Stories of Resilience: Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden

Stories of Resilience: A Series Brought To You By The Blackbaud Institute

As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, social good organizations are working creatively to navigate the new landscape. In this series, the Blackbaud Institute shares stories of organizations that are focusing on resilience, weathering these many changes while still positioning themselves for future growth. For more insight including quarterly giving performance updates, visit the Blackbaud Institute Index.


With many institutions forced to close their doors and in-person gatherings put on hold, organizations are faced with overhauling their programming to continue to reach supporters virtually. Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is one organization that has embraced the opportunity to use digital platforms to stay connected with its supporters. Even before the Cincinnati Zoo had to temporarily shut its doors, staff had begun developing virtual programming when Ohio school buildings closed in mid-March. With the goal of creating fun and educational offerings for kids at home, the Zoo developed its Home Safari. The program consists of a daily live and on-demand videos featuring a zookeeper and an animal, plus an at-home activity for viewers. Since the Zoo had already begun developing the programming, “we were able to offer an immediate solution as we also announced our temporary closure,” shares Director of Donor Engagement Krista Powers. Offering these options immediately created a huge virtual audience off the bat for the Zoo, which typically welcomes 1.8 million guests per year.

While the Cincinnati Zoo has been offering Facebook Live videos for quite some time as part of its digital marketing strategy, doing them daily and adding accompanying educational activities for viewers was new. The Zoo’s small team was able to pivot quickly, relying on the education team’s expertise to ensure the Home Safari is both interactive and educational for viewers. “The Zoo is comprised of a team that is both focused and nimble. We ground ourselves in our mission of creating adventure, conveying knowledge, conserving nature, and serving community. These qualities and focus that we practice on a daily basis have been activated in refreshed ways during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Powers says.

As stay-at-home orders forced many organizations to close their doors with little notice, supporters are more understanding than ever before that many organizations are new to this kind of digital engagement and working things out as they go. This is a great time to loosen the reins and get creative with sharing new experiences online. This openness has been key to the Cincinnati Zoo’s success. As Powers says, “We acknowledge that we may not always get it right, yet we learn along the way and remain committed to our mission and community. These are the foundational aspects of how we are able to successfully proceed in the midst of a pandemic.”

To support its operations while the attraction remains closed, Cincinnati Zoo moved quickly to respond by setting up an Emergency Operating Fund within the first week of closure. Since the doors closed, the Zoo has experienced a 487% increase in donors, while active viewers for Home Safari stretch to nearly 20 million. “It’s been so successful, and it really speaks to the opportunity to creatively fulfill our mission while meeting a need for the community right now,” Powers shares.

As many of the zoo staff members are working remotely, they have stayed connected through virtual meetings, phone calls, and texting to allow them to execute on this new engagement model. They also make time for casual team connection through virtual happy hours. Flexibility has been key, both for the development team and for the zoo staff as a whole. As Powers says, “Everyone has been asked to step into new functions and offer a hand where we can—teamwork is our primary strategy!

Cincinnati Zoo’s success with its virtual Home Safari is a testament to the payoff of agility, creativity, and commitment to hard work. The team continues to learn and pivot as they go, continuing to develop programming and strategize ways to manage the influx of new donors and retain their support into the future. Their focus on their mission has provided the guiding force. Powers says, “We believe in hope. We want to provide a little seed of joy and brightness in people’s lives, and this is allowing us to do that.”