Springfield, MO

Discovery Center balances operating losses

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During at least the last four years, Discovery Center of Springfield Inc. has posted annual losses amounting to $1.7 million.

Now in its 25th year, the children’s science education museum recorded $500,000 in annual losses in 2012 and 2013, followed by $300,000 losses in each of the next two years, according to 990 forms the tax-exempt nonprofit filed with the IRS.

Meanwhile, the center’s assets and fund balances have dwindled by roughly $1 million during that time.

Discovery Center Executive Director Meleah Spencer came on board in early 2014, inheriting the more sizable losses. She and board treasurer Scott Gold acknowledged the financial struggles but only spoke to the future.

“I’m choosing to look forward, instead of behind,” Spencer said, also declining to disclose the last year the Discovery Center posted profits.

Spencer succeeded longtime Director Emily Fox, who helped establish the center.

Reached by Springfield Business Journal in New Mexico, where she directs the Albuquerque Museum Foundation, Fox said she never met Spencer during the director’s transition.

She acknowledged fundraising support was consistently a challenge.

“We always were having to fundraise. Some years were good, some years weren’t so good,” Fox said. “Ask any nonprofit in town and they will say the same thing. It’s always going to be a precarious situation.”

Discovery Center’s board Treasurer Scott Gold said he sees the financial tides turning.

“The new executive director came in with a new energy. When an organization has settled in to who it is and what it’s been historically, there’s a lot of old paths there,” he said. “I think what the new management does is shake things up a little bit – you’ve got some new energy and new blood.”

Though some revenue is generated by the museum activity, the majority of it comes from donors, Gold said. According to Charity Navigator, an online guide for philanthropists, 59 percent of the Discovery Center’s revenue comes from contributions, gifts, grants and fundraising events. Just over 22 percent is in membership dues and 18 percent is from government grants.

Dan Prater, the founding director of the Center for Nonprofit Leadership at Drury University, said it’s a myth nonprofits don’t turn a profit.

“The truth is nonprofits, just like any other sector, must make a profit or they cannot sustain their operation,” he said. “You can only last a few years in survival mode.”

According to Charity Navigator calculations, Discovery Center has three years of working capital to sustain its level of spending using net available assets as reported on its most recent Form 990. That length of time is on the high end for nonprofits, according to Charity Navigator’s ratings tables.

It’s also performing above average in fundraising efficiency, with fundraising expenses accounting for only 4.7 percent of all costs. The Discovery Center spends 14 cents for every dollar raised, according to the Charity Navigator metrics.

Targeting new fundraising, the Discovery Center in October added the Night at the Museum event.

“Our core focus was to bring community leaders into the center so that they could rediscover how we impact our community by giving each a hands-on experience to interact with the center the way our children do every day,” Spencer said via email. “We felt our inaugural Night at the Museum was a better way to share our story, mission and impact.”

Spencer said donations from the event haven’t been calculated yet. Her goal was to build attendance and with a turnout exceeding 200 people, she considered it a success.

“What we are trying to do is to reach out to those folks in the community that have a passion for science and figure out ways to align those folks with what we do at the Discovery Center,” Gold said. “That’s been our focus on fundraising.”

Also this year, the Discovery Center put two new programs in place: School’s Out and Homeschool.

“We believe profitability will come through new programming that will give value to our community,” Spencer said via email. “Another component to profitability will be increased membership sales.”

In fiscal 2016, membership at the Discovery Center increased 7 percent, and she said income from those sales marked 13 percent growth. Spencer did not respond to questions about the membership tally by deadline.

Internally, Spencer is making changes too. By using The Great Game of Business – a guide to help companies practice open-book management – Spencer hopes to drive engagement and implement financial transparency across Discovery Center employees.

Hayley Budd, a former Discovery Center employee, said though The Great Game of Business wasn’t implemented during her time at the organization, financials regularly were discussed with employees, primarily while Fox was executive director. Budd said when new management was in place, financials were still available, but employees were not as involved in the discussions. Budd left the Discovery Center in April.

“It was just the right time in my life and the right time in the life of the organization for me to leave it,” said Budd, who now works at the newly opened, for-profit Itty Bitty City children’s play center.

Treasurer Gold said the center underwent staffing adjustments and turnover throughout the last three years.

Between 2013 and 2015, staff numbers are up by five employees, according to 990 forms.

Spencer said she and the Discovery Center team are prepared to continue to close the financial gap.

“It is unrealistic to expect the financial stress to disappear overnight,” she said via email. “We feel we will play a vital role in developing our future workforce. This is critical to the success not only of our center, but our community as a whole. When we can have an educational impact on a child’s future – that impact ripples throughout many sectors.”

According to, Discovery Center has an 83.7 rating out of 100, based on financial, accountability and transparency metrics.

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