Fundraising During COVID-19—Episode 4: Children's Science Center

Read Time: 16 minutes

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COVID-19 has challenged nonprofits like never before—and nonprofits have risen to the occasion in their own unique ways.

In this podcast series, we explore how nonprofits are adapting their fundraising strategies to a difficult moment. We sat down (virtually, of course) with leaders from across the sector to hear what they have been doing and what they have learned. Follow us as we discover strategies that have helped a diverse array of organizations survive and thrive during a challenging time. 

Our fourth episode features Campbell & Company Vice President and Director, East Region Christina Yoon, PhD speaking with Jenn Brunner, Director of Advancement for the Children's Science Center.

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Listen to the podcast or read the transcript below:  

Christina "Tina" Yoon: Great to be with you today. Thank you for joining us. We just wanted to have a conversation with you to learn about how the Children's Science Center has adjusted to the new normal, and we'd love to hear about the ways in which the Children's Science Center has adjusted its fundraising and the new opportunities that have emerged. Also, I know you're trying to finish up the campaign.

So we have a lot to talk about, but before we begin, let's just start first by hearing a little bit about the Children's Science Center and your role there.

Jenn Brunner: Great, Tina, thank you so much for this opportunity to share and to tell a little bit about my favorite subject, the Children's Science Center.

We are a regional, interactive, hands-on nonprofit organization. A museum that serves to inspire children to love hands-on learning in science, technology, engineering, and math, and we do that every day (or at least we did until March 13th and the pandemic started) by inspiring kids in their neighborhood, in their communities, in their school groups, and in our Children's Science Center Lab facility in Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, [VA].

And as you mentioned, we’re growing to evolve into building a regional science center on donated land in Dulles, VA. I'm really proud to serve the organization. I've been there six and a half years, and we do a lot of good in the community, and we're really looking forward to the day when we can open a door to a science center that has never existed in Northern Virginia.

Tina: Great, thanks, Jenn. It’s actually a very interesting time for the Science Center because I know that you did have student groups, visitors, and families coming to the Lab over in the Fair Oaks Mall and provided them an interactive, hands-on experience. But because of COVID, it has just removed all that possibility.

So maybe you can tell us about some of the ways in which your organization has had to pivot during this time?

Jenn: Absolutely, and I think "pivot" is perhaps the word of the year. I'm not really sure whether we like that word or not, but certainly pivot is what we've had to do, as you said.

We have been proud to serve over 50,000 visitors a year at our little facility in Fair Oaks Mall and another 25,000 visitors on wheels, across all of the seven jurisdictions in Northern Virginia, with those hands-on opportunities.

And when the world went sideways on March 13th, we, like many other arts institutions, arts and culture museums, had to close our doors. We couldn't be hands on, and we still can't. For us, it really was: how do we continue to move the mission forward and serve as many of our constituents as we can, who have come to rely on us?

The Lab would have celebrated its fifth anniversary in June, so it was a little bit of a sad moment for us that we weren't able to celebrate that milestone. But as you also mentioned, we call ourselves, a little bit these days, "a tale of two cities," because we are an organization that is delivering a mission today and a vision for tomorrow.

I think any fundraising professional, the first thing you do in a moment of crisis is reach out to your donors. Check in with them. How are they doing? What's going on with them?

Because we are in the relationship building business, and we're offering an opportunity for these amazing folks that have chosen to give their time, talent, and treasure to your organization to support your mission. That's an important component that should never ever escape our view of how we engage with our donors.

That was really first and foremost what the Advancement team for the Science Center did. We literally printed a list of donors, and we divided it up between us all. And we started calling right after we closed in March with a message of "How are you? How's your family? Are your kids okay? What's going on with you? How have you been impacted?"

And as you can imagine those conversations always end up coming around to, "Well, how are you? How's the Science Center? And what's going on?" Deeply emotional conversations, lots of positive messages, and we were able to tell the story of how we were closed, how we were attempting to pivot, the fact that we were able to secure a Payroll Protection Program grant/loan, and save our staff, because we did have to furlough about a third of our staff, right after we closed.

So, for Advancement, it was, how do we make sure we can get those folks back as fast as possible? Because they're our front-line mission deliverers, our STEM educators who are working with our families. And along the way of those really impactful conversations, lots of things happened for us that were a blessing.

The first, if we made that important connection with these champions, we also raised a little bit of money because folks were generous with their treasure. We as an organization rely on sustainable fundraising, multi-year gifts, to sustain our operations and our mission.

It was really an opportunity for us to activate a lot of those donors who have open pledges to make those pledges as fast and as early as possible because that was key to our sustainability as always, but it was even more so with the lens of the pandemic.

We were really grateful that many of those champions answered that part of our call, but we got great ideas as well on what they needed for their families, their children, and how our team could focus our energy on what kind of mission delivery of programs that we could support. So again, lead with mission, which is what we have always done.

It's been a hard road. It's been a long six months. We will not be able to open an interactive science center for the foreseeable future. In fact, in the Commonwealth of Virginia, we are precluded in Stage Three of our COVID reopening. Our footprint is too small; we can't keep folks safe.

As a science center, we have to lead them to science, and we have to make sure that what we do keeps everyone safe: our team, our volunteers, our visitors, our community. So, until we can be confident that we can lead with science, our virtual world is here to stay, but it has a blessing.

I think blessings abound for us, in that we now have a larger footprint perhaps than we did with our small facility because we can reach folks where they are. We can reach folks in unique and different ways that have always been on our long-term strategic plan, but we get to do it a little bit faster.

Tina: That's right. I was really excited when you were sharing with me earlier about some of the ways that you've been connecting with the public schools and how they've been setting up food distribution centers. I'd love if you could just tell us a little bit about that and maybe the response that donors have had to that.

Jenn: Absolutely, mission is everything. Mission is first and foremost, in what we do and providing resources that serve all of our children. And we take that word "all" very seriously in how we define the constituents that we serve, and a myth that we bust a lot in Northern Virginia is the "myth of need."

A lot of folks say, “Well, you're in Northern Virginia, that's the most wealthy, most affluent area of the State of Virginia. And they have everything they need, they don't have kids in need. Certainly not compared to kids in other regions close by and downstate or in other areas.”

And we kind of nod our head, and we smile and we say, "Well you're right. We do absolutely have lots of affluence, and there are pockets of extreme access. But the reality is, over one third of the children in Northern Virginia, that's about 140,000 children at the elementary school age, are qualified by the State Board of Education as receiving free and reduced priced meals."

So these are kids who aren't traveling to science centers out of state, whose parents aren't taking those vacations to places where there are these resources. These are kids for whom their schools and their PTA don't have those extra resources to make charter buses possible to go to downstate or out-of-state resources. And so these are kids that we have to reach too, and we take that very seriously.

We've been very fortunate in our relationships with donors and their support for making sure that this population is inspired with STEM learning. We work with a lot of Title I schools, as they're designated here in Northern Virginia. There are 102, and we get to about 40 of them in a normal year.

So when the world went sideways, we thought, "Oh boy, how do we make sure that we can serve this population for whom the gap is going to widen?" Because many of these children don't have the connectivity issues that our own children have.

My children are very fortunate, and I won't tell you how many devices we run at once in our house, but for many of our families, they don't have that. When the school partnership was rescinded because of safety reasons and the kids were in their buildings, that gap got even wider.

So we talked a lot with educators in our world, a lot of administrators within the various jurisdictions. “How do we help reach, with perhaps a moment of fun and an interactive, cause hands-on is a no, no, but an interactive experience?” We're working with the schools to develop a couple of different opportunities for programming.

And you mentioned food distribution, that's a big part of what a lot of our community is lifting up right now. It's making sure that our folks have food, shelter, aid—those needs. Working with the school systems. We hear a lot about school buses being mobile hotspots and sitting in parking lots, so kids can do their homework, and the distribution center using the school sites for food for up to two or maybe three meals a day.

We’re working with our school partners to figure out how we can be there safely. Can we, for example, come with our child-sci van and do a science-on-the-go 45-minute experience? Where kids are sitting around eating their box lunch, and they have a chance to interact with our team.

Are we able to deliver kits? Hands-on STEM kits, which has been a really powerful and really positive outcome of some of the things that we've done over the summer with our summer camp program. Having those opportunities for kids again, to have experiential learning.

How do we work in partnership with the schools? Many of our elementary school partners in this virtual world, some of our elementary school kids are getting 20 minutes of science a week. So how can a science center partner to help the teachers work on, maybe their asynchronous days, to do some STEM clubs or an afterschool thing?

It's hard in a virtual world to add another virtual opportunity. But we're trying. Funders have been extraordinarily generous in giving us the time to try. You know, we are fundraising professionals, right?

Gen-Op is the no, no. We never asked for general support because you want this to be content-, mission-, and program-driven. But funders are extraordinarily generous and forgiving and allowing us to re-emerge as an organization that can again think of a new way to deliver our mission.

There's more to come on that story because there's just not enough data to tell us how we're going to do. We appreciate that lenders have been willing to say, “I like where you're going and keep me posted. Maybe some of those metrics that we were holding you accountable to we can let slide or give you a longer time horizon to meet.” I think that's been gratifying for us, for sure.

Tina: I think one of the important points that emerges from what you've just shared is that relationship that you have with your funders, that it is a conversation, that there is give-and-take, understanding that this is an extraordinary time and that in order to serve the populations and the folks that we really care about takes a little bit of experimentation. I know even as fundraisers, we've had to be somewhat experimental in the way that we do our outreach and such.

A lot of your donors are pretty much local. How are you managing those conversations with donors? Are you mostly doing them over the phone? Are you doing them by video? Outside, socially distanced? How is that working out for the Children's Science Center?

Jenn: Well, one of my favorite things to do is get a cup of coffee with a donor and in a virtual world, that's a little bit of a challenge. I'm having to find ways to have virtual cups of coffee with many of our donors.

So, you're right, texting, voice messages. Phone calls are, of course, always the gold standard, but that's hard to do sometimes with many of our donors—just catching folks and having a minute to talk. We've done a lot with video calls and Zoom. I think, again, the silver lining in a virtual world is a lot of us are home and a lot of us are more accessible than we used to be.

You're laughing right? But think about how many times it took you to get that coffee meeting with a particular donor, and you try a text message like, "Hey, you got a couple of minutes to chat with me on Zoom?" And they're like, "Yeah, sure. How's tomorrow look?" And you're like, “Whoa!” So I think it's a blessing.

It's been fun, but for us, we're trying really hard to be relevant to donors, right? Because the story, as an Advancement Director, as someone that's a fundraiser, I always want the story to be about my organization and my mission. And I always want to do the listening about why you love us. Right? And tell our story.

But it's a dialogue and wanting to really share some information, but at the same time have that physical, as much as you can, check-in. So video calls are powerful, but we also want to be relevant to the story of being a region's resource.

So while I always think the story is about us, it isn't. But it's about the region. We rolled out something we're really proud of, because you can't have traditional donor events, you can't bring the donors in to watch a program. You can't have a birthday celebration with your donors. A lot of the traditional models don't work right now.

So we're really excited, we rolled out something that we call Community Conversations, and they are hourlong, lunchtime on weekdays, (which apparently is a really good time of day to do it around here) Zoom calls. It’s a dialogue with our Executive Director and a subject matter expert on a topic that is relevant to our region.

We were really excited about the engagement from donors. We've had at least a hundred donors each time, which I think is wonderful for an event like an hourlong Zoom call over lunch, and we've had some great conversations about the state of science centers and what's happening in the arts and culture museum world.

We were blessed in Northern Virginia to have the heads of all the trade associations here: the American Alliance for Museums, the Association of Science and Technology Center, Association of Children's Museums. They all reside here.

And, in fact, the head of the American Alliance for Museums is not only based here, but she and her family are huge fans of our science center. So we invited her in the middle of the summer to have a conversation with us and to inform our donors and our stakeholders about what's happening in the arts and culture and museum world.

It wasn't about us, it was about how arts and cultural organizations are struggling and what’s happening to the industry: all arts and culture, museums, zoos, aquariums, science centers, children's museums. All of those cultural resources that are a fabric of our community. That was powerful, and we had a lot of amazing engagement that we didn't expect during the call, after the call, in follow up.

It's spurred us to continue this as a dialogue on a regular basis. It's a big lift because you're producing a little bit of a live event a couple of times a year, but the reward is so worth it because, as you pointed out, we’re continuing to deepen those relationships with our stakeholders. [Stakeholders] are part of the Child Sci family and being part of the Child Sci family means being part of our community.

Tina: That's so good to hear. I know that a lot of groups have experimented with having virtual events, and they've been able to see that folks that normally can't show up to an in-person event, they are able to log on and they are still interested and excited about being able to engage, even if it's virtual.

And I know we're all getting tired of Zoom meetings, but at the same time, when there's something exciting that you're offering, then it does bring people together. I'm really excited to hear about that.

Maybe just to close, we could just think about what are the prospects for next year. And are there any things that you're planning on continuing that you've tested out and tried new? Just love to hear that as a closing comment.

Jenn: Absolutely, I think that the news that we buoy ourselves with every day here at the Children's Science Center is that we are still building a regional science center. Perhaps the biggest momentum for our mission and our vision is that we are in the final throes of this.

We're at 90% of our capital campaign, raised as of today. We've got about $8.5 million to go on a $75 million campaign, but the funds that we've been able to raise and confirm, even during this pandemic, have allowed us to move forward with the design. Biggest brightest spot on our horizon, as we roll into 2021 and 2022 and 2023, is that we'll be opening a regional science center.

The momentum of that story and the opportunities to engage folks along the way as we build our credibility and we continue evolving from the Children's Science Center to Northern Virginia Science Center, are really exciting. We have lots of positive things that will be happening for us. What we have to do is figure out how to keep them engaging in a virtual world.

Our Community Conversations have been a bright spot, enabling us to really bring those STEM practitioners in to highlight them, working on what virtual interactive programming is mission forward, and then also thinking a little bit, again, about what a museum without walls looks like in the interim.

The Lab has become a television production studio. So what resources can we provide and raise to support the efforts, so that the products that our team is able to deliver, in terms of mission, reach the widest possible audience and with the best possible outcome? Certainly, as every other fundraiser is doing, we are looking at ways to continue to act because the need is still there.

One of the things that I think is hard for arts and culture organizations and certainly the science center world in the industry is that we earn almost as much as we raise in a normal year through ticket sales, product fees, field trips. And now that number is no longer going to look like what it was. So Advancement has to step up, but what we're doing is much more charitable than we ever did before.

Finding ways to continue to engage folks to give without being tone deaf. As an arts and culture organization, and I know from the Giving USA report and Campbell's amazing resources that [Tina] always provides to us, we know that we're only 6% of the philanthropic pie.

And so how do we in a collaborative way continue to work with our social service partners, so that we're reaching and delivering mission to a wide audience but also helping to raise some more dollars that are, right now, so much more needed than they were even on March 12th?

Sure, every opportunity, every ticket sold, every membership sold, every birthday party purchased, every field trip booked, 50% of those dollars supported the operations of this organization, which meant the other 50% was raised.

And in 2021, that's going to look more like 10% earned and 90% raised, so that's hard, that's heavy. But it's a story that our donors need to hear. And we believe arts and cultural organizations, museums, in particular, have a place in our community. We tell a powerful story; we are part of the human experience of engagement.

So when we get to the other side of this and we will, right? Science going to lead the way, when we get there, these arts and culture museums, these organizations, these performing arts centers, we have to be here because we won't be able to tell the story if we're not.

Donors need to hear that. While we're really grateful that those service organizations, frontline workers, frontline services are getting the support they need desperately, we hope a little bit of the pie is leftover for us arts and culture folks now, so that we'll still be here in the future.

Tina: Totally agree with you, Jenn. This is a question of what values does our society hold dear? What elements of our society do we want to make sure survive? I'm so excited that the Children's Science Center is leading the way and really finding a way to thrive even during a difficult time, such as this.

Really appreciate your time today and your sharing about your experience. I'm really excited about the future for the Children's Science Center and can't wait to see opening day for the Northern Virginia Science Center in my own community. Thank you so much, Jenn. It was just a pleasure to talk with you.

Jenn: Oh, you're so welcome. Thank you again so much for the work that you do and the work of Campbell & Company. We appreciate the opportunity to share our story. Anytime I get to talk about the Science Center, it's a good day.

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Duncan Reilly

Duncan Reilly is a Marketing and Business Development Associate at Campbell & Company. He works to help consultants and nonprofit organizations start their partnerships off on the right foot.

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