Featured Leader: Steve Burns

 Putting Your Money Where Your Mission Is
Zoo Boise Director

Zoo Boise was the first in the country to charge a conservation fee.  That instituted fee, is in addition to the entrance fee, and goes directly to the conservation of wildlife. Originally, it was just twenty-five cents and remains minimal today at fifty cents. Even though the fee is small, the impact it has had has been far-reaching, raising $250,000 annually, a million dollars to date and contributing to numerous conservation projects around the world.

Steve Burns, the Executive Director of Zoo Boise wanted to become more involved in wildlife conservation. One day, the idea of a conservation fee struck him. Steve thought through the idea for several months before sharing it. His simple but profound idea has now spread to fifteen zoos around the country, raising between five to six million dollars annually in an effort to save many of our favorite zoo animals’ wild counterparts. It is now possible for us, as zoo-goers to participate in saving our wildlife. Steve says:

“People don’t want to see animals go extinct. People love animals, but they sit and wonder what they could possibly do, and so in our case we feel we’ve turned the act of visiting the zoo into a conservation action. And now we’ve empowered our visitors to actually do something about it- come to the zoo, enjoy yourself with the family, and when you walk out you will have done your part on that day for conservation.”

Long before implementing his plan, Steve wanted to somehow incorporate the zoo into the conservation effort, but struggled with how. After sharing his desires with the Board President and the Director of Parks and Recreation, he was given permission to think outside the box for a solution, …“and one day I was walking around the grounds of The High Desert Museum in Bend Oregon, when the thought occurred to me [the Conservation Fee]. It took a while. It took me a few months to unveil it. I didn’t know how it would go over with people, but it ended up going over well.”

The Conservation Fee was rebranded under the name “Quarters for Conservation” and has gained much support. Colorado Springs Zoo Director says, “It is the easiest money to   generate, and the amazing part is, people actually thank you for taking their money.”

Steve’s efforts do not end with the Conservation Entry Fee. The zoo began adding activities that cost a few dollars extra, the monies from which also go toward conservation. The activities are ones that zoo-goers get an up-close encounter with an animal, like feeding the giraffes, taking a solar-powered boat ride to see monkeys, going to the zoo farm to feed goats and sheep and feeding a sloth bear. By adding those activities in support of conservation, Zoo Boise went from raising $1500 annually (before the Conservation Fee), to $120K annually (after Conservation Fee) to $300K annually (after adding activities for conservation). That is an increase from $1500 – $300,000 in five years!

Steve tells me about a project in Africa that the Zoo Boise Conservation Fund money is supporting.

“The project we have given the most money to is Gorongsa National Park in Mozambique. It was one of the greatest parks in all of Africa in the 60’s; it had one of the highest densities of wildlife of any National Park in Africa.  Then, over the next twenty years of war, the park was destroyed and 95% of its animals were killed. They were eaten, and the elephants killed for their ivory and sold to buy more weapons.”

“For us, the restoration of Gorongsa National Park is the perfect zoo project. People come to the zoo, see animals here, do some fun things with their  kids, and now the money goes to help put animals back on the ground in Africa. This past year, our donation helped to fund a scientific study of lions at the park. Researchers have been setting out camera traps and using radio collars to study the lions because, for some reason the population is not growing the way it should be. The lions are in the park and there is enough prey that they should be thriving but they aren’t. The symbol of Gorongsa National Park is a lion, and what a tragedy it would be if there were no more lions there. They are an incredibly important part of that eco-system.”

“We are going to expand that partnership with Gorongsa and build a Gorongsa National Park exhibit here in Zoo Boise. Over the next ten years, we will be able to generate over two million dollars for that restoration effort.”

Steve’s always thinking of ways to generate more money for conservation. Whenever a new exhibit is built, they take 10% of the cost of the exhibit and allocate it to the conservation of the animal in the exhibit. Steve recognized this request was going to be a harder sale to make to the Board, as it is already difficult to raise money. Nevertheless, it was approved. Steve applauds the Board of Directors saying, “What a testament to the board … were going to take an already difficult project and raise even more money because we care so deeply for these animals. My hats off to the board, I am just thrilled they agreed to do that.”

It is obvious that Steve is doing something right at the zoo keeping in mind his recent accomplishments. I asked him what is the single most important thing he does daily as a leader. Without pause, Steve said, “Set expectations. I have very high expectations of myself, my staff and volunteers. Setting those expectations and also communicating and reinforcing them.” “In terms of what I expect out of people, I think that hiring is an incredibly important part of the business because you have to have the right people. I can teach anybody a Zoo Boise how to do anybody else’s job, (except be a veterinarian), but I cannot teach people to work hard and have a good attitude. So I tell people right from the beginning I expect you to work hard, we are paying you to work hard, when you go home at the end of the day you should be tired because we all worked hard, because we all have some really important work to do.”

Steve runs the zoo just like any other business, if fact, his focus on mission and values is one that many businesses could be inspired by. “Our ultimate mission and goal is that we are here to help protect animals in the wild.” Everything that Zoo Boise does is in support of their mission. To Steve that means starting with values. Steve’s team was not built haphazardly; he looks for people who share the same conservationist values, are hard workers and resourceful. He recognizes that his employees might come to work and think; gosh, my job could be easier if we spent some of the money we raised for conservation on… but “because of the shared belief in the mission, that what we’re doing is the right thing, it makes it a whole lot easier that everybody is coming from that standpoint. Doing what we do for conservation takes a sacrifice.”

Steve’s answer was not a surprise when I asked what the one leadership principle that guides him is, since his main focus is always Zoo Boise’s mission. Fiscal responsibility was his answer. Steve’s been called, careful, frugal, and cheap, and he takes all of them as a compliment saying, “We don’t spend money on things we want, we spend money on things we need. If you have fiscal discipline and are only spending money on things you need, then you will have the money to carry out your mission.” At the end of the day, if the zoo isn’t willing to stand up and speak for animals, then I’m not sure why else you’d be in business.”

Changing the Mission of the zoo did not happen overnight. From donors, to the community, to the Mayor and City Offices, to staff and Board members, Steve forged ahead working to convince people of the worthiness of this change. Bit by bit, piece by piece, the entire program was approved. Steve tells people “We still wanted to be a zoo; we just wanted to be a zoo for a different reason. What we turned it into was a mechanism to help generate money for conservation.”

With the mission and Conservation Fee approved, I wondered if the culture at the zoo changed and if so, how. What Steve said next was sad, but made clear why this change was so necessary.

“I think the culture has changed. People have no idea of how much trouble wildlife is in. Only 3,200 tigers are left in the wild, the lion population is down from 400,000 to 30,000 over the last 20 years, and there are people in National Parks in Africa flying over in helicopter gunships as we speak, using machine guns to kill elephants and rhinos. Our natural world is under assault. I think when our staff, volunteers and supporters hear about it, they begin to embrace very quickly what it is we are doing. The problem is, people don’t realize this is the case. When we hire somebody, we talk to them a lot about our mission so we make sure that people know and they are buying into what we’re doing.”

Steve recognizes that his role as a leader does not stop when a new hire is versed on the zoo’s mission. Referring to himself as the Chief Cheerleader, he talks about conservation often with his colleagues. Every Friday Steve sends out an email called “This Week at the Zoo,” the purpose of which is toward sharing the weekly zoo happenings, but also  information on conservation issues and chiefly, how Zoo Boise is helping to make a difference.

Zoo Boise has successfully transformed their purpose as a zoo over the last five years, raising one million dollars to put toward their conservation work. Steve’s most significant lesson-learned is that one cannot do something so big  alone; it’s all about having good partners. From the initiation of Steve’s idea, he had partners and supporters at his side, and now several years later he continues to rely on partnerships to make the best use of the money his idea has collected. A few weeks ago, Zoo Boise celebrated raising one million dollars with a Wildlife Conservation Expo. Fourteen representatives of the projects Zoo Boise’s Conservation Fee has helped fund, spoke about how the money has impacted their cause.  As Steve told me about his experience at the Expo, listening to the presentations, I could feel his excitement and rightly so; his little idea is paying off in spades.

We thank Steve and his team for their hard work and making a valiant effort to save our world’s magnificent animals. Our lives get busy with work, kids and grandkids, and planning our next day off, and when the news does not cover a story or it is not in our backyard, we forget about its importance.  Steve is right when he says, “People don’t want to see animals go extinct; people love animals.” It is people like Steve we need to thank for bringing our awareness to issues we care about, but may forget about. Even further, he offers a simple way to participate- going to the zoo. Now, our weekend outing with the grandkids to the zoo has more meaning. It would be a terrible day if our grandchildren never get to see for themselves the shyness in an elephant’s eyes or the heavy paws of a tiger, because there were no more.


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Phil Eastman IIThe challenges we face today are not economic, environmental, social, or legal; they are challenges of character and leadership."