The issue: Valuable science resource needs a business sense to match
It was with little debate and almost no controversy that the Davis City Council approved a $20,000 grant to bail out the Explorit Science Center. In a town that prizes knowledge and science literacy, keeping the hands-on learning center going was an easy decision.
EXPLORIT HAS been around for 30 years, and in that time more than 1 million children and adults have experienced its programs. Originally conceived as a way of supplementing classroom science education, the center pushes open-ended inquiry-based activities that foster kids’ natural curiosity and love of learning.
The early years were fruitful. Originally, the Davis school district provided space, followed by the city leasing Explorit a building in Mace Ranch Park, and its mobile science classes reached out to 16 counties.
But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. In the early 2000s, donations and demand for programs were strong enough to support an expansion into a spacious building on Second Street. Then the economy tanked in 2008 and philanthropy dried up. Faced with vastly reduced revenue, Explorit sold the Second Street location in 2010 and regrouped at its Mace Ranch headquarters, reorganized its debts, and cut staff and open hours.
Where once its yearly budget topped $500,000, Explorit now has trouble meeting a $350,000 goal, and without the city’s intervention, would not have stayed in operation into 2014.
Of course, the council stepped up. Explorit is too valuable a resource, too big a part of this community, to lose for the lack of $20,000. All involved insist it’s a one-time deal, with Lars Anderson, Explorit’s board president, calling the arrangement a “bridge” to sustainability.
THE MUSEUM’S STAFF has a plan to bounce back, and it’s going to need a good one. The old days are gone and, like all nonprofits, Explorit must work much more aggressively for a dwindling pool of donation money.
In particular, the center must communicate its needs more urgently. Its website allows donations through PayPal, but wedges the link between schedules and coming events. Its social media presence shows no urgency at all. Thanking existing donors is nice, but it does little to draw in new ones.
Explorit’s leaders have spoken of cooperating with other local groups, and of engaging schools and businesses. This is good, but it’s through engaging the public that the best results will come. Davis has proved over and over again that its citizens will step up for a worthy cause.
Explorit is a unique institution, and one worth saving. To do so, it will have to develop a business acumen to match its scientific knowhow.