5-Minute Interview: Howard Baskin, chairman, Big Cat rescue
In 1992, Carole Baskin received a baby bobcat as a pet by her then husband. Neither knew then that it was a bad idea. When they went to buy a second one, they ended up at what they didn’t realize at the time was a “fur farm” that raised bobcats and lynxes to slaughter for fur coats.
Once she figured it out, Carole bought the farm’s entire inventory of 56 bobcat and lynx kittens in return for an understanding that the owners would stop making cats into coats.
“Initially she thought they could make good pets and believed the breeders who said they were breeding to ‘preserve the species,’ says Howard Baskin, Carole’s current husband and chairman of Tampa, Fla.-based Big Cat Rescue, which Carole founded.
“A few cats of other species were purchased in those early days, and there was a limited amount of breeding,” Baskin explains. “But as Carole gained experience with the animals and learned more about what their typical life was like in captivity, the philosophy of the sanctuary changed dramatically and has continued to evolve. After the initial cats arrived, people began calling asking her to take cats of various species.”
Today, Baskin says, the rescue is home to 145 cats, including lions, tigers, leopards, cougars, bobcats, lynxes and others.
Here, FS talks with Baskin about the refuge and the fundraising that FundRaising Success: How do you fund your mission? What fundraising avenues do you use?
Howard Baskin: Our two primary sources of income are guided tours of the sanctuary and donations, mostly from individuals. Secondary sources include an annual gala called the Fur Ball, a gift shop, online gift-shop sales, an ink-recycle program, and a cell tower on the property. We have done almost no direct-mail solicitation of donations, relying primarily on our informative quarterly newsletter and the Web.
FS: What are your fundraising strengths? Weaknesses?
HB: [Strengths are that]:
* We have a cause that lends itself to having visitors, and the cats capture people’s hearts;.
* We have developed strong video and photography skills and Web skills. Our podcasts have ranked highly on YouTube, Veoh etc.
* Thanks to wise management of Web crawlers and limited donated Web ad dollars, along with skill in creating appealing content, our Web site receives a rather extraordinary half million visitors (not “hits”) monthly.
As for weaknesses, we have much room for improvement in managing our database of donors and cultivating donors, and the array of donation options and benefits could be improved.
FS: Do you foresee any big changes in the way you reach potential donors and other supporters in the near future?
HB: No. We need to work on the weak areas identified above.
FS: How would you describe your fundraising philosophy?
HB: We are very focused on keeping fundraising as a percentage of dollars raised as low as possible so donors will have the satisfaction of knowing that almost all of their donation goes to the program. This is way we have avoided direct mail or hiring call centers or other solicitors, and have focused heavily on our visitors and the Web.
FS: How do you reach out to supporters and potential supporters in ways other than purely fundraising? Are you engaged with the new social media sites — MySpace, Facebook etc. — and online social networking?
HB: Yes. As mentioned above, we have dozens of podcasts that have become very popular. You can see many of these at www.bigcatrescue.org/podcats.htm. And we have blogs for supporters on various topics. (www.bigcatrescue.org/Blog.htm).
Our quarterly tabloid, color newsletter goes to about 70,000 people now. Very few opt out. Photos and stories of the cats are engaging. Our monthly e-zine, The Advocat, goes to about 30,000 opt-in recipients. And as mentioned above, our Web site generally has become the largest source of awareness of our work.
FS: Can you describe a recent successful fundraising effort?
HB: Here are a couple:
* Memorial Area. Previously, our “cemetery” was a hodgepodge of a few nice memorial stones donated over the years combined with many of the signs that used to hang on the cages with the names of the cats. A little over a year ago I found a fellow who gave us a good deal on very rich-looking marble plaques with images of the cats engraved on them. We built a short wall to set them on and offered donors the opportunity to memorialize the cats and have their name on the plaques for $250. As of yesterday, all 72 had been donated, raising $18,000 over that time. (www.bigcatrescue.org/foreverremembered.htm).
* Ink Recycle Program. This is not “recent” in that it started a few years ago, but it is ongoing. We found a vendor who would send postage-paid bags to our donors with which they could recycle empty inkjet cartridges, toner cartridges and cell phones. By actively promoting this to visitors and in our newsletter, we have become this vendor’s largest source of cartridges. The program has generated more than $45,000 to date.
* Fur Ball. We started doing a gala in 2003. We have gone from 300 attendees at $50 each to 700 at $150 each, with net amount rising from $17,000 the first year to $119,000 in 2007.
A key element of the ball is the “safari costume formal” attire. Guests can come in purely formal outfits or, at the other extreme, in cat or safari costume, or in the middle in formal attire with cat accessories. Just seeing what people wear has made the event fun.
In addition, we make a point to have it not be a night of boring speeches. The presentation time is very limited, and most of the night is a true party with numerous activities in addition to the traditional dancing. There is tribal drumming they can join in, a casino table, a confection contest, a costume contest and more. (www.bigcatrescue.org/FurBall.htm).
FS: Any major difficulties or setbacks you’ve faced along the way? Things you would do differently with your fundraising?
HB: One year at the Fur Ball we made a poor decision on meal choice at the ball and got complaints. Learned a lesson, and since then the meal has gotten rave reviews.
We dabbled in direct mail briefly. But even though we had great success in terms of return on the small mailings we did, for the reasons above we decided not to expand the program.
We have not ever done anything that caused us to lose money or have any other negative impact that I can recall.
FS: What advice would you give to organizations similar to yours, in size and annual operating budget?
HB: I am not sure our experience and strategy would work universally — it may be heavily dependent on the nature of our mission. I am tempted to say focus on the Web; it is the future. Learn how to appear when people search. Make sure your content is engaging and makes people want to pass on your site to others.
But this is probably much easier for us than for most because the cats are so engaging and give us a constant source of content. This may not be good advice for someone fighting a disease or a social ill.
FS: How many employees do you have?
FS: Do you have any employees strictly devoted to fundraising?
Additional thoughts from Howard Baskin:
For 10 years Carole and her daughter operated the sanctuary with only three paid staff and very limited marketing or fundraising. The sanctuary ran deficits every year. She funded by operating a real estate business. The loss of her husband in 1997 and the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and plummeting tourism created times of intense stress that they managed through. In 2002 and 2003, the sanctuary operated roughly at breakeven. In 2003 public donations were only $107,000 and tour revenue was $190,000.
I met Carole in late 2002 and became a full-time volunteer in early 2003. Carole and I married in late 2004. My background includes a Harvard MBA, 11 years with Citicorp (now Citigroup), then ten years in small businesses where I had some kind of equity participation. In most cases, I went into an existing business at the point where the entrepreneur had gotten it started but was unable to take it further without better organization.
The sanctuary was very similar, except nonprofit. Learning abour the nonprofit world has been an interesting challenge, but the similarities far outweigh the differences.
We went from useless financial statements to detailed, audited financials that let us make intelligent decisions. We started with the “low-hanging fruit,” — the place I thought it was easiest to build revenue, the tours. As we generated modest surpluses and Carole could spend less time worrying about whether the cats would be fed, she focused on building her Web skills and the Web content while I networked and obtained donated advertising to build the tour traffic.
More visitors translated into more potential donors. The demographic of our donors began rising as awareness built through … personal networking, as well as the Web traffic. So in addition to more donors, we started seeing larger-denomination donors. Other efforts described above like the Fur Ball and ink recycle were generating increased revenue during those years as well.
The bottom line is that the $107,000 and $190,000 in donations and tour revenue respectively in 2003 have grown to $600,000-plus and $500,000-plus respectively in 2007, with donations for the first time exceeding tour revenue. This has allowed us to build larger enclosures, buy better food, make much needed capital expenditures, and in the coming month start an Endowment Fund by seeding it from the operating funds.
We are proud of our accomplishments. And if there is one general lesson, I would conclude that applying the same concepts that work in any small business are helpful in operating a small nonprofit: forming a strategy, having detailed financial statements so you can measure what works and what doesn’t, creating a plan even if it is on the back of an envelope, and implementing the plan diligently and with focus.