Nonprofits are suffering during the Covid-19 pandemic

By Alexandra Shay Johnson

A lion takes a cat nap at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Illinois. Photo by Alexandra Shay Johnson

You would be hard pressed to find any business sector that has not been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but non-profit organizations that deal with public engagement, such as museums and zoos, have taken an incredibly big financial hit.

These organizations generate a large portion of their revenue in ticket sales and public fundraisers, but struggled to stay afloat as both streams of revenue were cut off in March with nation-wide shut downs.

This forced many organizations to adapt to these restrictions as fast as possible, with little thought given to long term changes and strategies. Most entities that could tried to engage communities in online platforms, but a lot of these platforms do not generate any profit.

As the pandemic drags on with little hope of things returning to their true “normal” anytime soon, staff working for non-profits must face difficult questions about their future and discuss possibilities for alternative ways to raise money.

One local iconic spot that has taken a massive hit by the pandemic is Longwood Gardens located in Kennett Square Pennsylvania. The pandemic took place in the beginning of spring, when this entity is busy planting and pruning gardens and creating various displays for what is supposed to be the “busy season.”

However, the gardens were forced to close their doors for the majority of spring. They did not reopen the gates until June 18, and only members of Longwood Gardens could enter. 

The Philadelphia Zoo was also forced to close its doors until July 9, and is still not entirely open.  All indoor exhibits remain closed to the public over the course of what is usually the busiest season of the year.

These phases of operation force these non-profit institutions to sell tickets at reduced prices and limit the number of guests entering the facility, causing further financial loss. Places like gardens and zoos also faced additional problems when they were forced to shut down, as they struggled to find the money to take care of their animals and plants, as well as pay their staff.

Longwood Gardens experienced record attendance in 2017 with more than 1.5 million visitors, according to its website, and made quite a bit of revenue at $25 for a standard adult ticket.

This year, however, the attendance revenue will be much lower, and while Longwood is now open, timed-tickets are required and many restrictions still apply, resulting in more financial loss. According to its website, the Philadelphia Zoo, whichordinarily“educates more than 1.2 million visitors about animal and environmental conservation,” will also take a large financial hit.

With dismal guest attendance for various non-profit institutions in 2020, many have been forced to make difficult decisions, and many more will be forced to make harder decisions into the future as attendance remains low.

The Philadelphia Zoo had a four-year strategic plan in place for the years 2018-2022, and one major goal was to “contribute to the civic life of our region and our neighboring communities by amplifying the Zoo’s impact on quality of life, conservation and sustainability, and lifelong learning that begins in early childhood,” as stated on its website.  

These entities are often invaluable to the surrounding community, and enrich the entire region by offering educational and enriching experiences for people of all ages.  As we move forward in this crisis, we must adapt and think of ways in which these non-profit organizations can engage the public, but also create and maintain streams of revenue that do not rely heavily on ticket sales.

But even when faced with these difficult conversations and choices, one uneasy question remains: what will be the true cost to local communities if these spaces close down?

Contact Alexandra Shay Johnson at

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