tap unseen options, and Zoo Boise’s an example

Nancy Napier
Nancy Napier

When did you last go to the zoo in Boise? If your kids are grown, maybe it’s been a while. If so, you won’t believe how much it’s improved. User- and animal-friendly exhibits, lots of people, chances to interact with the animals but that’s only part of it.

Zoo Boise has done something as an organization that makes it a leader among accredited zoos and aquariums by generating lots of money to save animals in the wild. And it stems from thinking big and being able to see something that others didn’t.

Steve Burns, Zoo Boise’s director, tells a remarkable story about how the zoo changed its mission and its actions so that it has generated more than $1 million for conservation of animals in the wild.

But let’s take a step back.

Traditionally, zoos have had a mission of “educating and inspiring.” They hope that kids will learn about animals and perhaps become zookeepers or biologists, or even work in faraway places on conservation efforts. Maybe the hope was that Bill Gates would go to a zoo as a 10-year-old and then when he became rich, he’d donate millions of dollars. As we say in the business world, that’s not really a sustainable business model.

But about seven years ago, as Steve Burns began seeing depressing numbers on how many animals in the wild were disappearing, he wondered what a small zoo in a remote city could do. The number of lions in the wild, for example, has dropped from 400,000 to about 30,000 in 20 years. In a sense, those animals are zoos’ raw material source, and, unlike trees, they were not growing but rather declining. So without the chance to see and learn about those animals, how would future generations know and protect them?

Steve saw an article that sparked an idea: Why not find ways to raise money for conservation efforts?

That meant changing the organization’s mission first, though. After much discussion, that’s what the board and city leaders did, so now the zoo’s mission is to “educate, inspire, and generate funds for conservation of animals in the wild.”

Zoo Boise started by creating a “conservation fee” of 25 cents in addition to the admission price, and $5 on an annual membership. All of that incremental money went for conservation efforts. During the years, new projects came up, such as having visitors pay to feed the giraffes or taking a boat ride to see the monkeys. In all, there are half a dozen of these experiences around the zoo that allow visitors to give money to support their favorite animals.

Now the amazing part: Of the 225 accredited zoos and aquariums in North America, Zoo Boise is now one of the leaders in raising funds for conservation.

On average, zoos donate about 1 percent to 2 percent of their revenues for saving animals in the wild. Care to guess what percentage of Zoo Boise’s revenues go for conservation efforts?

Seventeen percent.

Astounding. Ahead of nearly every zoo in the country — a creative way to do something far beyond the local community and help animals in the wild.

Even if we can’t be in the wild, the animals benefit. It came from thinking big, starting small and seeing an opportunity others missed.

Where could you apply that approach — having a big goal that taps unseen opportunities?