Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Do You Empower People to Take Action? Thoughts on Zoos and Charity:Water

Last week, I learned that ninety-six elephants are killed every day in Africa.

I learned this at a conference for directors of American zoos and aquaria (I was there to give a talk). I was blown away by these zoo directors' collective focus on a singular mission: ensuring the survival of animal species worldwide. The whole day was spent in passionate discussion about research projects, international crises, and serious, cost-intensive efforts for zoos and aquaria to take action to improve the fate of elephants and other species at risk.

I would guess that most people have no idea that this work is happening at zoos. I certainly didn't. I had a vague sense of how conservation fit into their educational missions, but I didn't realize the extent of the direct advocacy and activism happening every day.

And so, rather than talking about community participation in the context of zoo visits, I asked these directors: how can you involve your 180 million visitors in this important conservation work? How can you invite them to participate alongside you to save species?

In museums (and zoos), we frequently stop the conversation with visitors when it comes to action--especially political action. We give people content and then we say, "you decide." This may make sense in strictly education institutions, but it is ridiculous to stop there in organizations that are already engaged in activist work. If you are taking action to save species, why not invite visitors to join you?

We often stop at the educational message out of a sense that it gives visitors agency to do what they want with the information provided. But that means we also stop ourselves from inviting visitors to join us in the work that matters most. It devalues their potential contribution. It robs them of the opportunity to make a difference--and robs us of the opportunity for increased impact and change.

A clear example of this can be found in the difference between the 96Elephants campaign and that of charity: water.

The 96Elephants website is a dramatic educational site created by the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the zoos and aquaria in NYC. The site provides a powerful statement about the slaughter of elephants in Africa, supported with rich media and educational text. But when you get to the part with the call to action, there are two things you can do:
  1. "explore the crisis" by reading more about elephants and humans on the site
  2. sign a pledge to avoid ivory products and encourage a moratorium on ivory products
These are not exactly life-changing actions.

In contrast, check out charity: water, a non-profit that works to ensure safe drinking water for people around the world. The homepage has three prominent options: 
  1. sponsor a water project (which involves making donations of $6,000 - $20,000)
  2. start a fundraising campaign 
  3. learn about the water crisis
It's no accident that only one of these three is a "learn" box. The first two are opportunities to immediately get involved, either by donating money or raising it. charity: water is incredible at empowering regular people to make a difference. You can donate your birthday to raise funds for clean water. You can track exactly where what projects your money supports. Paul Young, the Director of Digital at charity: water, explains: “We are trying to build a movement of passionate people who are going to form a relationship with us for years…. We want our donors to be advocates. We want them to share content, we want them to feel really connected to their impact and we want them to represent that to all their friends and family.”

A lot has been written about how charity: water stands out online. Just surf through their beautiful site and you'll see how they empower people as participants in raising serious funds for their cause.

Zoos have an entry point that charity: water lacks: the visit. Zoos have millions of visitors--millions of people who care about animals, who are interested in them, and who show up to learn more about them. Some of those visitors, looking at the majestic African elephants, are ready to take action to ensure their survival. They are ready to do more than learn about the crisis and sign a petition. If charity: water can do it for drinking water, surely zoos and aquaria can do it for animals.

Fundraisers often say that "it's an honor to be asked." This can sound disingenuous. But it's true. When we invite people to share our greatest passions, when we invite them to support our most important work, we empower them to be meaningful, powerful participants. That's what building a movement is all about.
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