In this blog Bernard Ross and Celia Brady explore how a behavioural science project pivoted to drive an extraordinary increase in donor income at Edinburgh Zoo — from £20K to £1.3M in a 14-month period. It’s a short version of a longer chapter in the book Change for Better published July 2021.
Edinburgh Zoo is the largest and longest established zoo in Scotland. It is owned and managed, along with the Highland Wildlife Park, by the registered charity, RZSS. The charity’s primary purpose is animal research and conservation which it undertakes all over the world. However, the Zoo itself is primarily presented and managed as a visitor attraction.
A joint team from =mc consulting and Edinburgh Zoo had begun working on a project to improve visitor income onsite. But in March 2020 the Zoo had to shut because of the Covid and so the team decided to pivot and respond to the emerging situation, applying some simple behavioural principles to an emergency online appeal. The appeal raised £500K in the first three months. Appeal donations continued for the rest of the year, reaching a total of £1.3M by May 2021, more than 65 times the amount raised in 2019. Most of this came in small donations, with an average gift of £29.
This blog explains what we did and how it worked.
What we originally wanted to do
The original collaboration between =mc consulting and the Zoo involved a beautifully designed series of experiments which would:
- Increase awareness that the Zoo is a charity in need of support by offering appropriate nudges on the visitor journey.
- Persuade more visitors to opt for gift aid and/or membership of the Zoo, rather than simply paying a one-time entry fee.
- Engage more visitors to make gifts for conservation work in a variety of ways – especially through larger gifts and legacies.
The basic framework for the project was developed over a number of weeks – going from initial web contact to visiting the entrance foyer, moving though the Zoo, and exiting via the giftshop. This project was based on behavioural science and designed in a series of workshops and onsite research. At each point in the journey there were a number of ‘nudges’ designed to encourage various kinds of behaviour. For example, at different animal enclosures there would be the names and images of other visitors who had supported the Zoo with a gift, and a Call to Action to do the same. The image nudge was to normalise the action.
We had just competed the preparation for this work and were about to test the initiatives in March 2020 when the impact of the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK and a lockdown was announced. At this point the Zoo, like all ‘non-essential’ organisations, had to go into the first of a number of visitor-free periods. ‘Visitor free’ was a serious challenge for the Zoo since almost all of its income came from ticket buyers.
We had to very quickly pivot around a new purpose and completely redesign the approach and focus. There were three drivers underpinning the change:
- Visitor numbers dropped off early with concerns about virus transmission. And then Government restrictions meant the Zoo had to close completely. No visitors=No income!
- While the Zoo could access some furlough funds, take out loans, and use reserves, this was not enough. The animals had still to be cared for and fed. So more or less full running costs.
- The demographic of Zoo visitors is not that of ‘conventional’ charity donors. Many visitors saw the Zoo as an attraction, not as a good cause to support. I’m a customer not a donor.
There was a very real financial crisis.
The tiny fundraising team – only three – led by Celia Brady, did a great job approaching foundations, institutions and corporate supporters. But, of course, there was enormous competition for these funds from other charities and other visitor attractions such as theatres, museums, botanical gardens and more. Generating unrestricted income was urgent, and the only channel available to do that was online. The challenge was to identify people who cared about the Zoo and the animals even while they were unable to visit in person.
Some background about Zoos
Zoos are unusual. Some are animal sanctuaries or even private visitor parks. Many of the largest, like Edinburgh, see themselves as conservation agencies and are registered as charities or not for profits. However, as indicated above, they make most of their money as visitor attractions. As such:
- They charge visitors a transactional ‘market’ rate for each entrance, but are keen to sell the idea of membership based on a regular subscription which helps guarantee income.
- They have to maximise income at key times of year in Scotland, typically the spring and summer months when the weather is kinder.
- While they are there, visitors are encouraged to make add on purchases: to eat in Zoo cafes and purchase gifts and souvenirs from the Zoo shop.
The visitor demographics of Edinburgh Zoo are interesting. Many visitors are not from the affluent middle classes who might typically visit, and perhaps support, a cultural attraction. Most see coming as ‘a day out with the kids.’ Most don’t know the Zoo is a charity. Few donate during their visit.
Going back to our new approach, our first idea was to launch a Save Our Zoo campaign – playing to the potential loss and urgency heuristics well established in behavioural science. This kind of ‘existential loss’ campaign was a tactic that two other major zoos, London and Chester, adopted. However senior leadership in the RZSS made an early policy decision not to say the Zoo itself was at risk of closure. We had to live with that.
We decided to develop alternative ideas for a campaign. Since the team was familiar with the MINDSPACE model we used this to scope out the key messages we might consider. We developed ideas through series of Zoom calls and emails. Below is a brief introduction to the framework, followed by an outline of our initial thinking.
There are a number of models that can help design and deliver your improved supporter engagement process in a behavioural way. One of our favourites is MINDSPACE. Partly because it’s simple to understand and also widely used.
The mnemonic MINDSPACE structures the content of your message and helps plan and deliver an engagement programme in a systematic way- a decision architecture. If you’re thinking about adopting a decision science-based approach to your fundraising, consider using MINDSPACE as a checklist to develop your idea, design your value proposition or flesh out your supporter journey. At the same time don’t try to be too clever and incorporate every element in your project. Instead use it as a way to come up with some ideas. Choose the key ones. And then test them out. You might find that though you thought Messenger was going to be the most important element, Defaults proved more powerful on testing, or Salience ensured your message was top of mind.
If you’re interested to know more about the framework in action there’s a free download.
To summarise the campaign, it had the following elements:
- We focused on the animals rather than the Zoo: previously, most gift asks had been to support the Zoo and its important conservation work. We suggested this was too abstract. The choice, then, was to identify key ‘attractive’ animals and focus the ask on them and their welfare. (The most attractive animals might surprise you.) We also worked to make the animals personalities without anthropomorphism. This meant explaining that the animals could be grumpy and happy in Covid, similar to what people were feeling.
- We offered an urgent solvable problem: zoos are complex ecosystems financially, culturally and of course, from the perspective of animal welfare. We worked hard to make the message super simple: feed the animals. There was a lot of debate about this. (After all, the animals were going to be fed regardless!) But we felt it was the simplest, clearest ask. We subsequently moved on to asking for other well-being options like toys or playthings to help with their mental health.
- We ensured supporters could take practical action: The cost of running a Zoo is significant – in the thousands each week. The target market couldn’t remotely meet that level of gift. And in any event the goal was to use this opportunity to grow the supporter base significantly. The answer was to create an offer that worked on salience and agency. The offer was to pay for a meal for a month- note that pandas are pretty fussy eaters. Their bamboo costs £100+ a day
- We introduced reciprocity: many people, especially parents, were looking for things to do during lockdown. The Zoo had free to view webcams on various animal enclosures. We encouraged people to come to the webcams at various times- especially during feeding time, and thin encouraged a feeling of reciprocity: “If you’ve enjoyed watching the Kevin the penguin feed, could you help with his next meal?” Some webcam sessions had almost 5M viewers; local and global.
- We focussed on the keepers as carers: videos on social media were an important addition to the engagement programme. There was an internal debate about who should ‘front’ these videos: the CEO, a well-known celebrity, a famous conservationist like David Attenborough. In the end we focused on keepers, showing them explaining about the life of the animals they cared for. We tested ‘professionally’ made videos and simple ‘home-made’ ones shot on mobile phones. The mobile phone footage, quick and cheap to do, was much more effective in terms of response and engagement.
There was a lot more! Let us know if you want to see some more data.
Bringing it all together
The screenshot below shows how a number of techniques can be brought together in a single web page. Here the webcam was embedded in the webpage and a number of other behavioural cues incorporated. Treat it as a quick visual summary.
Seven Key Learnings
There were some simple and clear learnings for us that might be useful:
First was the importance of securing senior agreement on purpose. We undertook a number of trainings with various team members before the initial project and these helped to bring individuals from different functions on board with the approach and thinking behind behavioral science. But vital to action was the enthusiasm and leadership of Ben Supple, Director of Engagement, at the Zoo.
Second the project highlighted the amazing fondness that the public has for the Zoo, the animals, and especially the staff, who devote their lives to caring for them. Most of the supporters were visitors and people who knew the Zoo, though an enormous number of people- 5M- visited the webcams. Geographically: 69% of donors were from Scotland, 24% from England, with 3% Northern Ireland, 1% Wales, and 3% other. An additional learning here was the importance of reciprocating the fondness- the thank you videos again mostly made by keepers, were simple but heartfelt and made a huge impact on repeat gifts.
Third, was the importance of changing in response to developments. That is, being prepared to put aside a plan (no matter how elegant) or an idea (no matter how creative) to respond to the emerging situation, even though it appears ‘messier.’ We designed and executed a number of the initiatives at the last minute as the situation changed and we were in full or partial lockdown. As is often the case context is essential as a background to any behavioral situation. (See below.)
Fourth, you need to get the whole organisation aligned and informed around the purpose and shape of the campaign. So, while the teams from communications and fundraising attended training in behavioural science there were differences in where these learnings were focussed: on the needs of the Zoo as a visitor attraction selling tickets; or on the needs of the organisation for charitable donations in the form of gifts. The same techniques can be applied to both but need a different approach. Since the focus here was on gifts in lockdown there needed to be a change in mindset for those outside fundraising.
Next, there may be constraints that you need to operate within. For example, in this case there were limitations associated with what was acceptable to say about the Zoos’ financial situation or even the condition of the animals – framing either of these differently might have been more effective for the appeal. These limitations clearly limited the scope of the ideas we were able to come up with. Additionally, there were limits to the ease with which we could change elements of the website, as well as significant constraints around the donation platform used. The platform was ‘off’ the website, and therefore less flexible and less integrated.
It’s important be clear that there are no absolute truths or simple fixes that can be applied immediately. While decision science can be enormously helpful across range of disciplines, you still need to develop a hypothesis and then test it. There are times when heuristics may appear in conflict- showing progress versus emphasising the potential sense of loss. The only was to decide is to choose, trial an option, and monitor the results. Interestingly both approaches might show results. As Rory Stewart famously said, “the opposite of a good idea might be another good idea.”
Finally, context is important. This means while the results are, we believe, impressive it’s important to state that the situation in 2019 that we used as a comparison was not the same as the one in 2023. The pandemic created both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge was that it created a major mental diversion for people, and the interests of Zoo animals not actually at risk was probably not top of anyone’s mind as a cause to support. In terms of opportunity the webcams obviously offered a window into a world for people bored and keen to explore an alternative reality to their lockdown existence. We believe we helped grasp that opportunity in a systematic behaviourally informed way. And the skill is to continue to build on that opportunity.