December 8, 2020

Proving Your Worth: Learning From Akron Zoo’s Big Public Funding Win

How do you get an additional $5M/year for your Zoo during a pandemic?

With lots of planning! Last month, voters approved, in a proverbial landslide, a levy providing Akron Zoo with about $5 million in new annual funding per year. How did they do it? And can it work for your organization? While the campaign was broad and had many facets, Akron Zoo President & CEO, Doug Piekarz, gives credit to his organization’s investment in an economic impact study, facilitated by Zoo Advisors, which demonstrated precisely what impact the Zoo has had and will have in its community. Your zoo or aquarium supports jobs, provides economic stimulus for local businesses, and generates tax revenue for government. It’s critical to learn why it’s important to know these numbers and how you can turn that into $ for your zoo or aquarium.

This past week, Zoo Advisors hosted our 26th webinar in the New Tomorrow Community Conversations series. The topic was economic impact studies and how organizations can leverage them towards greater public support—even during a pandemic.

The context for this conversation was Akron Zoo’s recent win, and how they leveraged an economic impact study as a critical aspect of their three-pronged approach to success in their campaign.

Key takeaways from the discussion included:

The Importance of Starting Early and Building a Reservoir of Data
It’s not at all uncommon for AZA organizations to conduct economic impact research. Many in the profession periodically undertake the effort. But what separates Akron’s strategy from that of many other organizations was their commitment to “early and often.” They began their research in 2015—five full years before their levy issue was scheduled to come up for a public vote—and repeated it every year.

This was a success on multiple fronts: (1) it gave them the ability to demonstrate a historical breadth of impact, not just a single year; (2) they were able to cite a huge number (three quarters of a billion dollars!) in their cumulative impact; and (3) it allowed them ample time to starting putting that data to work with a range of stakeholders and influential community members whose endorsements they eventually needed for the vote.

Key lesson? Don’t wait until the year you need the research—start now, and like auditing and employee reviews, make it part of an annual process.

Make it Easy on Your Lobbyist
Your lobbying advocates have a tough job: making use of a limited pool of information in a short period of time to maximize impact. Recent and credible economic impact research makes their job orders of magnitude easier. To quote Jim Simon during the webinar, “Frankly, the data was just so darn good!”

Good data speaks for itself—it doesn’t ask officials to make complicated inferences or risky assumptions. It simply is what it is, and it stands up to scrutiny.

Keep it Simple
By their nature, economic impact studies are fairly dense and numbers heavy. They aren’t easy to understand in their raw form for many audiences. Akron Zoo knew that they’d need to develop a strategy that reduced the research findings to their very essence, something that could fit on a bumper sticker or coffee mug. The answer? “Eight to one.” In its most simplified form, the years of economic impact research conducted by the Zoo boiled down to a single, straightforward message: for every dollar of public investment, Akron Zoo returned eight dollars of impact to its community. Eight to one! Everyone can understand that.

Brag About It
It isn’t enough to simply do the research. You also need to preach about it.
But how? Akron Zoo took the findings and developed them into a communications effort called The State of the Zoo. The Zoo periodically brought the results of the past years’ impacts to the public and focused on getting the message out to the right people—government officials, business and community leaders, and the media. Yes, they crowed about their economic impacts, but that was just one part of a three-pronged approach. The other two cornerstones of their messaging were “conservation” and “education.” By combining these three fundamentals, the Zoo was able to communicate a clear and concise impact statement that covered all corners of their operation—mission and margin.

Economic Impact: It’s Not Just for Policy Wonks
It’s easy to imagine the multitude of ways that a strong economic impact statement can help you with government officials and development types. It’s their bread and butter and they’ve come to expect it. But consider some unexpected ways that it can come in handy. For example, Doug Piekarz, Akron Zoo’s President & CEO, shared an anecdote about their Development office’s long-term stewardship of a high-capacity donor, and how the economic impact study helped the Akron Zoo receive their first ever gift of over one million dollars. The message? “My million-and-a-half dollar gift can potentially have eight times that impact in the community.”

These are just a few of the great takeaways from our discussion. If you missed this webinar, make sure to check out the recording here, and visit our New Tomorrow Community Conversation Series page for information on upcoming sessions.

Our panelists were:

  • Doug Piekarz, President & CEO, Akron Zoo

  • Linda Criss, Vice President of Communications, Akron Zoo

  • James Simon, Partner, Buckingham Law

  • Devrim Ikizler, Ph.D, Founder, Intelligent Analytics and Modeling

For more details on how Akron Zoo leveraged an economic impact study towards huge public investment, read our full case study here.

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