Activity 5A: Focus

Polar bear jumping sea ice floes

Building Relationships with Elected

It’s good to have friends in high places. But how do you make them? And once you’ve made them, how can they help you advance your mission?

As zoos and aquariums, we play important roles in our communities as economic drivers and gathering centers, and elected leaders understand this. Likewise, we rely on governments for funding, partnerships and other resources. Building relationships takes time, and the work is never complete.

Who at your organization should be a spokesperson?

Your elected leaders—including those in city, state, regional, federal government and others—want and need to know what’s important to you. And by “you,” we mean YOU! Our leaders want to connect with the staff doing the actual work with youth, animals, conservation and the community—not just the people on your executive team! The messenger is often as important as the message, and as a person with specific expertise, you bring a powerful credibility and authenticity to your organization.

Senator Merkley with a seal in a zoo

Photo: Oregon Zoo

Senator Merkley with a seal.

Show don’t tell

Meeting with your leaders in your state capital, DC or wherever they work is great. But getting them to come to you is even better.

A tour of your zoo, aquarium or field conservation site can provide elected leaders with a deeply impactful opportunity to experience and understand your work firsthand. Experiencing it makes it more memorable, and makes your message stickier.

Tips for a successful tour with electeds:

Do your homework. Learn about their priorities and where your common ground is. Can you help each other solve problems? Be strategic about what to include and what not to include in the trip, based on their interests, values and politics. For example: some conservative leaders may not prioritize advancing endangered species recovery, but they might be keenly interested in youth development.

Keep it short. An hour may be the most you can get, so focus on a few tour stops that tell your story and build a case for your impact and needs. Show them something that will make them say “This is amazing, I had no idea your zoo/ aquarium did this kind of meaningful work.”

Kids! Electeds love connecting with youth – whether it’s a teen program or 2nd-grade campers. This is also a significant opportunity for youth to understand the power and influence they have as constituents.

Keep it fun. Include great animal photo ops! Their communications team will love you for it. Photos and videos will come in handy on social media and help the elected official’s staff with other reporting and storytelling efforts.

Ask. If you have an ask (and you should) - make it clear and to the point. Connect it to something they’re learning on the tour. For example: meeting youth from your education program and hearing how it’s improved their lives will make a case for why they should support funding your program. These kinds of stories and experiences will help them advocate for you.

Send them away with a one-pager highlighting what they learned.

Elected official can’t make it? Invite their staff! As the gatekeepers, they are equally important. You should also consider organizing a tour designed specifically for staffers.

If you’ve never engaged with elected leaders, the prospect can seem pretty intimidating. But for the most part, they’re just regular people. As the saying goes, “make a friend before you need a friend.”

Direct engagement

Relationship-building doesn’t just happen in-person, of course. Engagement with electeds is an ongoing, two-way street. We want our electeds to think of us, and lean on our expertise, as they navigate broader issues related to education and conservation.

At every level of government - from city to federal – our elected leaders are working with organizations like ours to address climate change and protect species that are impacted. This includes policy to advance nature-based solutions, sustainable energy, and resiliency for at-risk species and habitats, as well as program funding.

Direct engagement may take the form of providing info, making an ask or saying “thank you.” Whether meeting in-person, virtually, or communicating by email or letter, here are some examples of direct engagement using a hypothetical “Polar Bear Act”:

Inform: Here’s why the Polar Bear Act is important.

Invite: use our physical space or social media to hold a press event or raise awareness about the Polar Bear Act.

Ask: please co-sponsor the Polar Bear Act.

Thank you: Thank you Congresswoman Borealis for co-sponsoring the Polar Bear Act!

There are many vehicles for these forms of engagement. Social media, guest engagement, Op-Eds, press events, emails, letters. The best way to thank electeds is publicly.

Yes, you’re allowed!*

There are common misconceptions about what our organizations are allowed to say and do. The good news is all zoos and aquariums can engage in some form of advocacy. The type allowed is determined by whether you’re a non-profit or government-run organization.

Both are allowed to have positions on issues, engage with legislators, gather public comments and support legislation. Non-profits have a little more freedom in that they may be able to support ballot initiatives that people vote on.

*The information in this section is intended for educational purposes only and does not replace independent legal advice nor is an attorney-client relationship is created. Each person and entity in encouraged to speak with legal counsel for legal advice.


  • Who are your U.S. Senators or Representatives? Do they serve on any committees related to education, conservation or other relevant areas? Are they champions for any bills that could help your organization? What are your shared values?

  • Based on those shared values, what would an ideal tour of your organization look like?

Polar bear mom and her twin cubs waiting for the sea ice to freeze

Photo: BJ Kirschhoffer / Polar Bears International


Continue on to Activity 5B–Explore.