Soon after his selection as CEO in August 2018, Dolf DeJong and the Zoo Board of Management knew operations needed to change. Years of declining attendance and a shrinking community profile needed to be reversed and the site reinvented to regain public support. Dolf spent countless hours exploring the Toronto Zoo’s vast campus, meeting with staff, and hosting “fireside chats” with his new team of 1,100+ staff and volunteers. What he heard and saw was a 44-year-old zoo ready for change, requiring a bold vision and committed leadership to guide the Zoo toward a bright future. By “opening the doors” to the Zoo—literally and figuratively—Dolf wanted to create a more welcoming presence in the community, to listen honestly and openly to all voices, and to uncover the “hidden zoo,” revealing the stories of caring, skill and innovation, and unseen treasures. To accomplish this, he needed a plan, and the Zoo hired ZA in early spring 2019. Dolf’s challenge to our ZA team: “How do we make the hidden zoo go extinct?”
Inclusion and transparency drove the comprehensive strategic planning process—essential elements for Dolf’s vision and a hallmark of ZA’s process. To begin to “open the Zoo,” ZA engaged 500+ individuals—Zoo staff and volunteers, board members, the Toronto Zoo Wildlife Conservancy, community leaders, government officials, academic and corporate stakeholders, and neighborhood organizations—meeting individually, in small groups, and in an innovative Community Roundtable. Roundtable participants developed concept maps illustrating their ideas around Community, Technology, Sustainability/Climate Change, and Wild Card—an exercise that was then shared with Zoo staff, volunteers, and Union representatives—ultimately yielding more than 150 ideas to help shape the future of the Zoo and 25 “pledges” for collaboration and new ventures from community and business leaders. Highlights included concepts to reveal the “hidden zoo” and engage the community more broadly, even a bold plan to transform the entrance as a welcoming “community commons.”
Dolf also requested that ZA align the Zoo’s work with the City of Toronto and its agencies and with provincial plans and initiatives that defined a vision for the future of the region’s natural resources, tying the Zoo’s plan to the goals of key stakeholders.
Based on ZA’s research, analysis, and stakeholder discussions, the team identified five strategic priorities for the 2020 plan to reveal “the hidden Toronto Zoo”: Save Wildlife, Ignite the Passion, Create Wow, Our Community + Our Zoo, and Revolutionize Zoo Technology. As the Zoo launches its plan in 2020, after business goals and operating plans are in place, the Zoo team will continue the process of “pulling back the curtain” to reveal the amazing work of a dedicated team saving animals, and the hidden Zoo will finally become extinct.