Zoos and aquariums claim to accomplish their conservation mission, in part, through the learning experiences they create for visitors to their institutions. In this paper, the authors explore the disconnect that exists between mission, the experiences provided, assessments of success by zoos and aquariums, and the perspectives of the visitors, funders and social influencers who intersect with these institutions. Public perceptions of zoos are key and greatly under-examined in the effort to advance a conservation mission effectively and efficiently within communities. Based on their research in the United States, the authors propose a new framework for studying and measuring how zoos and aquariums are valued in society in order to provide zoo and aquarium professionals with the tools for more targeted assessment of the greatest opportunities for social impact. They offer suggestions on how community perspectives can be leveraged in programme design to promote environmental sustainability, and what further research may be required to engage fully with the question of how zoos and aquariums can contribute to a culture of sustainability. The authors conclude that by thinking about how the social value of zoos is perceived from a community lens, the zoo and aquarium community will be better equipped to align programmes with community need without compromising their core conservation mission.