Fundraise Scared

In 2011, I helped raise $30 million.

In 2012, I helped raise $300,000. And I was just as proud.

This was when I was on maternity leave. Toronto city council voted to close a number of facilities and services for the 2012 budget year, including the High Park Zoo. In existence since 1893, the High Park Zoo was always funded by the city. But in January 2012, council revoked funding of $227,000 for the zoo’s annual operations, threatening its closure six months later in June.
And so I tweeted my councillor: I’d always loved our small neighbourhood zoo, and presumed my newborn daughter would grow up knowing her capybaras, llamas, American bison, peacocks, highland cattle, yaks, emu, barbary sheep, mouflon sheep, reindeer, and wallabies.

RebsD @DoucetteWard13 I’m a prof fundraiser, High Park resident & was on Historic Houses Museum Board bef Ford shut it down too. How can I help? 7:20 PM Jan 21st, 2012 from UberSocial for BlackBerry

She tweeted back:

DoucetteWard13 @RebsD Please contact my office so we can talk 416 392 4072 ThAnks 8:22 PM Jan 21st, 2012 from Twitter for BlackBerry®


In February, the intrepid councillor, two other concerned residents, and I created the Friends of High Park Zoo to raise money and awareness to keep the zoo open and incorporated our non-profit organization. We created a board of directors, created a business plan, and created urgency in the community.

By April, we’d raised $25,000.

By June, we had the $114,000 needed to cover operating costs for the year. In view of this fundraising success, city council now voted 41-1 to allow the zoo to remain open, if it could be sustainably funded by private donations. The zoo was saved.

And last month, on January 13, 2013, we, the Friends of High Park Zoo, held our first annual general meeting and reported we’d raised $298,588 in our first fiscal year. This is more than enough to cover operating costs, and perhaps consider some capital enhancements.

We did it. In less than a year of undertaking the mission to save the zoo from closure, we’d demonstrated the zoo could be run without funding from property taxes, and that keeping the zoo open was a priority with the community. Crisis averted, the Friends of High Park Zoo are now working on long-term funding to ensure the zoo remains permanently open.

How did we raise the money to save the zoo?

Here’s our income statement as at December 31, 2012:


Grassroots donations (no receipt): $139,000

Receipted donations (via external foundation): $157,088

Anonymous start-up grant: $2,500

Total income:$298,588

We started from the grass roots, or rather, among the hay bales. In March 2012 Friends of High Park Zoo began an awareness raising campaign, which included a petition, by opening up the llama pen throughout the March Break, and on every weekend and statutory holiday until the end of October, for four to six hours daily. We collected donations to feed the llamas, and for items such as buttons, colouring books, peacock feathers, and many other items donated by supporters. We mounted special events for Earth Hour, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, the Cherry Blossom Festival, and in December, Santa came to the zoo to visit his reindeer. We innovated constantly: for a suggested donation of $10, you could have a photo (shot with your own phone or camera of course) of your babies taken with one of our spring babies. Along the way we also held the Peacock Gala (net revenue $22,860) and got all kinds of useful in-kind support (including free credit card transactions from Moneris Solutions).

Happy patrons equal donations, and so in the early days our main fundraising tactic was to simply increase attendance at the zoo. We offered free activities to draw families in: a colouring table; chalk drawing on the road; petting rabbits, chickens, ducks, hens, a baby wallaby, and baby llama. During all this, the donation boxes in the llama pen generated about $500/day. The collection boxes on the zoo’s main road averaged about $850/week in the summer months and $100/week in the winter. Many visitors gave straight donations, or donated far more than the suggested amount for participating in our activities. With 3,591 visitors on Good Friday alone, we collected nearly $11,000 over Easter. Grassroots fundraising is a mainstay channel of our business plan; we forecast donations generated on-site at the zoo will continue to yield $50,000 – $100,000 a year: almost half of the zoo’s operating costs.

The next step in our success was a Matching Gift Challenge. We identified a major donor, who offered to match donations up to $50,000 if raised within three months. This was so effective that the donor (a family foundation) will repeat the $50,000 matching gift challenge for 2013 and 2014.

To be able to report back to the family foundation on the progress of the matching gift challenge, as well as to be able to issue tax receipts, Friends of High Park Zoo partnered with the Toronto Parks and Trees Foundation, a charitable public foundation dedicated to enhancing Toronto’s parks. Our donors could now make online donations and receive a tax receipt, and we could begin to collect donor data. We now had a base of donors to build our annual fund. Please click here and make your donation. I will give you a guided tour of the zoo and lunch at my house after.

What did I learn from the Friends of High Park Zoo about fundraising?

I learned how to fundraise scared. As a nascent non-profit, we didn’t have brand recognition, or existing donors to steward and cultivate. We had to ASK. FOR. MONEY. As just four individuals who comprised the Friends in the early days, our social, professional, and political reputations could be lost along with the zoo. Our neighbours, colleagues, families, and constituents knew who to blame if we didn’t pull it off.

I learned that a kindergarten class doesn’t care a whit if you have a CFRE. They just want to know their $700 (pennies, unrolled) will keep Kaboom the wallaby in the neighbourhood.

I learned when to exercise patience and respect the process, and when to damn the torpedoes and ASK. FOR. MONEY.

I learned about the power of community: Friends of High Park Zoo didn’t yet have brand recognition, but the ‘High Park’ and ‘zoo’ parts were already a household name in our community. The best thing we did was to fundraise from the grass roots, the frontlines of the animal pens.

Lastly, I learned that if you dare to lead, people will follow and support you.

This blog post is dedicated to all the grassroots, volunteer, and community fundraisers who make my community more accessible, livable, cultural, and green. I am a more skilled professional for working alongside you.


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