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Philanthropy Journal of North Carolina – Exploris should pull the plug

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(Editor’s note: The Philanthropy Journal 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

The Exploris children’s museum in Raleigh is a philanthropic failure – and should shut down and work with its backers to figure out precisely why it failed.

By closing its doors, opening its books and participating in a brutally honest post-mortem, this philanthropic sinkhole might redeem itself by serving as a case study.

Its lesson is that all nonprofits, donors and government funders need to be more accountable, disciplined and engaged in raising and investing charitable dollars.

An alternative last-ditch option – and the only way to salvage Exploris, if at all — is for Wake County and other major donors to clean house.

If they opt to give Exploris yet another chance, they should replace the board and management and demand that the new leadership revamp the museum’s business plan, find entrepreneurial partners and strategies, slash costs and meet rigorous attendance and revenue goals.

The facts, as reported recently by The Business Journal and later by The News & Observer, are that Exploris is deep in debt, suffering heavy losses and still expecting donors and taxpayers to bail it out – despite having siphoned more than $50 million in private and public dollars that could have supported other more pressing community needs.

Exploris, for example, spent $6.46 million in fiscal 2001 but generated less than $700,000 from memberships, admissions and other fees.

The museum ended its fiscal year $3.3 million in the hole, even deeper than its $2.4 million deficit a year earlier. And it spent 44 percent of its budget – or $2.9 million — on salaries and benefits for 60 employees. That’s more than $48,000, on average, per employee.

It has a debt of $5 million, gets more than one budget dollar in five from Wake County and paid $500,000 over the past two years for outside marketing and advertising consultants.

It also paid $115,390 to a fundraising consultant, Julia Bryan, who is the sister of Anne Bryan, the museum’s president and co-founder.

Despite those costs – which don’t even count the bill for operating Exploris Middle School or museum merchandising projects – Exploris simply is not pulling in paying customers.

The museum attracted 135,000 customers between its October 1999 opening and July 2000, drew 100,000 the following year and expects to attract 210,000 this fiscal year and more than 240,000 next year.

To put those numbers in perspective, Exploris expects to spend $22.50 per visitor in the fiscal year that begins July 1 – well over twice the national average for children’s museums of $9.96.

Yet the attendance increases it is projecting depend largely on its new IMAX theater that opened in November 2001, and for which Exploris received $11.9 million from Raleigh and Wake County.

But this prosthetic device cannot fix or hide the museum’s congenital lameness.

Despite the disgraceful tab Exploris has run up, children and their families are voting with their feet and avoiding this turkey, which just will not fly. And many of the children who do go are unwitting customers, herded to the museum on school trips.

Exploris co-founder Gordon Smith has been dubbed a visionary, but the vision that Exploris has offered to donors, funders and taxpayers consists of excess and denial.

Smith and Anne Bryan can’t seem to come clean about the intrinsic problems they face, or to genuinely seek ideas about entrepreneurial strategies and partners to turn their stumbling operation around.

Instead, they still insist Exploris is on track and will do better – and that they expect continuing taxpayer support and need more contributed dollars.

The cash fix that Exploris craves can be put to far better use. Our city, region and state – despite the affluence we enjoy – suffer from critical social and economic problems.

The $50 million for which Exploris already has soaked us could have helped address some of those problems. They are far too serious – in the immediate needs they create and the long-term challenges they represent – to waste another penny indulging this exercise in futility without wholesale changes in its leadership and operation.

The individuals, organizations and government agencies that have – despite obvious warning signs – helped keep Exploris afloat, should work hard to exercise greater scrutiny in investing the philanthropic dollars for which they are stewards.

Exploris may have sprung from a promising idea, but it spilled $50 million down the drain. Its greatest value now would be to help us all learn how to avoid repeating its failure to fulfill its promise.

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