Almost everyone has a distinct memory from their childhood of going to the zoo or aquarium.
There’s something magical about going to this place in your city where you can see and learn about incredible animals from all over the world. Huge animals with sharp teeth, long tusks, or glowing eyes, right there in front of you.
I asked some of our team members here at WeDidIt about their memories of the zoo or aquarium as kids.
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Besides playing an important role in education, zoos and aquariums also play an important role in conservation efforts around the world and in their local communities. Look no further than our friends at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, who just this past winter rescued nearly 100 sea turtles in their area suffering from a condition known as “cold stun.”
With over 450 zoos and aquariums across the country, I decided to crunch some data and to learn more about these nonprofits.
Here’s what I found.
Before that, a quick word on how I collected this data.
First, I downloaded the IRS datasets on exempt organizations. This dataset also includes each organization’s primary NTEE code, which classifies the type of organization it is or the work they do. NTEE code D50 classifies zoos and aquariums, so that’s where I started.
However, not every zoo and aquarium lists their primary NTEE code as D50, so my next step was to search for the keywords “Zoo” and “Aquarium” and add them to my list.
Finally, I did a manual quality check to weed out organizations that slipped in based on those keywords but were not actual zoos or aquariums (Things like “Zoom” or “Association of Zookeepers”).
If you’d like to check out the whole spreadsheet with the raw data, you can access it here.
Let’s start with a breakdown by state of the organizations.
There were a total of 458 zoos and aquariums in the dataset, and for the most part, the number in each state correlated with its population. When you break it down by organizations per capita, North Dakota comes in on top with a zoo or aquarium for every 126,155 people, followed by Kansas, Delaware, Alaska, and New Hampshire.
On the other end of the spectrum, Wyoming and West Virginia had no zoos or aquariums listed, so they sit on the bottom of the per capita list. New Jersey, Kentucky, and North Carolina finish out the bottom five there.
Across all 458 zoos and aquariums in the U.S. that I analyzed, reported revenue for these organizations totaled $2.6 billion. That equals about $5.7 million in revenue per organization.
Yet, that average is a bit skewed.
In reality, the revenue is extraordinarily top heavy. The top 10% of zoos and aquariums account for 81% of the total revenue. In fact, even just the top ten zoos and aquariums make up 45% of the total revenue of these types of organizations across the entire country.
Who are these Top 10 organizations?
While this surprised me at first, it starts to make sense when you start to look at the types of organizations in the bottom half of the revenue distribution. Of the 458 organizations, over half of them (254) are very small operations (under $500,000 in revenue). These include small rural zoos, petting zoos, and other such organizations.
In the top 10%, you have enormous, world-famous organizations that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, many times operating conservations efforts all over the world.
So which states have the highest amount of revenue for zoos and aquariums?
No big surprises in the top 5...except for one state which caught me off guard.
California, New York, Texas, and Illinois aren’t all that surprising. They’re all states with huge populations, and each contains at least one household name when it comes to zoos and aquariums.
But number 5 surprised me. Nebraska?!
The Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, Nebraska is the primary reason for this high ranking. This zoo is the third highest revenue zoo or aquarium in the country (right after the San Diego Zoo and the Bronx Zoo in New York City).
The Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium stands out as the only organization in the top 5 that doesn’t reside in a top population or tourist destination city. Yet the Zoo attracts more than 1.5 million visitors a year.
In fact, TripAdvisor has named it the “World’s Best Zoo,” based on visitor reviews.
Nebraska also ranks the highest in per capita zoo and aquarium revenue, bettering the next highest state (Illinois) more than five times over (excluding D.C.).
Challenges for Zoos and Aquariums
Even the top zoos and aquariums face a very common challenge.
Moving members and visitors to donors.
Many times, visitors and residents in their area don't even realize the zoo is a nonprofit. Often, it's viewed as a family entertainment venue, similar to the movie theater, park, or a minor league baseball team.
As such, it can be difficult to convince this audience that they should support the zoo beyond just visiting or purchasing a membership.
Organizations like the Los Angeles Zoo have done a phenomenal job tackling this problem by proactively communicating the conservation work they do with their audience. By modernizing their fundraising and communications in this way, they've managed to run capital campaigns in which 31% of the donors were first-time givers.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium does a similarly impressive job, offering supporters an inside look at their conservation work through their communications team.
By moving the focus beyond simply the aquarium itself and showing how their work affects the environment in their area, they're able to show the impact of a donor's gift, thus increasing their level of support and engagement.