Turning Fund-Raising Into ‘Friend-Raising’ Charles Bieler Takes a Personal Approach to
Then Charles L. Bieler raises money for the San Diego Zoological Society, he does it with what he says is an unfair advantage.
Sometimes that “advantage” is warm and cuddly, and is on loan from China. Other times it is a picturesque, behind-the-scenes morning walk in the back of Tiger River, Bieler says. It could even be a photo with a cheetah.
Bieler, development director for the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park’s operating organization for 14 years, calls the parks a “living resource.”
Before heading development, Bieler was the Zoological Society’s executive director for 12 years and has the designation of director emeritus.
He’ll retire next month by the time he turns 65, he says, seated in his office at the Zoo.
It’s a Friday afternoon, and families are starting to head home. As the sun shifts west, Bieler is talking about love affairs.
During his tenure at the park, the Zoological Society’s membership has grown from 17,000 to 250,000, with 140,000 additional young “Koala Club” members, he says.
“People always say, ‘Why the success of the San Diego Zoo?’ and I’ve said, ‘Because it’s a love affair between an institution and a community.’ ”
Bieler mentions residents who grow up in San Diego, raise their children, and bring their families and visitors to the parks.
“They’ve supported us,” he continues.
Bieler discusses the business of a zoo or animal park, with words such as “surviving” and “maintaining our image.”
Of the 250,000 households, he says, 40 percent are strictly supporting the Zoological Society because “they believe in what we’re doing.”
Bieler takes them seriously.
“Our members act like shareholders in a business,” he says. “You have to take care of them.”
Bieler is renowned for nurturing.
“There’s only one Mr. Bieler,” says Douglas Myers, the Zoological Society’s executive director. “He’s dedicated to the Zoo, the Wild Animal Park and CRES (the Center for the Reproduction of Endangered Animals).”
Myers has known Bieler for 18 years.
“He’s had the magical touch that made this organization world famous, both nationally and internationally,” Myers says.
“Other than that,” he adds jokingly, “he’s just an average guy.”
Betty Jo Williams, a trustee with the Zoological Society, describes Bieler as a “wonderful people person.”
Throughout his time with the Zoological Society, people often remarked to Bieler that he must love being involved with the Zoo and being in the “animal business,” Bieler says.
“And I always say, ‘Let me put it in perspective ‘” Bieler says. He would then list the numbers of employees, members and visitors at the time.
“We are in the people business,” he’d say.
Fund raising, except for membership, is a separate division. The money raised by Bieler and his development staff of 20 supports improvement projects rather than the parks’ operating budgets.
“My rationale is that I’m not in the fund-raising business,” Bieler says. “I’m in the friend-raising business.”
He doesn’t necessarily ask for money to rebuild the veterinary hospital, Bieler says. “All I do is show them the existing veterinary center, and I say, ‘We need help ‘ and our veterinarian says, ‘I need help, I’d sure like to build a new one ‘ and they say, ‘We want to help.'”
Donors often say they like him because he doesn’t ask, Bieler says. But it’s not always that simple.
“We certainly do some asking to foundations and corporations,” Bieler explains, “but I use the term, ‘We cultivate the hell out of them.'”
People skills were an early lesson for Bieler, who was born into a large family in East Greenville, Pa.
“I do think my style is befriending people,” he says. “As the youngest of nine children, you had to get along if you were going to live in the same household, and we always had fun. We smiled and laughed. It was a feel-good type thing.”
The Road To San Diego
Bieler attended Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania and then eschewed law school plans to enlist in the Army. In 1960, while serving in Europe, he met his wife, Judy, a San Diego native.
They got married after he returned to the States. Bieler took a job with General Motors. He ended up in employee training and human resources.
In 1969, he and his wife moved to San Diego. He quit his job at GM and came to the city unemployed.
Bieler recalls his sister-in-law suggesting he approach the Zoo for a job. He turned down the idea. But when Bieler went to an employment agency, he was told there was an opening in sales and marketing at the Zoo.
He applied and got the job. He quickly became group sales manager.
From there, Bieler’s responsibilities expanded. He helped oversee operations and later became operations manager for the then-new Wild Animal Park.
In early 1973, during a leadership shift, Bieler became interim director. Eight months later, he was offered the job.
He recalls tough times, such as an energy crises in the 1970s that slowed visitor traffic and forced him to tighten budgets. Bieler also recalls the highlights, such as launching the Center for the Reproduction of Endangered Species.
He also met dignitaries, such as Britain’s Prince Philip, as well as celebrities.
One person was actor Jimmy Stewart, who brought his family.
Bieler recalled a time when one of the Zoo’s featured attractions particularly moved Stewart, who had been in the Air Force. “When we took him to the bird show at the Wild Animal Park, and the hawk did the scoop, he had tears in his eyes.
“He said, ‘You know, I’ve flown jets and I’ve flown airplanes, but the aerodynamics of that bird coming down here’ ” Bieler says.
Moments like that are what Bieler will hold onto when he retires. He’s looking forward to traveling with his wife, playing golf, and spending time with his four grandchildren.
“A little baby-sitting, and sort it out,” he says of his upcoming free time. “It’s something I think I’ve got to try.
“I’ve been doing this for 15 years ” He thinks it’s time to pump new blood and energy in the department, he says.
“I think it’s good for the institution and for the people.”
He’s headed development since 1986, a year after stepping down from the executive director position.
The Zoological Society’s board of directors had decided on a “change of direction,” he says. It was “a good time for a change,” he added.
The new position suited him well, Bieler says. As executive director, he had launched the development department years before and understood how to prioritize the work and knew the donors.
One priority is maintaining ties with major donors, Bieler says.
“You bring them back,” he says. The visits show donors the difference their money makes, and other needs to fill, he says.
Bieler agrees with a statement a fund-raising colleague made several years ago: “You find out what step they’re marching to, and you try to get in step with them.”
It’s also important for donors to understand his department’s dedication, Bieler says.
“They can see the people who are working here believe in what we’re doing, and they want to buy in and they want to be a part of it,” Bieler says.
He explains that donating to the Zoo isn’t only about animals, but also education, research, conservation and entertainment.
“It’s a feel-good type thing ” he starts to say, and catches himself. “The next thing, I’m going to do is ask you for money.”