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Philanthropy Journal of North Carolina – Time for change at Exploris

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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 needs an intervention.

The museum’s backers must decide whether to sign a do-not-resuscitate order for Exploris, or to try and revive the financially ailing museum.

If they opt to try to salvage it, they must be willing to force the current leadership to quit, and to invest what’s needed to reshape the museum into an enterprise that justifies the community’s support.

Hooked on government and donor investment that now exceeds $50 million, the children’s museum still is bleeding red ink.

And the financial collapse for which the museum is headed will gouge a deep hole in efforts to revive downtown – and make it much tougher for the Triangle’s 2,500 charities to coax donors to fund them.

Yet top Exploris officials can’t seem to acknowledge the museum’s illness or share its vital statistics.

It’s time for the museum’s backers, particularly those with philanthropic clout, to confront Exploris’ leaders with the facts of life.

Privately, Exploris’ backers bemoan its chronic problems, and its stubborn refusal to acknowledge or fix them, or to open its books.

Some backers even are talking privately about withholding contributions they promised to make.

Rather than fretting in the wings, however, people who care about our community and its investment in Exploris should take a lead role in urging Exploris’ co-founders Gordon Smith and Anne Bryan to resign.

Their departure, along with that of the entire board, would be in the best interest of the museum they created and the community whose support they won.

Wake County and Exploris’ other major investors then can name an interim board, which should hire an interim turnaround manager.

Together, the interim manager and board should build a new management team and seek the advice of entrepreneurs and leaders of successful museums such as the Museum of Life and Science in Durham, the state Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh and Discovery Place in Charlotte.

They also should write a business plan that would:

* Slash costs.

* Revamp the exhibits and Web site so they are more appealing and engaging for children, and can be adapted quickly to reflect world events such as the Sept. 11 attacks.

* Retool the marketing strategy to persuade more youngsters and parents to make the trek downtown to visit the museum.

* Impose tough financial controls, develop creative fee structures, set ambitious but realistic attendance and revenue goals, and create incentives for the marketing and sales staff.

* Develop partnerships to boost revenues and visitors through joint programming and merchandising options.

In the face of the critical social and economic challenges this community faces, we can no longer afford high-ticket luxury items like Exploris unless it is prepared to function as a businesslike enterprise that supplies a service the market demands.

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