Disheartening Developments at the Toronto Zoo

To say the least, it’s disheartening that The Toronto Zoo recently found itself embroiled in bureaucratic turmoil.

Some years ago, NetGain produced a detailed strategic plan anchored in the idea that exhibits and programs should be focused on environmental leadership. Unfortunately, The Zoo’s implementation of the plan was bizarrely misdirected. Results on the ground included a Jeep simulation ride and a water park – hardly symbols of habitat and species conservation.

The Zoo seemed to lose its way back then and may never have recovered its sense of purpose, though its managers would dispute that (each of them able to cite very specific objectives and values for the organization).  The problem then, as now, is that a multitude of missions is worse than having no mission.  They conflict and negate each other. We thought we’d coalesced people around the vision and strategy we developed with them, but we obviously failed.

A decade ago, there was tension between the professional managers, overseen by the City appointed Board, and the non-profit society that had helped to create the Zoo in the first place.  In recent years, while planning a major capital fund raising campaign, the City Board and staff ended its relationship with the Zoological Society, which had been its fund-raising arm since the Zoo was founded.

In our view, this was a relationship to be repaired, not terminated.  Fund raising at the Zoo during this period can best be described as a repeated failure to launch.  There was a succession of feasibility studies and grand plans, but no successful campaigns commensurate with the scale of the Zoo’s needs and capacity.

When we produced our plan, the Zoo required $8 million from the City at the end of each year.  After trying to market each season on the strength of one spectacular animal after another, including undersized komodo dragons and blind, naked, nocturnal rats, nothing much has changed.  The repetitive, semi-commercial, edutainment formula has simply increased annual losses to the $11 million mark.

Instead of committing to change and following a coherent strategy, the organization is grasping at straws.  Too much hope has been pinned to the exhibition of panda bears in 2013.  In the summer of 1985, a borrowed panda drew big crowds for the Zoo, so this is seen as a kind of Mulligan, an attempt to rewrite history from a happier starting place.  Another “Back-To-The-Future” strategy is a proposal to hand over of the operation from the City to, of all things, a non-profit organization (along with a $120 million nest egg to ease the transition).

While the Zoo fishtails back and forth between entertainment (exploiting animals and amusement park attractions to drive gate revenue) and its higher purpose (protecting animals for species preservation and public education), the Mayor put the whole thing on his asset fire sale list.

Its offer for sale, lease, or third-party management has been deferred at least until the pandas are gone, but the damage has been done.  Who would give money or pay big sponsorship fees to an organization with an unwilling owner?  Scaring off the private sector can only increase reliance on tax money.

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