Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Suggestion for Science Station

The Gazette had a very thoughtful editorial the other day about the Cedar Rapids Science Station. Editorial, "Rally Is On for Science Station," The Gazette, November 5, 2006. It called for "a credible operating plan with reasonable assurances of long-term sustainability" and noted the "need to have operating plans that specifically and reliably show what the operating shortfall is . . . [and] specific fundraising plans to show how that shortfall will be covered, year after year after year."

Indeed, if Iowa's newspaper reporting and editorializing had applied equivalent standards to their evaluation of the proposed Iowa rain forest there would have been far less cheerleading and much more realistic analysis. But that's a blog for another day.

This morning The Gazette, which has done an excellent job covering the Science Station story had another update. Janet Rorholm, "Effort to Save Science Station Growing," The Gazette, November 7, 2006. She quotes Dan Thies, Board President, as saying that he'd like more time to ‘‘better assemble the bigger pieces of the puzzle," and she goes on to note, like the November 5 editorial, "That includes short-term and long-term business plans for the 20-year-old hands-on science and technology center."

So The Gazette is is neither playing the cheerleader role, nor is it just wringing its hands. And it's entitled to a lot of credit for its realistic and constructive suggestions.

To them, I'd like to add one more. No one likes to "pay for a dead horse." In this context, help to pay off the debt of a non-profit institution that does not yet have in place a realistic plan for future financial viability. The problem this creates is that Thies and his colleagues really do need more time.

What I'd suggest is that they undertake the tasks in parallel rather than try to raise the money without a plan, or create a plan without the money.

Rather than emptying out little kids piggy banks (which is now happening), why not run the fundraising effort as a pledge drive rather than a fund raiser? I suspect there might be a great number of people who would be willing to make a conditional pledge of money -- in some cases quite significant quantities of money -- who would be reluctant to simply hand over cash at this point.

What would the condition, or conditions, be? Two: (1) That a realistic business plan has been created that creates confidence in the ability of the Science Station to continue for the foreseeable future (say, ten years or longer). (Perhaps a group of business people, bankers, accountants and lawyers could be put together to provide their judgment that such had, or had not, been created.)

(2) That the pledges collected total some fixed minimum goal (that, presumably, accords with what the business plan says is necessary). I don't have the independent knowledge to know what this would be, but let's say for these purposes something in the range of $2 million (paying off the $1.3 million past debt, plus $700,000 for a limited term operating budget plus a start on an endowment fund).

Matching pledge challenges might be attractive to some, e.g., "I will pledge $5000 if the Science Station can get an additional five $1000 pledges during the next two weeks," or whatever.

Thus, the "fund raising" could begin immediately on this "conditional pledge" basis, simultaneously with the thinking through and drafting of the long term business plan.

Just an idea.
Other blog entries by Nicholas Johnson dealing with the Science Station (and relating its problems and solutions to the proposed rain forest for Pella, Iowa):

"Science Station Lessons for Pella," October 18, 2006
"More Science Station Lessons for Pella," October 19, 2006
"More More Science Station Lessons for Pella," October 20, 2006
"'Hat's Off' to Gazette's Janet Rorholm," October 20, 2006
"Science Station Lessons for Pella - Part IV," October 21, 2006
"Science Station Lessons for Pella - Part V," October 23, 2006
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Nicholas Johnson's Main Web Site www.nicholasjohnson.org
Nicholas Johnson's Iowa Rain Forest ("Earthpark") Web Site
Nicholas Johnson's Blog, FromDC2Iowa
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Doug Wagner said...

Pledges wouldn't work because they failed to materialize before. That's one of the reasons they are in the predicament they are in now.

Nick said...

Doug: Without a strategic plan, a business plan, a projected revenue stream over time that is reasonable and makes business sense, the Science Station won't survive with or without pledges.

But is your comment applicable to what I was calling "conditional pledges"? Perhaps it is; I don't know.

But if a business plan is put together that makes sense to Cedar Rapids' accountants, business people, and bankers, then I would think conditional pledges might work (i.e., be honored).

The business plan would identify the lump sum that needs to be raised at this time. The condition on the pledges would be: "If you are successful in getting pledges that total that amount (or greater, to account for unpaid pledges later), then I pledge to contribute to the fund $N amount."

A pledge to an organization that demonstrates, before the pledges are collected, that it is not well run, and will probably soon be out of business, is, yes, going to have a tough time collecting on those pledges.

But are you also saying, under these conditions that I've laid out, pledges still wouldn't work, wouldn't be honored?

-- Nick

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