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Published in Nonprofits
Blandford Nature Center is constructing an 1,800-square-foot maintenance shed as part of its $3.3 million expansion and renovation project. Like the nature center, John Ball Zoo and Binder Park Zoo are also looking this year for contributions from individuals and foundations to fund new exhibits, facilities and programs. These institutions hope the increased capacity will drive attendance and educational opportunities. Blandford Nature Center is constructing an 1,800-square-foot maintenance shed as part of its $3.3 million expansion and renovation project. Like the nature center, John Ball Zoo and Binder Park Zoo are also looking this year for contributions from individuals and foundations to fund new exhibits, facilities and programs. These institutions hope the increased capacity will drive attendance and educational opportunities. Photo by Josh Veal

Environmental institutions count on private donations to fund new facilities

BY Sunday, May 15, 2016 10:59am

Zoos and nature centers across West Michigan are constructing new facilities this year thanks to strong support from individual donors and contributions from foundations. 

Despite generally being seen as community institutions, zoos and nature centers typically receive little to no support from local government. As such, these nonprofits have begun working together to keep costs low while fundraising to expand capacity. Many of the donors financing new projects are personally motivated by a passion for nature, often instilled at a young age by visits to these same institutions.

Battle Creek-based Binder Park Zoo, for instance, broke ground April 20 on its dual-purpose lion and wild dog exhibit as a result of a donation from the Zanetti family. The local family’s undisclosed donation made up a substantial majority of the $400,000 needed for the wild dog exhibit. The gift is intended to memorialize their son, Andrew, who died in an accident in 2010.

Meanwhile, a $1.3 million capital campaign began in 2014 for the lion portion of the exhibit. While the money raised so far has come from a variety of sources, an 11-year-old girl, Yasmin Pirbhai, made news last year after climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro to raise $30,000 for the lions.

Similarly, Blandford Nature Center of Grand Rapids received a $1 million check from the Meijer Foundation for its new endowment and an 11,000-square-foot visitor center. A major motivation for the gift was CEO Hank Meijer’s personal connection to the nature center and its founder, Mary Jane Dockeray.

“He remembered her coming to his class as a fifth grader. It made such a profound impact on him that this was his way of giving back,” said Jason Meyer, president and CEO of Blandford.

Various other local foundations also have played a part in establishing the $7 million endowment and $3.3 million fund for the new facility, according to Meyer. This includes a $1.7 million gift from the Wege Foundation that kicked off the capital campaign. In June, Blandford will begin the campaign’s public phase to raise the remaining balance, less than $2.5 million, through smaller individual donations from the community. The nature center broke ground on March 8.

Elsewhere in Grand Rapids, John Ball Zoo also plans to launch its own capital campaign to support the construction of multiple new exhibits and renovations as outlined by a 25-year master plan released in 2015. Unlike Blandford, however, John Ball expects to focus on individual donations as its primary supporters.

“Every campaign targets every level, but if you look at fundraising across the country, the largest percentage comes from individuals,” said Brenda Stringer, director of institutional advancement for John Ball Zoo. “There’s always corporate. There’s always foundations. But individuals always remain the center. Whether that’s a $50 gift or a $1 million gift, it generally turns out to be individuals.”

In addition, John Ball Zoo is in the rare position of still being owned by Kent County, despite most zoos across the nation losing all government support during the recession. A nonprofit has governed and managed the entire facility since 2014. As such, the county pays a management fee that makes up a quarter of the zoo’s budget.

Because of this relationship, the zoo and the Grand Rapids Public Museum have also advocated for a .44-mill property tax from Kent County residents. The tax would cost $44 per year for the owner of a $100,000 house, generating about $9 million annually for the two institutions. Pending approval from the county’s Board of Commissioners, the millage proposal will appear on voters’ ballots in November. 

Stringer said the money would primarily be used for maintenance and infrastructure needs.

“Those aren’t the kinds of things that it’s easy to fundraise for,” she said. “But you have to remain really vital in order to stay successful. …  A zoo has to continually renew itself.”

If the proposal is approved for the ballot, John Ball will begin an educational campaign so that voters have a better understanding of the zoo’s worth, Stringer said.


A large part of successful fundraising is educating the public on the value of proposed projects, according to Blandford’s Meyer.

“‘Why are you doing this?’ is the big question,” he said. “When we made the transition from the (Grand Rapids Public) school district to being a nonprofit, it was rocky for a few years. It happened in 2008, so it really wasn’t the best time in the world of philanthropy to try and launch a nonprofit. But we did it, and we started to grow. Our programs exponentially increased in professionalism and value, and word got out. So in 2013, the then-president started tracking how many programs we were turning away because we simply didn’t have the space.

“In October of 2014, we turned away about 250 kids in just one month. That kills us. That’s 250 kids who aren’t going to have an experience in nature.”

The nature center’s new LEED-certified facility will feature a 2,160-square-foot auditorium with the capacity for 275 people, up from 80, along with an outdoor amphitheater, wet lab, wildlife center and various other new resources. In addition, the current space is not handicap accessible, a common problem with the outdated facilities of zoos and nature centers. For the same reason, John Ball will finish construction this summer on its new pedestrian pathway, greatly enhancing the hillside zoo’s accessibility.

As John Ball gears up for its capital campaign, the millage vote and construction of a new stingray exhibit, Stringer argues the zoo plays an important function for the city.

“We do have an economic impact on this community,” she said. “We are used to draw other corporations to come here and establish businesses. It’s the quality of life aspect: Good communities build good institutions.”

Attendance numbers for John Ball reached a record high in 2014, drawing more than 523,000 people from across every single county in Michigan. Binder Park and Blandford have both continued to see increasing attendance numbers in recent years as well.


Aside from economic development, environmental institution leaders have begun to ramp up efforts to inform zoo visitors of the survival of species and conservation efforts.

“Zoos today, they’re not just about having people come and look at animals,” said Kari Parker, marketing manager for Binder Park Zoo. “It’s about bringing an exhibit of species that are threatened or endangered in the wild and developing a program that will help see these animals into the future. We’re sort of treating zoos like an ark to preserve these species so that they don’t become extinct altogether.”

Poaching, human development and diseases spread by domestic animals have all had a serious impact on population numbers for many of the animals now living in zoos, Parker said.

As part of these conservation efforts, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums connects zoos around the world with systems that track the genetic coding of animals. This Zoo Information Management System allows AZA members to find the best available partners for their animals, who then meet, breed and return home. With endangered species, breeding the healthiest possible offspring is key to their continued survival. Parker said this network was an important factor in the decision to bring lions to Binder Park.

Blandford functions similarly, although on a smaller scale. All of the nature center’s permanent residents are native to Michigan and can no longer survive in the wild, due to various injuries and other conditions. 

Both Blandford and John Ball are a part of the new Grand Rapids Conservation Collective as well. Meyer said that just a few years ago “all of the environmental organizations were kicking each other in the shins over funding.” This collective aims to shift some of the members’ roles in the community, preventing overlap and promoting a common goal.

Blandford has also done conservation consulting work with multiple area schools, showing them how to fit in environmental education while still meeting curriculum standards. Blandford makes it clear that its top priority is education, with a majority of its programs centered on instilling a love for nature in children.

Ultimately, that’s the priority for the zoos as well, Parker said, adding that a zoo’s role in the community is not just for entertainment purposes, but to bring the reality of humans’ impact on nature to the public.

“I really think education is the foundation for us at the zoo that allows us to connect people with nature and inspire them to conserve,” she said. “That’s what drives us as we move forward into the future, continuing to make those connections and inspire people everyday to make a change in their environment.” 

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