One Wild Job
Feathers, fins, and financial planning all in a day's work for MBA grad
June 15, 2016
On a typical weekday in late April, the Maryland Zoo attracts 3,000 schoolchildren, volunteers, members, and visitors.
But one warm and sunny Tuesday last spring, amidst apprehension and anxiety after the unrest following Freddie Gray’s funeral, the Zoo could have decided to keep its gates closed.
The night before, recalls Nancy Noppenberger, MBA ’91, “the Zoo’s leadership huddled and said, ‘What do we do tomorrow? The school groups aren’t allowed to come. The governor has declared a state of emergency in the city.’ But we have people who are paid hourly who are expecting to come to work, and we’ve got the public who expect us to be open.”
So the Zoo opened. Attendance was low that week, but that didn’t matter.
What mattered, Noppenberger said, was providing a safe place and a sense of normalcy for the Zoo’s employees—many of whom live in the neighborhoods that were affected by the unrest and upheaval—and for its visitors.
“We opened because we could be open. And we wanted people to see that we were taking care of this place, that we were here for them.”
There were 72 visitors that day. Noppenberger would know. As chief financial officer of the Maryland Zoo, she keeps a record of every person who walks through the turnstiles—as well as the weather conditions and any special exhibits or programs that would affect attendance on a given day.
By that weekend, however, attendance was on the rise. People came to see the animals. And they came to walk, bike, and explore Druid Hill Park.
Taking a leap
When she assumed the role of CFO in January 2008, Noppenberger was no stranger to the Maryland Zoo—or to the city of Baltimore, for that matter. A product of Baltimore City Public Schools who received a B.S. in Economics from the University of Maryland, College Park, before earning her Master’s in Business Administration from Loyola in 1991, Noppenberger was nearing the end of her six-year tenure as a member of the Zoo’s board of trustees.
Joining the Zoo and the nonprofit world was a considerable shift from the banking sector, where Noppenberger had worked for more than two decades.
But, as she puts it, “If you’re going to take a leap, take a leap. The Zoo took a risk in hiring me, and I took a risk in accepting the position. And it has all worked out beautifully.”
Noppenberger is charged with managing the finance, risk management, and technology departments at the Zoo, with involvement in visitor services, conservation and education programs, and entertainment and fundraising efforts. She also serves as the primary analyst on the financial impacts of all other aspects of the Zoo’s business, including capital projects and corporate contracts, marketing strategies, and personnel.
Education in action
The Zoo’s personnel include roughly 250 employees from Baltimore City and surrounding areas in both seasonal and full-time positions.
“We do everything we can to hire city residents, and we are as inclusive as possible,” Noppenberger said.
Through dual employment programs with other Baltimore-based not-for-profit organizations, like the Living Classrooms Foundation, the Zoo is able to provide training for first-time workers and place employees in positions that best fit their skills and experience.
“Through careful fiscal management, budgeting, and planning, we continue to offer people a view to the past and to the future: to the past, being that our zoo is a lovely, old-fashioned, world-class zoological setting—the third oldest zoo in the country—and to the future, in terms of what conservation is and can be.”
Conservation, Noppenberger explains, is about more than saving animals.
“It is about helping those who visit the Zoo understand why we are working to save certain species. Conservation is about education, about getting a message across,” she continued. “We at the Maryland Zoo are particularly good at this education piece.”
During her tenure as CFO, Noppenberger has seen the Zoo’s programs and volunteer opportunities—as well as visitors, exhibits, and conservation efforts—grow in number and in scope.
“I’ve also seen an increase in activity in Druid Hill Park, with people taking advantage of the bike path and coming to explore what is a heavily forested area in the middle of a city,” she added.
“We at the Maryland Zoological Society are stewards of this remarkable asset in the middle of the second biggest park in Baltimore. The Maryland Zoo plays a big part in keeping it safe and enjoyable for the city’s residents and visitors.”
Noppenberger credits Loyola with providing her an education that goes beyond business.
“Loyola taught me the skills to consider others, to be collaborative. The Jesuit side of a business education includes a measure of thoughtfulness, of compassion, of right and wrong,” she said.
“In my work, and when others come to me for guidance, if I don’t know what the right answer is, I am always able to step back and ask, “What’s the right thing to do for the Zoo?’ That’s why we’re here. To take care of this place.”
To hear Noppenberger talk about her work is to hear someone truly passionate for what they do, the greater mission of their organization, and its impact on those it serves, both two- and four-legged.
“There’s a philosophy I live by, that I try to pass on to my children and my mentees: Good leadership takes smarts and guts; the smarts to know what needs to be done, and the guts to do it.”
When she’s not keeping a close eye on attendance and the budget, or stopping to admire the warthogs (her favorite Zoo residents), Noppenberger lives in Catonsville, Md., with her husband, fellow Loyola graduate Lou Noppenberger, ’85, MBA ’92. They have two children.