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HANDS ON: Meleah Spencer, executive director for the Discovery Center of Springfield Inc., says inspiring the next generation of scientists is a core tenet of the museum.
SBJ photo by WES HAMILTON
HANDS ON: Meleah Spencer, executive director for the Discovery Center of Springfield Inc., says inspiring the next generation of scientists is a core tenet of the museum.

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Discovery Center depends on fundraising to inspire kiddos to become the next great scientists

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The Discovery Center of Springfield Inc.’s logo is easily recognized traveling east or west down St. Louis Street. The bright yellow and navy blue symbol adorns the back wall of the museum’s property and greets visitors at its front entrance.

It may have never been there without the minds of the Junior League of Springfield, the Greene County Medical Society Alliance and other community leaders who founded the museum after the idea sparked in 1991.

Its doors would not open, however, until Jan. 25, 1998. A great deal of planning had to take place first, according to its website, after the purchase of three side-by-side 1920s-era buildings in 1992, where the museum stands today. Funds were raised for renovation, exhibit design and installation, educational programs, regional marketing and to set up the operational structure of the organization.

Nearly 20 years after opening, the educational activity center now offers 60,000 square feet of interactive exhibits, program space and classrooms/labs. It operates with an annual budget of $1.2 million, Executive Director Meleah Spencer says.

Spencer knows Springfield is much smaller than the metropolitan areas of Kansas City and St. Louis. The St. Louis Science Center’s budget, for example, is about $20 million, she says, for comparison.

It hasn’t stopped her from wanting to create amenities on par and focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education at an affordable price.

“The workforce is telling us, we need more people that are involved in STEM,” Spencer says. “So places like the Discovery Center are a must.”

Spencer believes in inspiring kids to pursue science from early on.

“If we wait until they’re in high school, we’ve missed the opportunity,” she says.

Fundraising is vital for the Discovery Center, especially considering the financial struggles it’s facing. In December 2016, Springfield Business Journal reported the center had posted annual revenue losses amounting to $1.7 million in at least the last four years.

“We do have a gap in our operational revenue,” says Ashlee Ifland, the museum’s director of marketing and advancement.

For example, she says the admittance cost per person, which contributes to the museum’s revenue, is higher than what it actually charges.

“Knowing that the true cost of admission is $25 per person, but we’re charging as low as $6 per person, we’re going to have a gap in revenue. We do have to fundraise for that,” Ifland explains.

Members of the military can enter the museum for $8, while children, adults and seniors pay $8-$12. Groups of 12 or more can enter for $6 per person.

Spencer acknowledges the recent financial challenges and says the center is committed to upping its fundraising game. That’s why employees in the administration office are currently preparing for the second annual adults-only Night at the Museum event, scheduled Sept. 30. Last year, the fundraiser generated about $100,000. That’s a good chunk of its $982,000 in 2016 revenue.

“We really wanted to invite the community into our center to see firsthand what they’re supporting and why it’s important to support,” Spencer says.

For $100 a ticket, the event provides adults a chance to explore exhibits, sip science-themed cocktails and participate in more advanced demonstrations.

“Some might include fire,” Spencer teases. “It’s very rewarding to see people learning even at an adult age.”

Additionally, businesses and individuals also can pay to be a sponsor of the museum. Sponsorships range from $500 to $10,000. Ifland estimates the museum raises roughly $442,000 in sponsorships annually.

Color-Graphic Printing Inc. President and CEO Grant Johnson says his company began contributing to the Discovery Center three years ago.

“We like what they stand for,” Johnson says. “They’re really trying to promote science among young kids.”

For example, student scholarships are made possible by fundraising.

“Last year, we provided 3,000 kids – with free and reduced lunches – field trip scholarships that amounted to $18,000,” Ifland says.

Aside from the museum’s admission costs and a gift shop near its front desk, museum revenue also comes from memberships, raising $85,000 annually, Ifland says.

Annual memberships range $50-$95, granting kids, parents and grandparents admission, as well as discounts for workshops and birthday parties.

One of the perks to members is a partnership with the Association of Science-Technology Centers, wherein Discovery Center members can participate in its Travel Passport Program.
 
“It gives our members access to more than 300 museums worldwide,” Ifland says.

New membership sales were up a healthy 13 percent last year, Ifland says.

Spencer says the museum also earns income through rentals, though the usage fluctuates.

“We get people that want to have a family friendly venue to get married in, so we have weddings here,” Spencer says.

Businesses also may use the auditorium, for example, for corporate events or large meetings, though the entire museum may be rented out.

Booking most events at the Discovery Center ranges in price from $450 to $2,500 per event, Spencer says, based on needs and space. Birthday room rentals start at $65.

But nothing contributes to the museum’s operation quite like fundraising does, even if it means tons of planning. Contributions to the museum make up for 45 percent of its revenue, Ifland says.

“I think you could talk to anyone in a nonprofit and they’re going to tell you fundraising is a challenge,” Spencer says.

Still, the Discovery Center has no plans to increase prices or cut back on the opportunities.

“We’re going to continue to provide scholarships and we’re going to continue to provide those discounts,” Ifland adds. “Because that’s the mission of the Discovery Center.”

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Julie Reynolds

It is an honor to serve on the Board of The Discovery Center and to get to work with this amazing executive director. The Discovery Center inspired the career paths of my three daughters in the STEM fields of study. I am excited to get the chance to pass that spark along to other young students.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017
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