Discovery Place’s Mackay to leave legacy of service, financial stability

Jill Warren Lucas

John Mackay (© Discovery Place)John Mackay, the visionary leader of Charlotte’s Discovery Place, has announced his retirement from the popular science and technology center, effective the end of this year.

“My life and much of my career have been intertwined with Discovery Place and Charlotte Nature Museum, and so the decision to step down is both sad and exciting,” he said in a statement. “I am so proud of the learning experiences that we have provided, and will continue to provide, to people of all ages and diverse backgrounds throughout this region.”

Mackay, 64, has been affiliated with community-based leadership since age 12, when he and his father captured a rattlesnake and brought it to the Charlotte Nature Museum. He was part of the team that planned and opened Discovery Place as a nonprofit in 1981. A major expansion in 2010 more than doubled its original size to 160,000 square feet, which was filled with all-new interactive exhibits. In June, the center was lauded by USA Today as one of the nation’s Top 10 Great Family-Friendly Museums in the USA.

Mackay has served in many roles of the years, including president and CEO since 2000. His upcoming departure caught many in the community by surprise, especially since Mackay participated in a recent news report about the financial stability of the organization compared to some Charlotte-area arts groups. After opening two branch facilities, Discovery Place Kids in Huntersville and Rockingham, negotiations are said to be ongoing for a third location in Pineville.

“His parting actually may have a positive impact on fundraising,” says Jan Doolin, a Durham-based consultant to nonprofits on the topics of strategic and financial planning. “It is a great time to raise a tribute fund to honor the long-term service of a beloved administrator.”

Doolin, who will present a Philanthropy Journal workshop on Planned Giving in November, said the goodwill Mackay engendered over his long career could translate into significant donations.

“People trust leadership and integrity. They respect that he’s given his life to the service of an organization and to his community,” Doolin says. “If, in the balance of the year, a fund was set up to recognize his achievement and contributions to the organizations, it would be a wonderful fundraising opportunity as a tribute to him. It might even lead to a named permanent endowment.”

Robert Bush, interim director of Charlotte’s Arts and Science Council, doubts a named campaign would be launched at this time since Discovery Place recently announced a major initiative to provide professional development for educators of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). “It’s up to their board, of course,” Bush says. “But given his leadership on STEM matters, they might tie those things together.”

Bush had nothing but good words for Mackey and the timing of his announcement. “He is leaving Discovery Place in very good hands, with a great board and leadership team in place,” he says. “Leaving the organization in tip-top shape is the kind of thing you wish all leaders would do.”

Discovery Place last week announced that its board of trustees has formed a search committee, led by Dr. Joan Lorden of UNC-Charlotte and Mark McGoldrick of Home Services Lending, to conduct a national search for a new chief executive.

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