Leadership Gifts Create Ripple Effect in Efforts to Sustain the South Carolina Aquarium

Staff Report From Charleston CEO

Tuesday, May 5th, 2020

For 20 years, the South Carolina Aquarium has stood as a pillar on Charleston’s east peninsula, connecting schoolchildren and guests with animals, science education and conservation work. As our country faces unprecedented hardship in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new generation of board members commits to leading the Aquarium through these unchartered waters.

Though the doors are closed, what goes on within Aquarium walls must continue, especially in the realm of animal care. As operational costs remain on the rise and admission revenue comes to a screeching halt, Aquarium supporters Pam and D. Michael Wilson signified their unfailing support financially, just as they did so in the past when Michael served as CEO of Ingevity. With Pam now serving as board member and Conservation committee chair at the Aquarium, the Wilsons announced a new wave of financial support with a gift of $150,000 toward the Aquarium’s freshly-formed Emergency Relief Fund aimed at sustaining operational needs during closure and responding to community needs through distance learning.

“Michael and I believe that the work of the South Carolina Aquarium and its staff is of vital importance not only to our local community but also to our world. The Aquarium conducts leading-edge research and education in conservation and environmental resilency that is important to us all,” said Pam Wilson. “In addition, they are continuing to rehabilitate sick and injured sea turtles and the thousands of other animals who call the Aquarium home. The animal care is ongoing and costly and requires retention of their well qualified and dedicated staff to make it happen. Until we can get back to visiting inside the walls of the Aquarium, they will need extra financial support from all of us who benefit from and support their mission.    

Inspired by this act of generosity which fell on the anniversary of his father’s passing, chairman of the board Jonathan Zucker matched their gift in memory of his father, Jerry Zucker. Jerry’s leadership as board chair more than 10 years ago enabled the Aquarium to financially stabilize after early hardship. This gift pays homage to his father’s legacy, while also ensuring Jonathan’s vision continues long past this pandemic.

“One of the keys to success that my father shared with me is to lead by example,” said Jonathan Zucker. “I am blessed to follow his guidance and to do so in his memory. I care very deeply about the South Carolina Aquarium, its mission and its incredible team. Just as my father worked tirelessly to stabilize and ultimately free the Aquarium from its burden of debt more than a decade ago, so too – with the help and support of our wonderful senior leadership team, passionate board of directors, devoted team of associates and loyal supporters – will I work to ensure the survival and ultimate sustainability of this critical education and conservation institution during this uncertain time.”

Together, they issued a challenge to fellow board members: join us in keeping this cultural institution and community pillar standing. What followed was nothing short of profound camaraderie in a time of crisis. Gifts began flowing in from both board members and community supporters, along with words of encouragement and testimonials of their time spent connecting to water, wildlife and wild places at the Aquarium.

The Aquarium feels fortunate for the all-hands-on-deck mentality forged by Pam and Michael Wilson and Jonathan Zucker to continue the work within its walls. As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, the Aquarium relies on the support of its paying guests, members, corporate partners and the generosity of its donors to sustain operations. This new crew of board of directors has continued an established legacy of survival set by the very first board, but community response will keep the Aquarium alive.

“Our entire team is emboldened by the remarkable leadership exhibited by our board during these challenging times,” said Kevin Mills, Aquarium president and CEO. “Their efforts will help ensure our animals remain fed, and allow our education and conservation programs to continue to serve our community.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic ultimately passes, the Aquarium’s world beyond its walls will considerably grow in response to the initial leadership gift by the Wilsons through Pam and Michael Wilson Plastic-Free Waters, an Aquarium program aimed at mitigating plastic pollution impacts through outreach, community engagement and conservation fieldwork across the state of South Carolina.

“Plastic pollution in our waterways, with an estimated eight million metric tons being ending up in our oceans every year, is rapidly becoming one of the greatest environmental crises of our time. We must do all we can to raise awareness of this issue to protect marine animals and our food supply,” said Michael Wilson.

This program furthers the Wilson’s original investment two years ago to bring plastic pollution awareness to the Lowcountry, which will now significantly expand the Aquarium’s reach into all areas of the state.