Paulleon/shutterstock
Paulleon/shutterstock

More than two years ago, the leadership of Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium announced that they wanted to build a new facility. Their goal: a four-story, 110,00-square-foot building on a 12-acre site in Sarasota, Florida, with 1 million gallons of exhibits. The price tag: $130 million.

It was an ambitious vision, even before COVID-19 left vast swathes of the economy sputtering and pushed unemployment to Great Depression-era levels. But the pandemic hasn’t stopped things from moving forward. Since February, the project has doubled its commitments from donors, reaching $75 million as of July, with hopes to reach $100 million by the end of the year, if commitments come in, for construction in May 2021.

Those pledges were largely lined up well before most people had even heard of coronaviruses, and are the result of months of cultivation work with donors, according to Michael Moore, the fundraising director for the project, known as Mote Sea Education Aquarium.

Yet the campaign’s progress is a striking example of how such large capital projects are still thriving in today’s environment, thanks to such institutions’ roles as economic engines and funders’ growing interest in marine conservation and education. It’s a trend playing out across the country, according to experts, even as many institutions are suffering after forced closure to the public for extended periods.

Bleeding in the Short Term, Rosy in the Long Term

Months of shutdowns have put zoos and aquariums deep in the red, said Dan Ashe, president of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. At the peak of the pandemic, 93% of the organization’s member facilities were closed, including both U.S. and international institutions, and the remainder had limited services.

Aquariums, due to their high operating costs, are suffering the most. Among the association’s members, losses are averaging $1.7 million a month, with deficits nearly double that at a large facility like Monterey Bay Aquarium. “Operationally, it’s been pretty devastating,” Ashe said.

Some have asked donors to remove grant restrictions or convert donations to operational support. Ashe said that conversation can be blunt: “If I can’t get operational support, then there won’t be an aquarium for you to donate to.”

Yet fundraising for expansion projects remains strong. A big reason is that aquariums tend to be economic drivers, said Ashe. The Georgia Aquarium is the No. 1 tourist attraction in Atlanta. The Seattle Aquarium is at the center of a massive plan to connect the city’s downtown to its waterfront. Typically located in urban centers, aquariums tend to be part of city or regional economic development plans. But aquariums are also thriving because of a growing focus by funders on preserving embattled marine systems, as well as a rising interest in environmental education in an era of mounting ecological threats.

“In terms of capital fundraising, the climate is still good for aquariums as a whole,” Ashe said. “I’m not aware of any evidence amongst our members that their long-term capital expansion fundraising has been dampened by the pandemic.”

So the projects keep coming. The Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, for instance, is not only completing a $25 million remodel of the pavilion, which includes its otter habitat, and building a new veterinary wing, but also launching a major expansion of its main building, a pedestrian bridge, and more.

That’s not to say the pandemic has not been a factor, at least in Sarasota. While money upfront would be ideal, many donors are asking for patience. “There’s been pushback because of COVID, but people aren’t saying ‘no,’ they’re saying, ‘not yet,’” said Moore, who has been a fundraiser for nearly four decades.

Also, while the stock market has been strong, buoying the balances of many possible major donors, the broader uncertainties have led some to hold off on providing specifics. “Since July, there are donors that are saying, ‘I’m ready, but I can’t tell you how much. I need to see where things stand and fall, and where we are with this whole COVID thing,’” Moore said.

‘A Balanced Portfolio of Donors’

Aquariums rely on a mix of government funding, private donors and corporate support. “These are very large, complex projects, so they tend to put together complex partnerships,” Ashe said. “It’s a pretty balanced portfolio of donors.”

The new Mote aquarium is no exception. The state of Florida has committed $3 million, Manatee County another $5 million, and Sarasota County, where it will be located, contributed $20 million. For the county, the project’s commitment to providing free educational programming to more than 70,000 local school children was one motivation, but the anticipated economic boon also featured prominently.

“One of my top priorities as a Sarasota County Commissioner has been to strengthen and diversify our economy and the jobs being created here, and all told, Mote SEA will provide an annual economic impact of nearly $28 million to the State of Florida,” said Mike Moran, chair of the Sarasota Board of County Commissioners, in a press release. Construction is expected to kick in another $280 million in one-time impact.

Mote Sea Education Aquarium has yet to announce any corporate sponsorships or other partnerships. But corporations and their foundations have shown the business community’s deep affinity for marine conservation.

The automaker and manufacturer Honda once committed $5 million to the Aquarium of the Pacific, which is located not far from its American headquarters in Torrance, California, and its president serves on the foundation’s board of directors. Another corporate supporter of marine life is the Xerox Foundation, the charitable arm of the well-known corporation, which has made multiple grants to New England aquariums.

Fundraising for an Aquarium? Find a Local Family

Family foundations, particularly those with living donors, have long figured prominently in aquarium funding. In 2017, to take one example, real estate magnate Donald Zucker and his wife Barbara gave $7.5 million to the New York Aquarium. The personal connections in their case run deep. Barbara is a life trustee of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the aquarium, and the institution now has a shark exhibit that bears the couple’s name.

Like the Zuckers, living donors and family foundations tend, unsurprisingly, to support the institutions where they live and work. For instance, the Monterey Bay Aquarium opened its doors in 1984, thanks to a $55 million gift by the computer entrepreneur David Packard and his wife Lucile. It has continued to receive support from the Packard Foundation, which, since 2015, has given more than $200 million to support the aquarium’s research center at a time of rising donor interest in ocean conservation. The foundation of Laurence Spitters, founder of a pioneering Bay Area floppy disk drive company, has also funded the aquarium, as have several Bay Area billionaires, including Eric Schmidt, former CEO of Google, and his wife Wendy, and S.D. Bechtel Jr., heir to the country’s largest construction and engineering firm.

Similar examples can be found around the country. In New England, television producer and Boston Red Sox co-owner Thomas C. Werner has given to the New England Aquarium, as has Massachusetts-based Trust Family Foundation, while Chicago investment manager Gary Brinson has supported the city’s Shedd Aquarium through his foundation.

“It’s been trending for a number of years,” said Moore of family foundations’ role in aquarium projects. There are no public commitments from families yet, but he noted the project recently received a $5 million pledge from a local woman, the largest single donation other than a $20 million commitment that started their fundraising drive.

Naming exhibits after donors is a common practice, but the new Mote aquarium is following the lead of sports stadiums and others and limiting rights to 10 years. If you have $30 million, you can have your name on their building, with options going down to $300,000 for smaller exhibits. They hope to attract businesses, local and national, that want exposure to their visitors.

As with any large fundraising goal, one foundational challenge at the Mote Sea Education Aquarium has been convincing potential donors that the project is feasible.

“This is the largest effort in this region that’s ever been done for an aquarium. I think people were a little bit skeptical,” Moore said. “You have to have some sort of critical mass where people see that this is really going to happen.”

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