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Inside this issue:

Smooth Passages: Ten Tips for Surviving the Transition from Capital to Operating

From the Grassroots Up: Building a Museum Collaborative in North Carolina

Board Development: The Cornerstone of Effective Fund-Raising

Claiming a Place for Science: Britain's Lottery-Funded Science Centers and Museums

International Update: News from the Networks


Browse Back Issues ASTC Dimensions: May/June 2001
May/June 2001:
Building a Base of Support
Smooth Passages: Ten Tips for Surviving the Transition from Capital to Operating

By Leonard J. Aube

The California Science Center in Los Angeles (formerly the California Museum of Science and Industry) is an institution undergoing major reinvention and expansion. Our board-adopted master plan calls for the addition, replacement, or renovation of all existing facilities—a total of some 700,000 square feet—in three phases over approximately 20 years. The opening of our new building in 1998 marked the culmination of Phase I and represented more than 10 years of planning, construction, and public/private fund-raising.

Like many institutions involved in lengthy and intense capital campaigns, we focused in Phase I on achieving our capital goal ($130 million), but gave the operating fund considerably less attention. Consequently, the transition from planning to opening and running a new institution exposed both professional staff and volunteer leadership to unforeseen challenges.

Fortunately, we now have the opportunity to capture what we learned from Phase I and apply it to phases II and III. Consultation with colleagues across the country confirms that our experiences have not been unique. Making the transition from "capital" to "operating" has a dramatic impact on large and small institutions alike. For some, the process may lead to a fight for survival itself.

Anecdotes about transitions could easily fill this publication. The purpose of the present article is to provide a few tips on fund-raising, board development, and marketing. Museums and science centers are multifaceted, complex organisms, and these suggestions are not "one size fits all." Consider them food for thought from one participant who hopes to find smoother sailing in the next transition from capital to operating.

1. Include all or a major portion of first-year operating expenses in your capital campaign goal.
This advice is particularly important for start-ups. Raising enough money to cover operating expenses as well as capital costs is difficult, yes, but not impossible. For most museums, the relative scale of the operating budget pales in comparison to the goal of a major capital fund drive. Having substantial dollars in the bank gives staff and volunteer leadership the chance to catch their breath while adapting to a significantly changed environment. Be sure to "fire-wall" those dollars for their intended timing and purpose.

2. Set aside an amount equal to half your initial marketing budget for marketing in months 15 to 24.
Many science centers and museums come out of the gate strong, only to find themselves looking for visitors in year two and beyond. Diminishing earned revenue places a high demand on every dollar just when the institution could benefit from being visible in the marketplace again.

3. Solicit three-year "charter memberships" at start-up.
Virtually every museum experiences a spike in community participation at all levels just prior to, and through, the first year of operation. Then the bottom seems to fall out. By seeking a longer membership commitment when enthusiasm is highest, even if it means offering a modest discount for the second and third years, you begin the process of turning benefits-driven supporters into mission-driven donors.

4. Establish higher expectations for board members' annual giving.
Capital campaigns provide an incentive for board members to give to their maximum capacity—or at least to reexamine the firmness of their financial commitment. An increase in their annual giving forms a basis for seeking higher levels of support throughout the community. After a successful capital campaign, some museums raise expectations for board members' annual giving by 100 percent or more.

5. Within the first year, solicit every capital campaign donor for an annual fund gift.
Campaign donors have a major stake in the success of the institution. Some science centers frame their second request in the form of meeting increased "needs." A better approach is to emphasize carrying forward the "strengths" or "vision" of the campaign.

6. Develop and sustain a budget for market and visitor research.
Research that quantifies and proves the impacts, challenges, and strengths of your institution is invaluable in developing a compelling case for operating support.

7. Identify and enlist new board members in the year before a new facility opens.
The visibility of an institution's capital campaign can enhance its prospects of enlisting new community and financial resources. Ask your board nominating committee to approach potential new members during the 12 months leading up to the opening. The influx of vigor and leadership could be critical to a successful transition from capital to operating.

8. Develop budget and staffing models that allow for a reduction in attendance and earned income in year two.
Euphoric over seemingly endless numbers of visitors passing through the turnstiles, newly launched science centers may develop a case of administrative atrophy and be slow to reduce spending when the inevitable downturn occurs. Prudent budgeting can help an institution ride out what may be a 40 to 50 percent drop in attendance and earned income in year two.

Equally important is a strategy for retaining staff beyond the first year. Employees who guide major aspects of successful campaigns are prime targets for recruiters. When experienced personnel leave, they take institutional memory with them, and stakeholder relationships suffer setbacks—all at a time when the institution is attempting to find a solid, operating foundation.

9. Hold a special event for major donors 12 to 15 months after opening.
A gala luncheon or similar event at the museum at the start of the second year provides an opportunity to update contributors on the results of their investment. Celebrate your successes and share what you've learned about your impact on the community. Adding a thoughtful presentation on short- and long-term goals can lay the foundation for securing annual support (and major gifts) for five years or more.

Encourage senior staff to participate in other community organizations.
For any institution, success often depends on significant investment by a large segment of the community. This is not a one-way street. By making it possible for senior executives and top-level managers to join and work actively in local organizations, your science center can position itself as an indispensable part of community life.

Leonard Aube is senior vice president for development and marketing at the California Science Center, Los Angeles.
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