A lot of people have been working hard to pivot their organizations, their fundraising, their messaging, and the missions of their organization in response to the pandemic. One such organization that has pivoted successfully despite the numerous challenges is Ocean Wise, a global conservation organization that inspires millions of people to take action to improve the health of our oceans. Joining Douglas Nelson on the show today is Jeremy Douglas, the Vice President for Development at Ocean Wise. Jeremy talks about the organization’s initiatives and the pivot they’ve made to continue operating in this unprecedented time.
Listen to the podcast here:
Ocean Wise With Jeremy Douglas
Our guest is Jeremy Douglas. He’s the Vice President of Development at Ocean Wise. We’re pleased to have him on the show. Welcome, Jeremy.
Thanks for having me, Douglas.
It’s great to have you on. We’ve been talking to a lot of people who are working hard to pivot their organizations, pivot their fundraising, messaging, the missions of their organization in response to the pandemic. At Ocean Wise, you have had a particularly challenging go of it and a great pivot. I’m hoping you can tell us a little bit about that. Before we get into that, tell us what’s going on in Ocean Wise and a little bit about the organization.
Ocean Wise Conservation Association, the way I like to describe it, is the parent organization of the Vancouver Aquarium. It was also born out of the Vancouver Aquarium. A few years ago, we launched a global ocean conservation organization called Ocean Wise Conservation Association. The idea was that as the Vancouver Aquarium, we reach over a million people per year everyday people, who are curious about the ocean and want to do something to help it. How could we leverage that powerful constituency as well as our research and education teams to have a bigger impact globally? That’s when I started right at about that time with Ocean Wise.
I thought that was such an amazing vision, very bold, very ambitious, something that I could get on board with. We were still heading down that trajectory even despite the things that had been going on with COVID-19, but we’re looking at how can we make a global impact on our oceans? The timing is good because people are waking up to things like ocean plastics and endangered species. “Seventy-one percent of our planet is the ocean, maybe we should pay more attention to it.” We’re excited to have that impact and bring people along for the ride. We’ll get back on track with that more once COVID-19 is over with.
I want to get to that pre-pandemic, post-pandemic trajectory. Before we get there, one of the things that’s fascinating to me and many people who have been watching the organization and how the sector is responding to this pandemic, the general rule is you don’t tell your donors you’re going out of business because donors don’t want to fund a sinking ship. You always put a positive spin on it. Ocean Wise Conservation Society took a different approach. You hit the button and said, “We need the community to step forward.” Can you tell us a little bit about what was going on behind the scenes as you’re getting ready to make that announcement and make that call to the community?
It’s interesting because a lot of the decisions that we made and are still making during the pandemic times, there are no scripts for them. No one’s saying, “I’ve been in a pandemic before. I know what to do in this situation.” It’s a lot of trying to come up with as much evidence or backing for why we should do one thing rather than the other. If you’re going to be a nonprofit and play the boy who cried wolf card, you better make sure that you’re confident is going to land properly. It could belly flop. You could have the opposite effect that you intend, which is that people think, “I’m not going to support a sinking ship.” I’m out of here and people withdraw their donations.
Normally, when you pivot your messaging to donors, organizations go through a process of testing that messaging doing a market survey or some focus group testing. I imagine you didn’t have time for any of that in this situation.
No, we didn’t. The way that Ocean Wise Conservation Association, this parent global ocean NGO organization comes into the fold is that we intentionally took a step backward in terms of our branding and our messaging. During this time, we needed to lean heavily on our base of multi-generations of people, who had come out and supported the Vancouver Aquarium to help us through this time. It was the Vancouver Aquarium that was hurting the most, not our research, education, and conservation programs. Those are largely independently funded by traditional philanthropy sources, grants, donations, sponsorships, so on. It was the Aquarium that was hurting the most because we closed the doors on March 17th. Every month that passes is more than $1.5 million worth of animal care costs that they’re going to be there no matter what. You can’t turn off the lights, lock the doors, and see you later.
We have all of these 70,000 animals we have to feed and care for. The messaging that we decided to go out with was very much Save the Vancouver Aquarium, which is what the campaign name became. It was very much leaning on that reputation and that core base within the community. The way that we were talking internally about the how-to message is there was a debate about should we go out with that, “Help us, we’re going to go out of business if you don’t message or was that too aggressive?” The consensus was if we don’t play that message now when we genuinely are looking at double-digit million dollars’ worth of deficit, then when would we? This genuinely is the worst financial period in our 64-year history.
At the end of the day, we felt like this is an authentic message. The important is that people can sniff test that very quickly in the public of like, “Is this a ploy or is this some play to get some money? Do you genuinely need our help?” People did believe that we were in serious trouble and the media. This all started with the media covering it. They were interviewing us like many other organizations about how they’re impacted by COVID-19. Once the first story came out about, “At this rate without additional funding, the Aquarium is headed towards insolvency,” that spread and spiraled. We got lucky in some respects because that was a top news story for a few days. We leveraged that for a call for support out from our donors in front of the base. We were absolutely blown away by the response.
Within the first two months or so, we’ve raised over $2 million from the community, 13,000 new donors. We increased our annual donor support by the number of people who donate on an annual basis by probably 300% or 400%. The learning was, “Look how deep our roots go in the community.” We didn’t know so many people loved and would donate to the Aquarium if it was the right message and the right time for them. This has annihilated all of our best results from fundraising from the public in our history. We didn’t know that it would do that. We thought, “We do need to put a call out to our audiences because this genuinely is the time when we need support more than ever because we have lost 85% of our revenue and we have no viable way to make that up.”
Jeremy, you shared what the thinking that went into the organizational decision to go with the same, the Vancouver Aquarium messaging. As the leader of the fundraising program and as a professional fundraiser yourself, what were you thinking the day before or the moment before you hit play on that Save the Vancouver Aquarium Campaign?What we need the most now from our donors and the community is unrestricted help and money to care for these animals. Click To Tweet
For me, I was thinking how to sequence things properly with the media, how to make this message land in a way that would resonate with people as much as possible in the community of playing a part in helping this beloved institution in its mission to help improve the life in the ocean. What distinguishes us and what we and I wanted to make sure to get out there is support us because we’re a nonprofit organization and we need that help. Many businesses and many other organizations are hurting. If you were to lose, if Vancouver, BC, Canada were to lose the Vancouver Aquarium, you would be losing a lot more than an attraction or a tourist destination.
That’s the message that we’re wanting to make sure that we could get out there. This is more than a “typical aquarium” like a Ripley’s or something like that, where it’s part of a business. This has meaning and this is something that would be a huge loss for the community if we didn’t have it. It was great to see that a lot of people agreed with that, came forward, and help support. For me, I was on board with it. By nature in fundraising, I support taking risks and experimenting. You’re not going to advance if you don’t take a few risks and stick your neck out there. We’ve been doing that a lot more than we had in the past.
It’s been paying off. At the end of the day, I can’t remember the saying. It’s something like “A crisis breeds necessity or creativity” or something like that. We’ve had to be super creative with our fundraising. We’ve lost 85% of our revenue. All of a sudden, you almost overnight need to come up with all of these new revenue streams and fundraising ideas. That’s been the challenge that we’ve constantly been trying to think of like, “What’s the next thing? How are we going to raise more money?” The public appeal for donations was the natural and easy first thing to do is go out to the public and say, “We need your help. Can you donate to help us right now?” That was almost in some respects, the no-brainer first option is to go out to your base and your public and ask for help.
You mentioned the change in the brand messaging instead of putting Ocean Wise Conservation Society first, going back to putting the Aquarium first and this messaging, how did you gather the team together and say, “We’re going to be doing something different. We need everybody to be focused on this?” How did you do that? What was their reaction?
The team is was much reduced because we’ve had to lay off over 60% of our staff in the organization across the board. My team was part of that and many other businesses across the country. This is not unique to Ocean Wise. We are already working with a much smaller team than we were before COVID hit. It was looking at what are we able to do at this time? We were being called upon to punch above our weight because the challenge for the organization was to think creatively across the board of how can we come up with things that are going to help us with this financial crisis, rather than the question was, how can your fundraising team still meet your fundraising targets with a much-reduced team?
It was more like how can your team help fill this multimillion-dollar funding gap? The challenge was almost to think outside the box, be creative, throw out the rule book on fundraising. How can we help with the urgent funding needs we have? One of the first things we did and I consulted with some people on this, major donors. A lot of people in webinars I’ve been on are, “Talk to your major donors. This is the time they should step up.” We did have a couple of them step up. We were surprised that the biggest support came from $20, $100, $50, here and there, over 10,000 people doing that rather than leaning on some big bailout from a donor who comes forward with a $1 million gift. That was an interesting learning for us.
It’s turning the donor pyramid on the other point.
We called around to all of our close donors or close friends. We’ve got on the phone a ton. Everyone was picking up the phone and calling people. It was nice that they’re not traveling for once. Everyone’s around. You can get ahold of them. We explained the situation and used our CEO to be on those phone calls where appropriate. Pulled out all the stops, “We need help right now, can you help us out?” It was the community donors, the grassroots donors, and many of whom were not even in our database who stepped forward rather than the main major donors. That was a surprise for sure. Initially, I had expected maybe we’ll get like a half dozen major donors, each chip in a few hundred dollars. That’s going to be what helps us. I was wrong on that one.
It is great to see what the pandemic has meant in terms of giving. We’ve seen that across sectors and across the country with our clients and others we’ve been speaking with. Canadians have in special ways step forward to support the things that matter most to them. You mentioned the multigenerational connection that Vancouverites have to the Aquarium. I’m not surprised based on what’s happened in other organizations that you had that response. As you were going through that, who did you look to for advice, as the vice president of development, who were you wanting to talk to help find the path forward?
I had talked to some other people I’ve worked within the past who are well versed in the nonprofit and fundraising world. Especially before going out to ask for a major donor for that support, I remember asking one person, I said, “If you’re in this situation, would you call your top donors and say, ‘Can you make an emergency donation right now to help us?’” She said, “Yes. That’s what I would do in that situation.” I consulted with someone before we played that card with the major donors. I also joined in with tons of webinars. There are a gazillion webinars going on. There are lots of them from The Chronicle of Philanthropy, all the way through many different organizations around what to do with donors and fundraising during the pandemic.
A lot of them had a similar message, which is to use this time to build relationships with those donors, start calling them, start planting those seeds, whether they support now or not, at least it will pay returns after the pandemic is over. At least you’ve invested that time connecting with people now. They’ll remember that when you can return back to normal. We’ve been doing a lot of that. It was surprising that emergency funding came from grassroots people in the community. Many of whom we had no idea are supporters rather than our “base.” All of a sudden, our base is a totally different thing. It’s exponentially larger, full of smaller level donors. It already changed the landscape of what our fundraising team and our fundraising strategy will look like.
It was helped along the way by a unique partnership with the Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer. Tell us how that came to be.
Jumping off that last point about our fundraising strategy changing. Our approach to money and moneymaking across the board is changing. We’re a unique organization because we operate mostly like a social enterprise because we have the Vancouver Aquarium, which runs like a business. You did tickets, food, retail, and so on, but all the proceeds go towards our charitable programs. We also have a certain amount of our work, which is supported by traditional philanthropy, donations, grants, and sponsorships. Without that Vancouver Aquarium revenue, we essentially had to, as a senior team, quickly mobilize, what are some new business units we could get up and running quickly to make some money to replace what we’ve lost with the Aquarium opening? One of those fell in our laps.
It was the result of the media covering our situation around the Aquarium heading towards bankruptcy at this financial pace. The Whitecaps, their CEO at the time reached out to our CEO and said, “I saw in the media what’s happening. We’ve got a team. We’re not playing. We’re not working on our normal operations. We want to help you. We have an idea.” It’s to produce and sell co-branded nonmedical face masks. They were like, “We want to do it in two weeks.” We thought, “I don’t know anything about face masks, but if you want to put all of your team to work behind it, we can help with that. You’re going to bear all of the costs. It’s no financial risk for us then why not? Let’s go for it.”
I would say there were a lot of skeptics at the beginning of like, “Why would anyone want to buy a face mask from the Aquarium?” That’s okay, we’ll do it. Maybe it will make a little bit of money, but it’s not going to save the day for us. I included a lot of people ate their words after we saw how it did in the first week. In the first week, we sold 100,000 masks perhaps. Right now, it’s around 160,000 masks that have been sold. This equates into inching towards $3 million worth of gross revenue. We’re in the mask business. In hindsight, we were early adopters of this real gap in the market. This niche that we didn’t realize quite the extent of it at the time. It was a perfect confluence of the situation with the pandemic. The advice coming out from medical practitioners and top doctors switching their tune from, “No, you don’t need to wear a mask,” to “We’re recommending that you wear a mask in most places.”
All the combination of these things, the Whitecaps audience, them putting their team to work, having the local producer, be able to take this on because they weren’t doing their normal production work, all of these things coming together. It’s this perfect storm that created a great fundraising opportunity for us. That was a success beyond anybody’s belief. That was being very entrepreneurial and enterprising with. The Aquarium is close so what other money-making things can we do? We have this campaign war room meeting that we set up very quickly around that time to come up with what else are ideas that we’ve got going? We’re almost like venture philanthropy, venture capital type of model where we’ve got a whole bunch of little mini business ideas. Some will take off, some will fail, but let’s keep this creativity and these ideas going because we’ve got no other options.
It has been impressive to see how well the organization has pivoted. It’s satisfying to see how the community steps forward to support your organization. You started our conversation by saying where you were headed before the pandemic and skipped ahead to what you’re going to be doing after the pandemic. Even if it’s in the back of your mind as you’re going through your day, how are you thinking about making that pivot back to focusing on Ocean Wise Conservation Society as the prime brand you’re using to leverage philanthropy?
We never stopped that trajectory towards global conservation impact with the ocean lens. We made it a bit quieter in terms of the public and how we were talking to our donors. What we need the most now from our donors and the community is money, like unrestricted, “Help us pay for the care of these animals, help us cover these essential costs until we can get the Aquarium back open, until we can get that revenue-generating arm going again.” It was such an immediate focus on, “We need the money now.” At the same time, we didn’t stop focusing on conservation or the researcher’s education work. It wasn’t the messaging that we were bringing to our donor community. It was the messaging was of the urgent situation and it still continues to be like that.
What we’re doing at the same time is we know it’s going to end eventually, even though it might not seem like it is going to end. We want to be ready to come out of the gate as strong and as fast as we can on that global conservation impact. Not my team, but my colleagues have been developing a global conservation strategy and doing interviews with experts, internal and external, on rounding out these new programs that we can launch in 2021. We can get back to what that core mission is. Our core mission isn’t to keep the lights on and keep the animals fed. We’re excited to get back to what are those conservation programs, whether it’s helping to combat overfishing or whether it’s helping to stop pollution in the oceans and all of these programs.
We’ve been quietly developing this suite of programs that we’re excited to get going on. Also, to talk to potential donors about there’s starting to be an appetite to look at more of that proactive longer term. Getting back to the mission piece, probably for a lot of organizations, the initial few weeks and few months was about, “What are you doing about your employees? What are you doing about people who need food, shelter, and those frontline workers?” People are starting to talk more and more about recovery. We don’t want to be standing on the sidelines when the recovery opportunities happen. We’re excited to launch these conservation global programs starting later 2020 and into 2021.
A lot of donors are asking themselves or people who are donors to maybe multiple organizations. We’re all hearing the message that the world’s going to be different after this pandemic and lots of conversations about what lessons that we learned during the pandemic that we want to hold on to going forward? A lot of people are turning their minds to what kind of world do we want to live in? I would imagine that that conservation message particularly focused on the oceans in British Columbia will resonate very well with donors. Is that the angle that you’re taking?
People are very excited to talk about something that’s not the pandemic. I’d say for the first month, especially, everyone was in triaged urgency mode. Now, more and more people are, “What does the future hold? What are your longer-term plans?” We’re getting back to those types of conversations more and more, which is quite refreshing. People are excited to talk about what those future opportunities could be. The way that we operated it is going to be very different. There are going to be so many lessons for fundraisers to learn as well in terms of what things have we done during this period looking at ourselves that we want to keep. They were brought about by necessity, but they’re great things that maybe we should continue on these social venture fundraising opportunities and being very creative, entrepreneurial, and not being afraid to stick our necks out with new programs.
The urgency makes us very creative. One of the things that I am interested in knowing a little bit more about, you joined the organization as the Ocean Wise Conservation Society was launching to become the parent brand. Most of the donor base that the organization had would have been connected to the Vancouver Aquarium. How have you managed both the education and the engagement process with donors as the organization has made that pivot from being locally based at the Aquarium to globally based in the area of conservation?
It’s a difficult challenge. It’s this age-old branding issue of how do you get your brand to be well-known and sticky for all of the right things that you want people to know about your brand. Being the Vancouver Aquarium for 60 years, people know that very well. People love and support it, but now it’s part of the Ocean Wise Conservation Association, which is a global ocean NGO. It also carries the name Ocean Wise, which people are familiar with because of the Ocean Wise Seafood Program, which has been going on for over a dozen years. How do you pivot people towards understanding that the bigger 35,000-foot mission of Ocean Wise Conservation Association and understanding how the Aquarium, the Ocean Wise Seafood, and Great Canadian shoreline cleanup and all of these other programs fit into that? I don’t have a good answer other than it’s a process of chipping away and educating people at different levels.The aquarium is meant to be for everybody. We want everybody to experience that connection with the oceans. Click To Tweet
The major donors get it now because we’ve had a lot more FaceTime and one-on-one conversations with them, similarly with some politicians who we work with at the federal and provincial levels especially. The broader public, we don’t have the budget to take out a lot of ads and do a campaign around this is who Ocean Wise is and this is who we stand for it now. It’s definitely like a tithing process, but we’re trying more and more to get people to understand that the Aquarium and all of these other things are part of this broader mission of helping to save our oceans. The Aquarium like zoos has some detractors and people who think it shouldn’t exist, but I feel like people who are on the fence about it or unsure what to think would probably feel better knowing that it’s part of an organization whose mission is to improve the health of our oceans. Everything that we do from top to bottom and back up is all about that overarching mission. That’s the story we’re trying to get out there to the public. If you or anyone has any ideas of how to educate the broader public about where we’re going with that, then I’m all ears. It’s something we’re chipping away at.
I would imagine that people who were committed to the research projects that were already happening, who’ve always been a part of the Vancouver Aquarium, probably understood the Ocean Wise move quite intuitively, that made sense to them. What were the conversations like with those donors who were already seeing and funding that broader mandate for the organization?
I wasn’t on board when the actual launch happened and lead up to that and the conversations happening behind the scenes before the official switch over from Vancouver Marine Science Center as the main organization to Ocean Wise Conservation Association. This is one of those great equalizers where it doesn’t matter about the amount of money that people were donating or what level of support. It matters where they identified more from an emotional point of view of that if people have strong memories and connections to the Aquarium. My parents took me there when I was a kid. I took my kids there. Now I take my grandkids there. I remember seeing this animal and that thing. It’s the Aquarium and those memories with family that they love. They identify less with, “We’re going to help tackle global malfishing.”
They don’t identify as much with that as they do with the emotional-spirit experience and memories of the Aquarium. That’s across the board is I feel like a very clear divide between those people who it’s like the Aquarium means something significant and emotional to them versus other people who maybe think of it more of like a conservation challenge and they’re more motivated on, “What are you guys going to do on climate change? How can the oceans help with tackling that? The Aquarium is great for reaching an audience, but I don’t care so much about the animals or that’s not my main interest.” I don’t want to call it a tension per se, but those are the two audiences that we’re dealing with. We’ve noticed that there are very clear differences in motivations for why people support the organization.
That observation alone probably makes it a lot easier to address the issue knowing that they separate. You’re having different conversations with different groups.
Like any cause, creating that emotional connection is what brings people out and what triggers them. That’s probably part of the reason behind the success of the Save the Vancouver Aquarium Campaign during the pandemic is that people immediately harken back to the memories they’ve had of the Aquarium. They’ve gone with friends or they’ve gone with family. They think, “I wouldn’t want to lose that. I wouldn’t want anyone else to lose that experience who has or will be visiting the Aquarium.” It immediately had this I’m emotional appeal to people in the public. That’s probably why they came out and supported us in the numbers that they did, which was very heartening to see.
Another interesting observation in the number of people that have supported us is the number of people from non-white communities. The Chinese Canadian community, especially in the lower mainland, had supported in a big way, which for me was great to see. We’ve always felt like we needed to have more diversity within the Aquarium, within our donor base, right through the organization. Maybe we told ourselves that we didn’t attract a diverse audience. Even though we wanted to do that, it’s definitely a goal. We had more connections and deeper roots within those different communities than we gave ourselves credit for. That was something nice to see. I hope we can build on that and reach more diverse audiences because the Aquarium is meant to be for everybody. We want everybody to experience that connection with the oceans and help us. That was a nice thing to see in terms of the community that came to support as well.
One of the things our audience can take away from this and I’m sure many of them would already, the way you were talking about the donor base, what’s coming next, the way the community has responded is with an open mind to what might be possible. That sense of curiosity and creativity I’m sure has been a large part of the success that you’ve had to date and that Ocean Wise is going to have in the months and years to come. Thank you very much for sharing that with us.
Thank you, Douglas. To give you a little flavor of the other moneymaking, get rich quick schemes I’m calling them, these other enterprises or businesses, we’ve had Stanley Park Brewing make a beer for us with the proceeds going. We’ve had chefs from around BC cook a chowder for us and the proceeds go. We’ve got a DJ event coming to the Aquarium and they’re going to live stream and people are going to donate to support that. We’re working on a kelp hand sanitizer. We’ve done the masks so why not do a hand sanitizer? Kelp is a great story because it would be invasive kelp species that we’re helping to remove.
It helps benefit our ocean conservation mission there as well. Keep the ideas coming in. We’re always like, “What’s the next big thing.” It’s that creative entrepreneurial attitude that hopefully others are doing this as well and can take that away. It’s challenging fundraisers and people in the nonprofit sector to think a little bit more commercial, more business-minded. Sometimes you knock it out of the park like with those masks and sometimes it fails, but that’s what happens in business as well. Be creative and be experimental and you could be surprised by the results.
Thank you for that. Good luck with all of those adventures. I can only imagine what your to-do list looks like as you’re moving all of that forward. Take care. We’ll check-in and see how things have turned out.
Please do. Thank you so much, Douglas. All the best to you and your team as well.
- Ocean Wise
- Vancouver Aquarium
- Save the Vancouver Aquarium Campaign
- Ocean Wise Seafood Program
- Stanley Park Brewing
About Jeremy Douglas
Jeremy Douglas is currently Vice President of Development at Ocean Wise, a global conservation NGO and the parent organization of the Vancouver Aquarium. He oversees external funding and government relations – working closely with policy-makers, business leaders, and major philanthropists. He developed the successful Plastic Wise initiative and has been involved in various plastics roundtables, workshops, and speaking engagements.
Before joining Ocean Wise, Jeremy held similar roles at the David Suzuki Foundation, BBC Media Action, and Action for Children – and spent a year living on a remote atoll in the Marshall Islands. He is also currently Chair of the Vancouver Farmers Markets and a board member of Leading Change.
Jeremy has an MA in Cultural Studies from Goldsmiths, University of London, and a BA in Philosophy from the University of Western Ontario.