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Philanthropy Journal of North Carolina – Exploris’ failure is its denial

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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 legacy of the Exploris children’s museum in Raleigh is one of disgrace.

What is shameful is not that this community spent millions of dollars to open a children’s museum that failed. That is simply a huge disappointment.

The tragedy is that Exploris and its backers refused to acknowledge the failure and instead threw millions more down the drain.

Enriching the lives of children is the most important investment we can make. The challenge is to invest wisely.

Equally challenging is having the common sense and backbone to acknowledge failure and to avoid slapping million-dollar band-aids on a dysfunctional operation – millions desperately needed for the critical problems facing our community.

The Exploris experience offers a clinic on the pitfalls that await promising ideas and well-meaning donors.

Exploris was a promising idea and might have worked. But the museum is like a gee-whiz toy that looks spiffy on the store shelf but is not much fun to play with in a child’s hands.

Exploris simply never found its focus – a problem that was apparent from the get-go, when its leaders initially named it an “experience,” and even corrected people who referred to it as a “museum.”

And while it aimed to use technology to teach children about the world, its Web site featured razzle-dazzle gimmicks but failed to offer substantive content or online functions to truly plug youngsters into the global information economy.

Despite its underlying mediocrity, Exploris enjoyed generous support at a time when the economy was booming, and it seemed immune to criticism because of its focus on children.

Donors and government officials also found it easy to hand millions of dollars over to Exploris because of who was doing the asking.

Had the fundraising pitch not come from Exploris co-founder Gordon Smith, a familiar face who hails from an old Raleigh family, donors and local government officials might not so easily have forked over $50 million without tougher scrutiny of the museum’s business plan or performance.

At some point, the museum’s leaders and funders must have seen that Exploris was not working because it had failed to find the right formula to truly engage children.

Yet even after it became clear that Exploris would not work, its leaders and funders wasted still more precious dollars that could have supported proven or promising children’s programs.

At that point, by continuing to ask for money and continuing to donate it, Exploris and its backers were investing not in a promise, but in denial and failure.

Exploris was supposed to teach children about the world.

Instead, it is going to end up teaching adults to use a lot more common sense in their philanthropy.

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