San Fran­cis­co Zoo’s adopt-an-ani­mal’ campaign

Exhibited by
Tycely Williams
October 29, 2015
Medium of Communication
Direct mail
Target Audience
Type of Charity
Country of Origin
Date of first appearance

SOFII’s view

When Tycely Williams presented at SOFII’s IWITOT event in Baltimore earlier this year there was a lot of laughter, not surprisingly because the concept is highly amusing. It is also a great example looking at a tradition from a different angle and being brave enough to take it to another level.

Summary / objectives

To offer an alternative to the usual – and predictable – Valentine’s Day appeal.


It is time to rethink the relevance of Cupid and your predictable approach to charitable fundraising.

For many the fourteenth day of February is a time to celebrate erotic love, but in 2015 the San Francisco Zoo turned Cupid’s missteps and broken arrows into a charitable fundraiser’s dream come true.

Thanks to hissing cockroaches and giant scorpions the zoo’s take on love took a wildly successful turn. In honour of Valentine’s Day, the zoo launched a non-traditional charitable fundraising campaign that gave donors an opportunity to adopt an animal in honour of a former lover.

While supporting a worthwhile charity, donors could opt to send plastic cockroaches in a plush red box (accompanied by a personalised adoption certificate) to the creep they once adored. The only more brilliant component of this campaign was the zoo’s clear and demonstrable understanding of today’s donor base.

‘Over 85 per cent of dating ends in breakups’ affirms Hellen Chen, author and expert in relationships whose love philosophies have been quoted in over 200 publications in 18 countries.

At first glance the common denominator surrounding 14 February is love. But the San Francisco Zoo’s 2015 adopt-an-animal’ campaign amplifies the importance of thinking beyond the ordinary and predictable. In today’s highly competitive market donors are saturated with mundane fundraising messages. Your fundraising solicitations should keep the interest of past patrons and simultaneously ignite excitement in new donors. These five tips, gleaned from the the zoo’s adopt-an-animal campaign, will help your organisation put the ‘fun’ in fundraising and advance your mission today, tomorrow and well into the future.

Special characteristics

Alignment with the mission

Hissing cockroaches and giant scorpions most likely reminded zoo patrons of former idiotic and useless ex-lovers. While these less than desirable creatures provoke comedy, they also signal the importance of conservation and the need to protect wildlife. In your pursuit to attract new donors remember mission matters most. You cannot raise revenue for your cause without raising awareness. Awareness begins when you effectively transmit knowledge and impart within donors an understanding of why and how their contribution can affect positive change. Through this clever campaign, we learn the significance of simplicity. Communicate your mission to prospective donors in an easy-to-understand fashion. Donors routinely report supporting charitable fundraising efforts because they want to make a positive impact. While the plastic cockroaches and plush scorpions were hilariously amusing, they were a representation of the types of animals faithfully protected by the generosity of zoo patrons.

Hook into feelings

As you craft your next fundraising message, remember you cannot predict the feelings and disposition of people. Some feelings, like those experienced on Valentine’s Day, can be grossly misunderstood. The San Francisco Zoo didn’t solely focus their Valentine’s Day message on satisfied and contented lovers – the zoo hooked into broader feelings and increased the probability of more donors being able to resonate with the call to action. This creative fundraising campaign hooked into the feelings of lovers and once-lovers, granting everyone ample reason and rational to adopt an animal on Valentine’s Day. Follow suit and construct inclusive messages so everyone feels a sincere sense of excitement when receiving the solicitation.

Offer donors options

The San Francisco Zoo offered donors three important options, which contributed to the campaign’s success. First, donors were given a choice in size of gift. Donor giving levels began at an affordable investment $25. Beyond, this basic level, the zoo offered an escalating scale up to one thousand dollars. Donor benefits increased for each giving level. Aside from financial options, zoo patrons could also choose which animal to adopt. Major press and national media in the United States gravitated to the uniqueness of the hissing cockroach and giant hairy scorpion, but donors could easily opt for the cute and cuddly red panda, penguins, or ring-tailed lemurs. The third choice allowed zoo patrons to opt-in and communicate with an ex-lover. While a favourite, the certificate of adoption was also optional.

The sensible giving levels helped to entice and encourage new contributions and the benefits on offer don’t deflate the percentage of funds that will help fuel the mission. Direct and indirect creative costs were kept to a minimum. Donors were given the chance to pay for the value of any gift in addition to the basic charitable contribution.

Adopt annual strategies

Whether donors opted for or declined the certificate of adoption, the San Francisco Zoo issued a valid record for a 12-month period. When a patron answered the call to action it was explicit the financial support was for one calendar year. When you annualise a fundraising strategy you establish clear expectations with your donors. You and the donor have a shared understanding of when the relationship starts and when the relationship is eligible for reconsideration and renegotiation. During the 12-month relationship there are two primary responsibilities. The first is to properly steward the donor in order to express gratitude for the charitable investment. Remember the donor expects your messaging to remain consistent during the course of the relationship. If like the San Francisco Zoo you launch a clever campaign, your follow-up materials and donor correspondence should contain similar creativity to maintain intrigue. If you achieve success with your first responsibility, the second becomes easier to realise: to sustain the mission of your organisation by renewing and methodically upgrading annual donors.

Influence / impact

‘Nothing says 'I've moved on' like adopting a giant cuddly cockroach in the name of your favourite ex’ asserted the San Francisco Zoo in the 2015 adopt-an-animal campaign. The uniqueness of this campaign not only caught the attention of donors but also caught the eye of media outlets within the United States and beyond. The campaign’s influence catapulted beyond an in-house mailing list and reached a broader audience as a result of enormous earned media. A simple step into the realm of creative charitable fundraising enables you to boldly position your organisation to receive heightened visibility through social or traditional media. Often, it is difficult for staff to consistently infuse creativity and ingenuity, so turn to your volunteers and donors. Solicit ideas for fundraising campaigns, donor experiences and other face-to-face engagement opportunities. Publicly credit volunteers or donors who help reshape your traditional approach to philanthropy ­– this indicates your charity values the ideas of stakeholders, welcomes a new perspective and possesses a commitment to deliver fun, inclusive and inventive mission advancement for many generations.