Getting Back to Normal by Getting Back to Basics
We at RS&S recently worked with Michele Smith and the Woodland Park Zoo (WPZ) team to outsource their food service and catering operations. We were wowed by her spirited management approach, so we reached out to her to discuss some of the strategies she and her team are employing to keep WPZ moving forward. We are pleased to share them with you here:
Michele Smith, the CFO of the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, knows a thing or two about returning to normalcy after a cataclysmic event: she worked for United Airlines on 9/11. Getting through that devastating experience instilled in her a practical, action-oriented guiding philosophy that has roared into action as she helps to lead the Woodland Park Zoo’s efforts to operate through the COVID-19 pandemic.
The steps Michele and her team took and her ongoing work to ensure that the Woodland Park Zoo is ready to welcome visitors back, as soon as given the clearance to open, offer lessons that could benefit every AZA institution.
Know what you have and what you need.
Back in 2017, in her first weeks at WPZ, Michele assessed the Zoo’s continuity plan and other existing plans and protocols for all types of situations – a kind of “health check” for how the Zoo’s operations were performing in general, as well as how well equipped they were to handle an emergency. The health check required active communication and input from all the departments under her purview and identified some gaps in their policies that they could address in a thoughtful and integrated manner.
Through the health check, Michele and her team determined that WPZ had an excellent Emergency Response Plan for on-property emergencies like an animal escape or fire, but knowing how 9/11 affected United Airlines, Michele knew they needed to develop policies and processes to handle the effects of an off-property catastrophe. One of her first priorities was to ensure that WPZ was prepared to shift to flexible work conditions if ever necessary by talking to her IT staff about the tools and processes in place and what needed to be enhanced. Work from Home (WFH) capabilities were enacted, enabling working from the Cloud and using Microsoft 365 to provide the appropriate business management tools. Michele’s comprehensive health check of the existing plans prepared WPZ with tested and proven WFH capabilities before they were essential to their ongoing functioning, as has been the case these last few weeks.
Replicating the work done to develop the WFH capabilities with her IT Team, Michele then focused on coordinated efforts involving the People and Culture, Commissary and Facility teams, reviewing plans for animal care, feeding, sanitation, maintenance and communication to troubleshoot potential weaknesses and plug any gaps. They addressed questions involving supply and storage of food, identifying essential workers, prioritizing workflow and developing effective ways to share information with all staff and stakeholders.
Communication is key.
Developing the plans was the necessary first step, but a close second was determining how to share it with all staff so that everyone would be well informed and prepared to act quickly and appropriately when needed.
Woodland Park Zoo enacted a multi-tiered plan to be enacted in extraordinary situations based on changing conditions:
As COVID-19 hit the Seattle area earlier this year, WPZ was quick to respond and able to do so in a carefully controlled way due to the solid planning already in place and understood by the staff. Senior leadership worked together to establish the protocols and command chain in determining when to flex from one phase to the next, whether on a weekly or even daily basis.
Since the start of COVID-19 and throughout this time, the executive team meets every week and they reach out to all employees on a weekly basis with updates and information. The Vice President of Engagement helped develop the communications plan that lays out a timeline running through October with four different audiences in mind – internal, external, Board and donors.
Pivot for effectiveness.
Since non-essential departments and staff members (those not responsible for animal care, vet or facilities) were able to move from “business as usual” to working from home fairly seamlessly, they were able to pivot quickly and responsively to the new situation.
Marketing pivoted from traditional to strictly digital: The marketing department enacted digital outreach efforts to keep the community informed and engaged while the Zoo is closed.
Development pivoted from campaign-focused efforts to care calls: Development staff continues to reach out to donors and friends, checking in with them and letting them know that the animals are being well cared for and are doing fine. They are not actively seeking solicitations during these calls but are asking donors to remember them. They have also established a relief fund to support the Zoo during these months of closure.
Education pivoted from on-site, volunteer-driven activities and experiences to the creation of an online syllabus: Education staff worked to prepare and disseminate materials, resources and videos for virtual learning to support Pacific North West schools.
The comprehensive advanced planning allowed for a streamlined and purposeful launch of the “new normal,” freeing up some bandwidth for leadership to prepare for future re-opening. With the knowledge that essential staff were caring for the animals and handling the necessary on-site upkeep while the WFH, non-essential staff were advancing the Zoo’s mission through their targeted departmental efforts, leadership could identify and address anticipated concerns that would impact the Zoo’s ability to re-open.With an eye on being prepared to re-open as soon as allowed, Michele and the leadership team focused on four main issues:
1. Ensuring Financial Stability: Relying on their financial contingency plan, WPZ is working with their bank to explore an increased line of credit, and is now reviewing the newly created SBA loans created from the recently passed CARES act to ensure enough liquidity to sustain their operations through these months of closure without tapping into their endowment or Board-designated funds for the time being. They are being thoughtful and targeted in their efforts to cut expenses while maintaining key functionality.
2. Understanding and Meeting City/County/State/CDC Guidelines: WPZ leadership maintains regular contact with local and regional authorities and leverages their Board members’ contacts to access and share information as appropriate. They are working to share their plans with the local health department so that they can be sure they are taking appropriate measures and to learn of any new requirements as soon as possible. They teamed up with their local aquarium partner to bolster their advocacy power in representing their interests and their willingness to serve as a community resource – lots of open space for people to safely walk and appreciate nature and wildlife as a respite from the stresses of the current situation. When the green light is given to re-open, WPZ will have done all in its power to be well-positioned to welcome back visitors in a safe and timely manner.
3. Enacting Social Distancing/Crowd Control Measures: Knowing that a re-opening may eventually be authorized first through a limited, phased approach, the leadership team has been taking proactive steps to enact crowd control measures that will ensure a safe and enjoyable experience for their visitors. Timed ticketing was an item already on their radar, but they have moved up their implementation timeline to be ready for re-opening and are considering other technological enhancements that limit hand-to-hand/person-to-person contact. They’ll set aside times just for members and use the timed ticketing process to ensure manageable crowd size. They also walked the property and marked off areas on their map where social distancing could be safely enforced, while designating other areas and buildings off limits due to concerns about crowd control and potential logjams. Finally, plans are being reviewed to develop signage to indicate the new crowd flow directions, sanitary facilities and to address new entry and food and retail processes including mobile phone ordering. They also plan to mimic standards recently enacted at grocery stores where necessary and possible, such as lines on floors to indicate safe distances, plastic barriers between people, food/registers, use of gloves, etc.
4. Preparing for Flexible Staffing: Building on their flexible staffing plans that address fluctuating seasonality needs, WPZ will rely on these standards to inform their decision making as they develop a hybrid staffing response upon re-opening. There will be active and ongoing communication with their staff to share plans and expectations in as timely a manner as possible in recognition of the toll that uncertainty takes on their highly valued employees.
Through these efforts, Michele and her team at Woodland Park Zoo have stayed in front of the situation with their thoughtful leadership, proactive strategic planning and creative responses to a challenging situation. Woodland Park Zoo’s example may serve as a template for the AZA to consider for creating an emergency planning protocol as part of the accreditation process, including development of a business continuity checklist and guidelines with standards and best practices to guide AZA members during times like these. By sharing what works and promoting proactive planning, AZA members can support each other and ensure that we all emerge to welcome our visitors back, serve our communities and promote critical conservation messaging that is as important as ever.
Relevant Strategies for Next-Level Action:
Even though we focus on zoos and aquariums in this article, many of these strategies would apply equally well to organizations of all types.
Successful leaders of nonprofit institutions - especially zoos and aquariums - have always been adept at thinking “outside the box” in developing plans to engage donors, provide novel guest experiences, and achieve financial and organizational goals. Through this creative thinking, many zoos have flourished over the years, becoming beloved and valuable community assets. Now, in these unprecedented times, we need to take it even further and think “outside the building” as we confront the challenges before us. Engaging in a new way of doing business now will enable us to marshal the resources necessary to emerge from the crisis intact - perhaps a little battered, but certainly not beaten – and ready to welcome back a community in need of the diversion and joy that our zoos and aquariums have always provided to our visitors. Below we have outlined 7 key “outside the building” thinking strategies nonprofit leaders should consider now:
1. Talk to your bankers.
Money is cheap now, so consider borrowing and using endowment or reserve funds as collateral for the loan rather than drawing them down. Working with your banker, make a plan to cap off the loan and pay it back over the longest possible period of time. With a financing plan in place,
determine how to proceed and don’t be afraid to invest – focus on core values and key re- opening initiatives as you move through this period of time.
2. Use your Board.
Your Board is composed of community and business leaders who are there to support you, voted onto your Board because of specific experience, skills, connections or knowledge. Tap into it! Draw on their diverse skill sets and capabilities to support your planning efforts and contribute to new
3. Collaborate and communicate with partners.
You’ve developed relationships with vendors, consultants, and colleagues over the years that should be leaned into now to both offer and provide support to each other.
4. Pivot to a four-day work week for essential staff.
In an effort to avoid layoffs in other departments, develop a plan that guarantees 80% pay with additional vacation days. Be open and communicate with your staff. Include messages of team unity and camaraderie – “we are in this together” and “we will not forget you once we rebound.”
5. Develop a “Re-Opening Plan.”
When the green light is given to re-open – and we will re-open! - zoos need to be up and running quickly, ready to welcome our guests back with open arms. Develop a plan to address free days, discounts/values, parking fees, new experiences, messaging, etc.
6. Keep the Zoo Engaged with Community.
Empower your most creative staff to develop new ways of maintaining contact with your audience and nurturing those relationships. Look at the amazing work being done by zoos and aquariums around the country, which is being shared virtually. Create your own social media presence and tag it using #bringingthezootoyou and #closedbutstillcaring – join the industry’s efforts bringing our mission to our communities.
7. Get Creative with Donor Cultivation.
Implement a creative cultivation plan utilizing all staff – but especially keepers and interpretive staffs – to connect with donors in fun and unexpected ways such as “Care Calls” where keepers tell donors how well the animals are doing. Support the staff with talking points and call hing as necessary so they are empowered to engage the donors with confidence.
We at RS&S have been proud to work with the zoo and aquarium community for more than 3 decades. In that time, many of our relationships have grown from positive work collaborations into true friendships. We are here for you – for all of you. Whether engaged in active work with us right
now, an old client, or a new friend we just haven’t met yet, feel free to email us: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. We are happy to discuss any of the ideas above or to serve as a sounding board for your creative thinking.
Managing through the COVID-19 Crisis: An Institutional Leaders ACTION GUIDE
Everyone is asking – how do we best proceed given our unprecedented situation? From our collective discussions, we would like to share eight actionable steps for leaders to consider as we navigate through these challenging times:
1. Do Plan. Do NOT Panic.
Now is the time to work closely with your Board, drawing on members’ diverse skill sets and
experiences to strategize and develop specific contingency plans based on different scenarios and
2. Commit to your Staff.
Your employees are the foundation of everything you do, and they need as much support and
reassurance as possible right now. Communicate with them regularly, providing as much information
and clarity as possible.
3. Be Proactive, Not Reactive.
Focus now on developing guidelines/policies/procedures that City/County/State and health officials
will endorse relative to maintaining open hours and/or re-opening as soon as possible. Ensure that
you are prepared to be among the first public venues ready to welcome visitors with safe and sound
4. Be Adaptive, Creative and Flexible.
Knowing that the situation keeps changing, be ready for what’s next by engaging your staff in open
discussions about what’s possible – virtual tours, live podcast keeper talks, webcams or other
opportunities to connect with your community (e.g., Houston Zoo with goats and the Shedd aquarium
with penguins). Consider using resources you already have - for example, traveling zoo/keeper
experiences – and adjusting them to the present situation. For example, if you are the leader of a
zoo or aquarium, consider arranging for pop-up, no-contact animal experiences in community parks or
supermarket parking lots where people can feel hopeful and share in some fun through real and
virtual animal experiences and keeper chats.
5. Hold Steady to Your Mission.
Resist the temptation to start slashing costs through “budget cut fire drills” and “value-
engineering” your mission by targeting seemingly “expendable” expenses like conservation programs.
Budget adjustments will likely be required, but do not rush into decisions based on fear and
uncertainty; allow some breathing room for a more measured and long-view approach.
WE WILL RECOVER FROM THESE CHALLENGES!
Determine the best ways to reach out to your community, focus your messaging and position your
organization to welcome guests and engage your community as conditions allow.
7. Invite Partners to Help.
Reach out to loyal friends, trusted supporters and local/regional corporate partners to support and
help develop socially responsible initiatives to uplift the community, whether by ensuring safe
opening conditions or developing outreach activities such as those listed above. Local
pharmaceutical companies or health care providers may be equipped to offer professional expertise,
access to information or even to establish a virus testing station at your organization as a
8. Support Each Other.
We are all in this together, so be generous with your colleagues in sharing what’s working for you.
Feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with
deas, questions or comments. We’re here to help.
Given the strange times that we are experiencing, the RS&S team wanted to offer some perspective…
Strange Days Indeed.
Certain lines of John Lennon’s “Nobody Told Me” could have been written just for this time right now: Everybody’s talking and no one says a word…always something happening and nothing’s going on…everybody’s runnin’ and no one makes a move…everybody’s crying and no one makes a sound…nobody told me there’d be days like these…Strange days indeed…
The uncertainty is extremely unsettling. We don’t know who will get sick or when, what the stock market is going to do, or when the kids will go back to school. Many of us feel adrift, with our normal routines pulled out from under us and new questions swirling daily:
Should we cancel that business trip? How will we meet our goals? What should we be doing? Not to mention all of the tele-conferencing issues: How do I mute my mic? Do I really look like that? Can you hear me now?
We can easily get lost in the wondering and worrying about it all.
And while our concerns are understandable and unavoidable, we can look to each other for strength, inspiration and motivation to move forward within our individual lives with grace and purpose. Like the singers and musicians sharing the beauty of song with their quarantined neighbors, we each have the power to make things a little better in our own ways in our own worlds.
How we rise to the challenges before us is what matters.
We are all in this uncharted territory together. The days are strange because it feels like we have lost our way. The team here at RS&S urges you to remember your North Star. Hold that bright goal in your sights and keep moving forward. The way may not be smooth and straight, but with purpose and confidence we’ll come through and reach our destination.