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Voices: Mark Shafer works to fund Brandywine Zoo expansion during pandemic

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There were a few elephants in the room when Mark Shafer took over May 1 as interim executive director of The Delaware Zoological Society from Michael Allen, who left for a similar role at the Queens (NY) Zoo.

Mark Shafer | Photo c/o Brandywine Zoo

“This was a completely different world for me,” says Shafer, whose background in banking and risk management was a bit different than Allen, who had a degree in zoology and nearly 13 years of experience at the Brandywine Zoo. In addition, Shafer joined a zoo that had been closed by Gov. Carney and having to figure out how to fund an ongoing expansion in the midst of a pandemic.

There’s the upcoming discussion about keeping a $2 million allocation in the governor’s 2020-21 bond budget that will be used to build an animal care center that the zoo needs to keep its critical accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.  There’s an application that needs to be submitted for a grant from the COVID-19 Strategic Response Fund. And then there’s the $5 million fundraising plan that has been put on hold, given the move toward donations to support healthcare, housing, and food assistance.

“My primary goal is to generate the revenue we need to keep the zoo running at a time when expenses haven’t really changed but we don’t have the revenue we need from tickets, memberships, and the gift shop and concessions,” he said, adding that the new role will be a great test of strategic marketing skills developed at MBNA and Bank of America.

The state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control manages zoo operations and the physical plant while the zoological society manages fundraising and the business side of the zoo.

Shafer will get his first indication of how anxious people are to get out when the zoo opens to members only on June 10 and to the public on June 11. The zoo will require facemasks – you can buy ones at the gate with animal designs – because there are now pinch points created by the closure of exhibits during construction of the Madagascar exhibit.

The facemasks are for the safety of visitors, workers, and the animals, he explained.

The zoo will offer timed online ticketing procedures, with two ‘pulses’ – morning and afternoon – and a limit of 75 people per pulse. The break each day will give the zoo time to clean up between phases.

“I think we should be OK,” Shafer said. “We created a pop-up box a few weeks ago for people to tell us if they wanted to be notified when we would be opening, and more than 100 people responded.”

The zoo is in the midst of a multi-million-dollar master plan that includes a new condor exhibit (completed), a Madagascar exhibit that will open in September – both funded by DNREC — and the third phase that Shafer is focused on funding – a new South American wetlands habitat that will also include a zoo facelift and new entrance.

It’s been a whirlwind month for Shafer, who was being vetted for a volunteer board position when Allen decided to leave.

“It’s amazing to me,” he said. “We get letters all the time with checks and notes that say I love the animals. People know these animals and their names. We’ve lost some of our fundraising events. We don’t think we’ll be able to have Brew in the Zoo, which is normally in September but that’s still dependent on our sponsors. We’ve cancelled our summer camps through July.

“But we have ramped up and created online education sessions. We created activity kits that have sold out, and we created virtual birthday parties where we send out videos and those are going gangbusters.”

So what’s next? “We need to continue focusing on building the list and our ability to segment our marketing with people who have a history of past engagement,” Shafer said. “Our board members really stepped up to support the annual fund. We have 860 members and the passion they have for this place is strong. We’re focusing on nurturing those members and trying to move them up the pipeline from member to donor.”

–Peter Osborne



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