I am amazed, in awe, and inspired by the way many nonprofit leaders – many of whom are women – are leading their organizations through the uncertainty brought on by COVID-19. So much so, that I’ve decided to do a special series about Nonprofit Executive Women who are living in the trenches, working to keep their nonprofit running, and doing critical work to continue to serve individuals and families during this crisis. I’m curious about their work and the people they’re serving, their biggest concerns, and how they are taking care of themselves and those around them. So I asked!

Karen Burns, Executive Vice President, Indianapolis Zoo

Karen has been with the Indianapolis Zoo since 1999.  She has direct responsibility for key management areas, including institutional advancement, membership, marketing, creative services, public relations, education, and conservation. She serves as the Executive Director for the Indianapolis Prize, the world’s leading award for animal conservation. Karen led the team that conducted a comprehensive rebranding of the Indianapolis Zoo from a much-loved community attraction into a world-class conservation institution. Now, she’s leading the organization through a pandemic.

Q.  Who are you serving and how are you serving them during this crisis?

A.  Our three top priorities during this crisis are the animals in our care, our staff, and our community. Caring for animals is essential work and something Zoo staff does every day with great passion and dedication. The Zoo has prepared and regularly updates multiple emergency response plans including a response to the pandemic. The plan gave us an initial roadmap to protect the health of our animals and staff, but nothing could have fully prepared us for the scale and scope of our current situation.

Early on in the crisis we required staff to self-quarantine if they had any symptoms of illness, had been out of the country, traveled to states with high numbers testing positive for the virus, or may have otherwise been exposed to the virus. Non-essential staff began working from home and a plan was implemented that organized the animal care and life support staffs into isolated teams to prevent cross contamination between the teams.

After safeguarding the health of our animals and our staff, our next priority is the financial well-being of our staff. We continue to work to retain our regular full and part-time workforce through thoughtful budget reductions, a cash reserve fund, and support through the CARES Act.

Our staff’s mental health is also something we are trying to address. Working from home is a very new situation for many people, compounded by the challenges of other family members at home. This situation is frightening, and I worry that some people may be feeling vulnerable, isolated, or otherwise overwhelmed. We are using the available technology to keep everyone connected to the Zoo, even if they are working from home, through a series of daily, weekly, or bi-weekly video check-ins. It is important for everyone to have up-to-date information, even when the news is not good. We also have counseling and support services available for staff and their family members.

“We are all in this together” is being used a lot lately, but it is true. The Zoo is part of the fabric of this community. We have been working to support the community with positive and upbeat messages. The animals at the Zoo always bring a smile to my face, so in this time when people cannot visit the Zoo, we have launched a daily feature to bring photos and videos of the animals at the Zoo to them. Our Membership Department also created a daily newsletter for families called Species S’Cool that provides information on one of the animals who live at the Zoo and fun activities to help occupy children and adults. Finally, our Hix Education staff is working directly with teachers to provide them with additional online content for students. 

Q.  Have you added, changed, or deleted any services because of COVID-19?

A.  The Zoo is not open to the public and camps, classes, and many special events have been canceled. Our Zoo Trips to places like Africa, Alaska, and Panama have been postponed to next year.

Q. What are your biggest concerns right now?

A. Getting through this immediate crisis and keeping everyone safe and healthy is a top priority. We are now looking to the future – and when we reopen what will our new normal look like. We know the financial impact on our community and the Zoo will be significant and is likely to continue to impact us well into the future. We need to continue to be proactive and manage our operations thoughtfully with our focus on our mission to advance animal conservation. But I worry about the ripple effect – the Zoo will be cutting expenditures and how will that impact our vendors and their families? How does that play out in our community as others reduce their operations and expenditures? We will feel the effects for years and some of our valued partners will not be able to weather this storm – and that makes me very sad.

Q.  What is your biggest need right now and how can people support your organization?

A.  If people are able to donate to the Zoo and renew their memberships, we hope that they will. When we get the “all-clear” that we can safely reopen, we encourage people to come back to the Zoo. We want everyone to know that all of the animals at the Zoo are being well taken care of and that we will all be here for you when we get through this crisis. Follow us on Facebook, where we are #BringingTheZooToYou #ClosedButStillCaring

Rocky the orangutan is especially missing his fans!

Q.  What are you reading, watching, listening to, or doing to get through this?

A.  I thought I might have more time to catch up on my reading list than I have, but among the books on my  “to-read table” is Rules of Civility by Amor Towles. I read his A Gentleman in Moscow a few months ago and was captivated. It is set in 1922 in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution about a Russian aristocrat who is sentenced to house arrest in a grand hotel. It seems an especially interesting story given our new stay-at-home lifestyle. 

Otherwise I have been cooking more, Face Timing more, and doing an altogether poor job of exercising from home. And yes – I did watch Tiger King, but that is a subject for a very different blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *