“Nonprofit people are always special, but zoo people are a different breed.”
Laura Rice, MBA, CFRE (09) is the Senior Director of Sustaining Philanthropy at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, the leading international organization for conservation science and animal care. At 450,000 supporters and counting, the Alliance engages one of the largest Zoo memberships in the world.
She’s worked in fundraising and development for over 20 years at a variety of organizations. Besides leading philanthropy at the San Diego Zoo, her most significant position was as Director of Institutional Relations at American Red Cross.
“I’ve worked for some amazing organizations in my career, but I always wanted to work for the zoo,” Rice said. “It’s really hard to get a job here, because no one ever leaves.”
Rice remembers always being interested in working with animals. She wanted to be a veterinarian as a child and was considering pursuing a career helping animals leading up to college.
Just before college, Rice was able to experience oceanography hands-on, including research with local hermit crabs through UC San Diego. The fun she had on that trip was one of the biggest reasons she chose to go to UC San Diego. She entered without declaring a major but was interested in marine biology.
Between freshman and sophomore year of college, however, Rice was in a severe car accident that left her in a coma.
“10% of my brain died, and they thought I would have the brain function of a six-year-old for the rest of my life,” Rice said. “But God is good, I’m pretty determined, and I may be invincible — although we’re not testing that!”
Rice missed classes for one quarter but was able to return to college her sophomore year. Although her recovery had exceeded doctors’ expectations, Rice had lingering challenges for the rest of her college career.
“I really had to learn how to study for the first time, which was difficult at 19 or 20,” Rice said. “School had always come easy to me, so I had to learn these things that had always been a natural outgrowth of who I was.”
Rice described that during her recovery, her brain was going through a second adolescence. However, this gave her the opportunity to evaluate who and what were truly important to her.
“I actually did a deep dive into the religions of the world to make sure that God was God,” Rice said. “I talked a lot with God and screamed a lot with Him… but He knew the resilience that He built in me.”
Rice believes the experience renewed her appreciation for the world around her, especially the small moments that make life special.
“I remember in college I skipped class to just follow a butterfly. I’m sure there are better things than butterflies in heaven, but in my mind, I just thought, ‘God’s creation is phenomenal, and I might never have seen this again.’”
“I remember in college I skipped class to just follow a butterfly,” Rice said. “I’m sure there are better things than butterflies in heaven, but in my mind, I just thought, ‘God’s creation is phenomenal, and I might never have seen this again.’”
During college, she got an internship with Fresh Start Surgical Gifts, which provides reconstructive surgery for kids who’ve had deformities or injuries. Having experienced her own traumas during her car accident, Rice could relate to their physical and psychological challenges. At first, she thought she would be working in marketing, but she connected with another supervisor who offered the chance to write grants. Before that, she didn’t know that philanthropy was a viable career path.
“Wait, I can use my communication skills, make people’s lives better, and they pay you for it?” Rice remembers asking. “Yes, they do!”
After college, Rice worked as a fundraiser for the Mercy Hospital Foundation, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and then the School of Medicine at UCSD. She was laid off from her role at UCSD during the 2008 recession, but then started at the Red Cross.
“Nobody does disaster as well as the Red Cross does,” Rice said. “Getting to help people in the worst moments of their lives was tremendous.”
A highlight from her time there was securing her largest fundraising gift to date — $1.9 Million to help cure Ebola in Africa. The grant was for making maps of different areas, to help ensure that aid could be provided easily. Rice explained this was cutting edge at the time before Google Maps and other GPS smartphone apps had wide usage.
“If a village of tribal people is a three-day walk from a three-day bus ride, and there’s an earthquake, how do you support them?” Rice said. “The money was for people on the ground to build maps of where people are, and where the health centers are — you can’t help someone if you can’t find them.”
During her time at the Red Cross, she got married and had two children. She began to think about completing a graduate degree to continue being strategic about her career in philanthropy.
“I went to UCSD [during undergrad] and did the whole competitive thing there, but for my Master’s, I didn’t want that,” Rice said. “I actually heard an ad for Point Loma’s Master of Business Administration and said, ‘I should look into that.’”
Rice went to a PLNU info night where Bruce Schooling, Ph.D., and Jose Munoz, DBA, talked about the MBA program and their approach to ethics in business. She remembers Munoz explaining that they don’t have a designated ethics course because ethics was a part of every class they taught. Rice knew immediately that this was the program for her.
During the MBA program, Rice focused on nonprofit and international business, and was impacted by the comradery among the professors and the cohort. She finished her graduate degree in 2009.
“My professors and classmates really cared about me. They knew it wasn’t about the rat race — it’s about making a difference.”
“My professors and classmates really cared about me,” Rice said. “They knew it wasn’t about the rat race — it’s about making a difference.”
After finishing up her graduate degree and her seven years at Red Cross, she worked for Girl Scouts San Diego and National University. Then, her dream of working with animals finally overlapped with her expertise in fundraising, and she became the Senior Director of Sustaining Philanthropy for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. She manages annual support and the philanthropy events team, who host 130 events per year, including benefit galas and lunches with the CEO.
“The research we do at the Zoo and the Safari Park makes an impact on wildlife and people worldwide,” Rice said.
She stressed that San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (SDZWA) also works with partner organizations worldwide in its eight conservation hubs, and collaborates to find the best ways to care for animals. She talked about one instance where researchers learned an unlikely solution to keep elephants out of certain areas.
“In Kenya, bee fences are sometimes used to protect crops. Bee hives are hung on fences at elephant ear height,” Rice said. “An elephant’s ears are its most sensitive part, and they don’t like bee stings any more than we do. When you put up a bee fence, it’s nature protecting nature: protecting land, and providing people with a new source of income with honey and honeycomb for candles.”
She also talked about the impact their San Diego-based researchers have had on animal populations worldwide.
“Elephants nurse for a really long time, and the breast milk a 6-year-old [elephant] needs is very different from what an infant needs,” Rice said. “The research we’ve been able to do with breast milk from the elephants in our care has resulted in improved formula given to orphan elephants at elephant sanctuaries in Kenya.”
While supporting existing animal populations, the Alliance also prioritizes animal diversity that’s so important to our world — including bringing back species on the verge of extinction.
“Right now, our incredible scientists are doing amazing research with genomes in our Frozen Zoo® to bring back the northern white rhino,” Rice said. “Cutting-edge science technologies including artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, and embryo transfer are being developed consistent with our vision to lead the fight against extinction.”
Rice explained that the research the Alliance has done with polar bears could not have been done in the wild — especially because of the arctic climate. One project was to test their sensitivity to sound to determine whether the sound of oil drilling would disrupt denning of mother polar bears.
“Imagine you’re in a den with your babies and there’s this loud noise, or vibration — you feel like your world’s coming to an end,” she said. “The research we did got to the International (IOPA) [oil regulations] about where they can drill to protect areas with polar bears.”
It can be a challenge for humans to build trust with animals to ensure they receive the best care. However, once that level of trust is achieved, it can create incredible opportunities to conduct research and gather data on these animals.
“I was talking with one of our giraffe care specialists the other day, and she said ‘It’s all about trust and cookies!’” Rice said. “I guess that’s kind of my parenting style too.”
In addition to fundraising for the conservation projects and wildlife research, Rice goes out of her way to interact with the animals at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park as often as she can.
“I was on the job for a month, and one of my directors said, ‘I know we have our one-on-one right now, but [let’s] have that conversation in front of the giraffe who was born yesterday,’” Rice said. “It’s such an amazing perk.”
Rice explained that, similar to the Red Cross’ mission to aid people in their greatest times of need, the Alliance is working to improve not only the lives of animals around the world, but also improve the wellbeing of wildlife and people — from southern California to Northern Kenya. When wildlife thrives, all life thrives.
“I learn something new every day, and I get to help save God’s creation,” Rice said. “I believe God equipped me specifically to be in this role at this time, and I can’t wait to see what we can do next.”