Philanthropy journal – Come fill the cup – An accounting is needed

(Editor’s note: Nonprofitxpress is a publication of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which has given Exploris $190,000. These views do not necessarily reflect those of the foundation.)

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — Like the emperor in the fairy tale, fundraising at the Exploris children’s museum in Raleigh has no close.

And like the emperor’s subjects, donors and taxpayers who have footed the bill for Exploris deserve to know the facts.

The museum, not yet two years old, has raised nearly $50 million from well-meaning donors and government officials — diverting critical dollars that could have been used to address the pressing social needs facing our region, including the job of improving the lives of our poorest children.

The museum also must repay $5 million in bank loans and is building a taxpayer-financed IMAX theater to boost attendance – despite little guarantee the theater’s attendance will live up to advanced billing.

As if all that weren’t enough, Exploris is holding out its cup yet again.

Saying it didn’t raise enough money in its initial capital campaign because it instead had to lobby for the IMAX theater, museum officials have launched the quiet phase of a new campaign to raise $8.5 million more.

That reasoning is weak at best: Imagine a child spending the summer lobbying a parent for an increase in allowance, and then asking for an extra bonus as well because the time spent lobbying for the increase kept the child from working at a summer job.

The museum also has secured another $1.5 million from Wake County, which already pays $750,000 a year to help Exploris maintain its complex.

Yet the museum did not even conduct a feasibility study for the campaign.

“We feel like we know our constituents and our supporters well,” says Anne Bryan, Exploris’ president.

Sadly, that attitude may reflect a far more troubling problem at Exploris.

Donors have been willing to swallow the largely unchallenged claims that Exploris makes about its value to kids and the local economy to justify its continuing pitch for public and private dollars.

Yet Exploris seems to take that support for granted, as if it simply were entitled to the region’s charity and taxpayer dollars.

The museum, for example, did not submit plans for its new capital campaign to the Major Campaign Review Board, a volunteer group that helps charities plan and schedule campaigns to raise $500,000 or more.

The review board was set up precisely to help charities think through the need for the money they’re seeking, and assess their prospects for raising it.

An equally important role of the board is to keep too many charities from raising money at the same time, and to give foundations, corporations and individual donors advanced warning on big fundraising campaigns that are in the works.

Scrutiny by the independent review board might have raised some tough and constructive questions about how Exploris has used the money it has raised so far, and about the reception the museum could expect from donors asked to absorb yet another solicitation – particularly one driven in large part by the need to pay off debt.

Times are tough for everybody. The slumping economy has forced employers, government, taxpayers, charities and public schools to be painfully honest about their finances and management, and to make tough decisions about streamlining their operations.

Charities, in particular, face increasing demands from donors to justify funding requests by clearly spelling out the impact that contributions would have on meeting the needs of constituents.

This growing focus on outcomes reflects a desire on the part of individual donors and organized philanthropy alike for charities to operate in a more businesslike fashion and to recognize the realities of surviving in a competitive marketplace.

Exploris does not exist in a vacuum, and it cannot expect to keep holding out a cup for donors and taxpayers to fill without clearly demonstrating self-scrutiny and self-discipline of its own.

Because taxpayer dollars account for the bulk of spending for Exploris, Wake County and museum officials alike should be held accountable for how Exploris spends the money it gets.

In particular, Exploris owes taxpayers and donors an explanation of precisely what it spent on developing its exhibits, how much it spends per visitor and how much it spends on senior staff – and how those costs compare to spending by comparable museums nationally and in the Triangle.

Exploris may be the only museum of its kind in town, but its performance can and should be measured against children’s museums in other communities, and against the standards of management and accountability we have a right to expect from charities.

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