Aquarium Society casts wider net for donors

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — In 2008, the total number of students visiting North Carolina’s three aquariums and a facility at Nag’s Head peaked at 70,000.

Last year, in the face of cuts in spending by local public schools, that number had fallen to 50,000, and many of those who did visit were from more affluent communities or schools with strong parent-teacher associations able to raise private funds to support field trips, says Jay Barnes, director of development for the North Carolina Aquarium Society, a Raleigh-based nonprofit that generates private support for the state-run aquariums.

“Schools that were left out were poor schools across the state,” says Barnes, who served for 20 years as director of the aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores before joining the Society as development director in 2009.

To help more students visit the aquariums, or to bring aquarium programs to schools or offer them through distance-learning technology, the Aquarium Society this year launched an “Aquarium Scholars” program to raise $800,000. The campaign so far has raised over $400,000 that will be used, starting by next spring, mainly for mini-grants to teachers in the poorest schools for field trips to an aquarium, or for am aquarium to bring its programs to schools.

“Many of these programs we offer are STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs,” Barnes says. “We’ve got live animals and technology, and our facilities are located on a beach or sound or marsh or coastal habitat, making the aquariums wonderful destinations.”

Formed in 1986, the Aquarium Society in 2016 generated $7.4 million for its facilities, which are located at Fort Fisher, Pine Knoll Shores, Roanoke Island, and Jennette’s Pier at Nags Head.

The Society generates revenue from sales at gift shops it operates at the facilities; from about 21,000 household memberships; from concessions such as food and photography vendors; from in-kind support and private support; in lease revenue through an arrangement with the state that helped finance expansion and renovation of the aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores; and in investment income.

From 2000 to 2011, the Society raised a total of $15 million in campaigns that were part of a $100 million effort to renovate all three aquariums, nearly tripling their size, and to reconstruct Jennette’s Pier at Nags Head.

Now, for a new round of renovations, the Society raised $5.6 million for the Roanoke Island aquarium, and is planning to raise at least that much for the Fort Fisher aquarium.

In 2013, working with consulting firm Capital Development Services, the Society also launched its “Living Treasures” campaign, an ongoing fundraising effort that includes an annual fund, planned giving, memberships for small businesses, a donor-prospecting program, and a range of sponsorship opportunities.

The Society over the past three years more than doubled the number of total individual, corporate and foundation donors, Barnes says, and last year received a total of about 1,000 donations.

It has received five commitments for planned gifts, and enlisted about 45 small business members.

It also hosts three “Under the Sea” events a year for prospective donors, typically held in private homes in locations from Raleigh and Greensboro to Figure Eight Island and Duck, with another scheduled for October 19 in New Bern.

“These Under the Sea events are helping us to grow a broader base of support for the aquariums for the future,” Barnes says. “The aquariums’ value to the state is beyond just the educational impact and the environmental stewardship they promote. They also serve as an important part of the state’s tourism economy, with more than 1.3 million annual visitors.”

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