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How the Philadelphia Zoo used its 150th Anniversary to demonstrate its mission
while connecting with key stakeholders in the community

The Sesquicentennial of the Philadelphia Zoo (March 21, 2009) offered a chance to tell the institution’s story to everyone and to take a major step towards greatness. How could the Zoo capitalize on this rare opportunity to put forth a unified brand?

The Philadelphia Zoo is one of the Delaware Valley’s most popular tourist destinations drawing 1.2 million visitors annually. The Zoo sits on 42 acres and is showing signs of age. Like many non-profits, it faces funding and identity problems. During the anniversary year, the Zoo would open a new exhibit, the McNeil Avian Center, which presented an opportunity to emphasize that the Zoo was modernizing and growing despite its confined location.

There were organizational challenges that put the celebration at risk; lack of staff and funds hampered the effort at times. Nonetheless, the year was considered a success. The Zoo was able to solidify its position as a premier institution in the region. The opening weekend set attendance records; they formed new partnerships in the community; celebrated their proud history; set a new standard for recognizing conservation; and earned $1.6 million for the institution.

The Sesquicentennial helped to catapult the Zoo to the next level in the cultural community. It allowed them to imagine the future and they are now fulfilling many of their dreams. With the Global Conservation Gala now in its fourth year, the Zoo is recognized today as a leader in animal protection. The Sesquicentennial brought many donors back into the fold leading to a successful campaign to fund the new children’s zoo which opened in 2013.


The staff’s limited resources were being tested and they were significantly behind in planning the celebration. Senior management of the Zoo quickly understood that it was necessary to outsource the vision, production and promotion of the celebration. In July 2008, I began my role at the Zoo. We had only 6 months to plan a pivotal year.

  • Create a volunteer committee to engage board members and other influential donors.

  • Form an internal committee representing every department in the Zoo to meet monthly.

  • Boil down the wealth of ideas to a manageable list: conservation grants; sponsored school trips and outreaches; free community days and memberships; educational programs; member, employee and volunteer engagement; and special tours and an exhibit of the Zoo’s history.

  • Manage the teams to insure that these things happened on schedule and on budget.


The Zoo saw the anniversary as an opportunity to consolidate marketing efforts, but the department was without leadership for several months. The transition in marketing/communications challenged any promotional strategy, making it more difficult to create a greater awareness and communicate with the public.

  • Charge a team to create a brand for the celebration.

    • Write a tagline to brand the year: 150 Years: Celebrate America’s First Zoo

    • Create new logo by combining the tagline with the Zoo’s existing logo

    • Use new brand on letterhead, in advertising and on staff uniforms.

  • Use the Zoo’s history to distinguish Sesquicentennial communications:

    • Create note cards, featuring historic images, for correspondence from the CEO and development office invitations.

    • Feature a new story or fact on the Zoo’s website as a 150 day countdown to the celebration.

  • Employ a guerrilla marketing approach.

    • Increase visibility in Center City with banners hung in key locations and on City Hall.

    • Engage visitors by arming the staff with fast-facts about the Zoo on handy laminated cards.

    • Give key donors reusable shopping bags with the 150th logo to prompt conversation.

  • Develop a media partnership with The [Philadelphia] Inquirer to add value to the small marketing budget. [In addition to the long-running 6abc partnership.]


As critical fundraising began in fall 2008, the economy took a dive. It looked like a bad omen for the celebration. With budgets already tight, plans would have to be scaled back.


Despite the visibility of the Zoo, a lead sponsor would be hard to lure. Companies were concerned about public perception and did not want the benefits that most sponsors had desired in the past. The approach had to be retooled to find the comfort zone for companies that were hedging.

  • Suggest that companies make donations anonymously.

  • Create a benefit menu including less visible items, such as a day for their employees at the Zoo.

  • Create a legacy fund to target high-wealth individuals, giving the development office a chance to cultivate and renew donor relationships.

  • Raise as much as possible from corporate, foundation and individual sources. [$800,000 total was raised.]

  • Take advantage of businesses feeling more comfortable by the beginning of 2010, in time for the Conservation Gala.


With the Sesquicentennial fast approaching, the development office needed a director of events who could produce multiple celebrations.


I led the team that produced a number of events targeted at fundraising, stewardship and celebration.

  • Sesquicentennial Weekend yielded the highest attendance in years, demonstrating to the Zoo that starting the season early has clear benefits.

  • 225th Anniversary of The Solitude, the historic home in the Zoo’s garden, led to a fundraising event around the dedication of an historic marker from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and gave the Zoo an opportunity to target a different audience: fans of history, architecture and the arts. The event added 3,000 names to the mailing list and brought in $45,000 in contributions.

  • Global Conservation Gala, a plan to award a prize to save a species—such as tigers—in perpetuity and make a mark in the conservation world. The calculation for that prize yielded a goal of several million dollars which would be impossible to raise, so it was necessary to lower expectations and change plans. A 10-year grant to a smaller organization that works in the Brazilian rainforest to save the golden lion tamarin would require $500,000, a more attainable amount. The first Global Conservation Gala was financially successful, raising enough to fund the grant as well as a significant profit to go to general operating funds. The event was held off-site, insuring that weather would not be a factor.

  • Opening of the McNeil Avian Center gave the Zoo a chance to demonstrate new technologies and address issues of conservation that were key goals of the celebration.

  • Zoobilee, the long-running fundraiser, was getting stale. After one more rainy—yet successful—event, the plug was pulled on a Philadelphia tradition.

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