“I’ve always been hard-wired for critters,” said Karen Burns, senior vice president at the Indianapolis Zoo. “I think it’s genetic.”
Burns—who presides over the institutional advancement, marketing, membership, creative services and communications departments—has overseen the zoo through many of its major achievements, including opening such exhibits as White River Gardens, the Dolphin Adventure Dome and the latest addition, the Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center, which led to the largest attendance month in the zoo’s history.
“The Indianapolis community is not afraid to dream big,” Burns said. “And no one will ever accuse the zoo of not dreaming big. We are the product of our community.”
Burns—who has an undergraduate degree in sociology with a minor in public relations and an MBA—cultivated her taste for nature-focused attractions as part of the initial crew that launched Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1995.
“What it shared with the zoo,” Burns said, “is this great entrepreneurial culture. When you start up like that, you do everything. Whatever it takes.”
Those startup lessons served her well when she was headhunted for the job in Indianapolis, where she is now directly responsible for more than $13 million in annual operating revenue. “I came here with an understanding that we had to run our business smartly and efficiently,” she said, “with no safety net. We were working without a significant endowment back then.”
Her efforts included introducing a gift challenge program that kicked annual giving up 35 percent in a year. She was capital campaign director for an $11 million campaign in 2000, a $31 million effort in 2005, and a $30 million initiative in 2010. The burden of attendance is on her as well, and she’s led the zoo to an increase from 850,000 visitors in 1999 to 1.28 million in 2014.
The secret of the zoo’s fundraising success?
“We involve our donors,” she said. “They are part of the process and part of our family. When we plan something, they are a part of it.”
Beyond the fences and walls of the zoo, Burns will be taking over as president of the Downtown Kiwanis Club of Indianapolis (the largest in the state) and works with Downtown Indy, formerly Indianapolis Downtown Inc.
“I want this to be the kind of community I want to live in,” she said. “If people before me didn’t do the hard work and volunteering, Indianapolis wouldn’t be the kind of place it is today.”
She added: “I’ve been fortunate to have several great mentors,” zoo CEO Michael Crowther among them. And she passes on those lessons—and adds her own—for others.
“I just had two employees leave to take great jobs elsewhere, and I celebrated their success. As much as I want them to stay at the zoo forever, part of our job is to help people to take that next step.
“And maybe that former employee can turn into a donor,” she said. “If they make a good living, they can donate back.”•
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