When I was tapped by the Friends of the Zoo Board of Directors to serve as Interim Executive Director in January, I didn’t how long I might be here or what we would be able to accomplish. The previous Friends leader, Janet Agostini, had just retired after 13 years and the board was embarking on a search for a permanent executive. Having served as a leader and troubleshooter for many non-profits, my main goal was to keep the Friends team united and the organization on course to ensure a seamless transition.
As it turned out, fate had other ideas. After a few weeks of planning for an exciting summer and year ahead, along came a global pandemic that closed the zoo to the public, scrapped our plans and events and sent us home to work remotely to support our zoo through the closure.
I found that with frequent Zoom meetings and constant communication, the Friends team functioned amazingly well and we were able to accomplish a great deal:
We worked closely with the animal care team at the zoo to provide our public with daily updates on animal care, enrichment and training via our social media platforms.
We created Learn-at-Home opportunities via our Friends events website while working to offer virtual education programs and shift planned on-site events to a virtual format.
We reconfigured our 2019 annual report from the usual minimal brochure to an in-depth, 30-page full-color booklet that showcases the important work of the Friends and can be used as a development piece for potential sponsors. See the report here: syracusezooevents.org/our-story
When our zoo became the first in the state to reopen May 23, we had to pivot again to implement a slate of health restrictions and procedures that pulled many of us away from our usual duties to help familiarize visitors with a new system of reservations, off-limits areas, one-directional touring, mask and social distance requirements, among other changes.
Even under the “new normal,” we united as a team and forged ahead with some awesome accomplishments including:
Celebrated the Friends’ 50th anniversary by launching the $50K for 50 Years campaign to raise $50,000 by the end of 2020.
Hired a talented and enthusiastic development director, Heidi Strong, who has already made a significant impact on our fundraising – including bringing the 50 for 50 campaign within sight of goal in our fourth quarter.
Set up virtual education studios with state-of-the-art video and computer equipment to allow our education team to provide virtual learning programs to an international audience.
Opened the Zalie and Bob Linn Amur Leopard Woodland, a new habitat for the world’s most endangered big cats, a capital project overseen and funded largely by the Friends.
Launched a volunteer-led fundraiser, The Fund for Flamingo Flamboyance, to help the zoo acquire seven new Chilean flamingoes to encourage breeding.
Equipped our events team to offer virtual events – such as our first virtual Brew to You – when on-site events are not possible.
Launched a new e-commerce site to allow our gift shop to offer online sales.
Assisted the Friends Board in completing their search for a permanent executive director, which recently resulted in the hiring of Carrie Large, who will take over the helm in a few short weeks.
I am extremely proud of all these accomplishments and of the Friends team that made them happen. Despite all the stress and hardship we experienced these last months, it has been hugely gratifying to lead this talented, dedicated group through the challenges and see them rise to the occasion again and again.
During my time here, I have also learned much about the important role of Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) institutions in wildlife conservation, education and saving threatened and endangered species, and gained appreciation for the great support and love this community has for its world-class zoo. I have also made many friends and connections that I know will endure for years to come.
Thanks to all of you and all you do for the zoo! I am sure you will give Carrie a great welcome, and I can assure her that she is inheriting a wonderful team who give their all every day to make their zoo the best it can be.