Web Bonus: More Than In the Swim
The Georgia Aquarium opened in November 2005. But already the organization is running where other institutions like it are just learning to walk. It’s able to accommodate multiple, large-scale special events at one time, has partnered with area schools and universities to develop one-of-a-kind educational programs, solely relies on e-communications to keep in touch with constituents, and has an advanced Web-based ticketing system.
Its ability to do these things has a lot to do with a $250 million gift from Bernie Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot, to build and support the aquarium. Because of Marcus’ gift, the organization will never need to rely on fundraising to sustain its operating budget, according to Kristie Cobb, director of membership and annual programs for the aquarium.
Here, Cobb discusses the benefits of this fundraising structure, the aquarium’s special events and programs, and its Web focus.
FundRaising Success: What is the bonus of a financing structure where fundraising doesn’t mean life or death for your organization?
Kristie Cobb: It’s really remarkable that somebody like Bernie could give a gift with the foresight to say [that] development is important. Obviously, because he gave the gift he did, he knows that philanthropy from the community is very important. But he just wanted to make sure that the aquarium could continue their operations without relying on the next donation to make that month’s salary, or to be able to replace a pump, or to be able to have a new animal. And so a place where the fundraising structure is focused on programmatic growth and scientific research around the world is a remarkable place to be.
FS: Do you do any fundraising?
KC: We have a very unique thing that we do here at the aquarium that has been successful for us this year. We have a ballroom space. It’s 16,000 square feet and has a separate entrance from the main aquarium. We can accommodate events for up to 1,000 and the room can be subdivided into three smaller rooms.
The space itself has two wonderful viewing windows, and we expected the first year to have about 200 events. We’ve had about 800 events, and so it’s been very good for us financially. Having that in place will allow us to not need to be reliant on fundraising for special projects.
We have a partnership with the University of Georgia. It’s a first-ever partnership where students in the vet program at UGA, which is recognized as one of the best — if not the best — vet schools in the country, can come here and do their residency on site. We have a perfect laboratory atmosphere. We have over 500 species in the aquarium, so having this partnership will allow us to really focus on our mission-driven activities. And we are fundraising for that.
FS: How do you keep in touch with members/constituents?
KC: Because we’re a new organization, we have the luxury of having started our communications electronically. We believe very strongly in conservation, and one way that we promote that is that everything we do is electronic. We don’t mail any newsletters out. We communicate solely through e-mail, and it’s been very successful for us.
We did a fundraising campaign before we opened called Fish Scales. It’s similar to a brick program. And nearly 90 percent of the people who gave to that program and bought scales bought online.
It saves us money, and we can communicate very quickly with our members on any issue — anything that’s changing, anything that’s new, any new benefits. Just this week, one of our animals was euthanized. He came from Mexico City, and we worked for months and months to try and rehabilitate him and he was suffering from osteomyelitis, which is a bone infection. And we were able to communicate with our members just as quickly as we were able to communicate with the media. So it really allows us to have people feel like they’re part of the family. They know immediately what’s going on.
We rely very heavily on our Web site. At one point, more than 80 percent of people that were coming to the aquarium bought their tickets online before they came. We utilize an advanced reservation system, so people choose the date and the time they want to come in and they get a ticket specifically for that entry time through our Web site before they visit. It allows them to not have to wait in line; if it’s busy or cold or rainy, they know that at 1 o’clock on the 15th they can come right in. It allows us to better manage the number of people in the building at any one time, and it also allows us to manage our expectations for staff for what the capacity for that day is going to be.
It’s been fantastic. Dealing with 3.6 million guests in our first year, there would have been no way for us to facilitate their visits and have them be good guest experiences if we didn’t know what to be expecting.
FS: What advice can you give to other institutions like your own in terms of Web-based ticketing?
KC: The thing that we’ve really learned is that it’s important to listen. It’s important to listen to the staff that runs the programs, listen to the staff that interacts with the guests, listen to the staff that talks on the phone so that when you make changes or when you’re choosing a ticketing program you can really understand the details.
When I first started here, that was the one thing that my executive director said. He said, “You know, it’s important to listen. Listen to everyone and then make your decisions.”
And so a lot of what we do here, a lot of the changes that we make and a lot of the programs that we implemented were based on listening not just to other aquariums but to other attractions, from baseball teams to theme parks to people that have worked in zoos and aquariums for years, or museums — listening to all different types of people to really incorporate best practices instead of making your decision based on just what every other aquarium does.
FS: What is one thing that you would like to see the aquarium accomplish in 2007?
KC: I’m very excited that we’re focusing more on our mission. We’re working on a Solomon Islands project with the Nature Conservancy, and we’re helping to restore a reef. We’re working to expand our education programs. And being here and watching the kids come in, it’s really extraordinary. So I’m very excited about us having gotten through one year of operations and really looking toward enhancing some of the programs that we’ve gotten off the ground.
FS: Do you think the fact that you were given enough money to support the organization will effect fundraising efforts?
KC: Absolutely. Having a benefactor as generous as Bernie has been remarkable to build a gift like this for the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia. But what we have found is that not everybody realizes that we are a nonprofit, that we do need to raise money, that we are more than an attraction. So I definitely see that as something that we’re going to have to work on changing perceptions as we move forward because we will need a different kind of public support than we’ve had to have up until this point, and we want to make sure that guests have a good time when they visit, and that our partners and our sponsors have a good experience so that when fundraising really becomes much more critical, we’re in a good position with the people that are already on board.
- Bernie Marcus
- Kristie Cobb