Monday, 17 December 2007

Experience is the best way to know something!

I've promise twice to paste in this letter sent by Jessie Smith as the explanation of the closure of her dream project "Kids Around the World" in Canada. When I received this letter I was not really keen on blogging. I was more attracted to the citizen journalism websites, and I do not really know the function of blogging.

From her experience perhaps we can learn something, it would help us in the process of stepping into our own experiences. Thank you Jessie for sharing this. I put it here as a part of review on the year 2007. Hoping next year we are able to help our children build a better world!

Lessons Learned
An Attempt to Create a Children’s Museum in Vancouver

By Jessie Smith, Founder

The purpose of this document is to share some of the lessons we learned in the process of trying to create a children’s museum in Vancouver. It will be best understood by people who are familiar with story of Kids Around the World Children’s Museum, but a peek at our website will help fill in any blanks for those who have not heard of us: You may contact Jessie Smith at if you have any questions.

I believe that these lessons will be helpful for people who are trying to open a children’s museums as well as other types of non-profits. In the end we decided to disband the organization, as the support needed to go forward was not forthcoming. This report reflects on what we feel we did right along the way – and what we could/should have done differently.

The inspiration

When my daughter was 7 months old I was inspired to create a special place in Vancouver where children could learn about the world around us – and ‘the world’ in our city. I also wanted to create a place that offered the very best in early childhood education. I soon learned about the powerful educational tool of children’s museums; shortly after, I founded Kids Around the World Children’s Museum.

First Steps

The first bit of advice I have is this: EVERYTHING WILL TAKE LONGER THAN YOU THINK! If you are considering starting a new organization, you must be very realistic about how long the start-up phase will be, and about your chances of success. Just as many businesses fail, so do non-profits. You have to have the drive and motivation necessary to go forward.


The first thing we did was form a Society. It’s not hard to do, but there is some paper work involved. It’s important to do this early on as it legitimizes your efforts.

Next we petitioned to become a charity. It is also helpful to do this early on as it can take some time to get charity status – and important so that you can begin to give tax receipts for donations. We got our Member of Parliament to write us a letter of support and I think this helped speed up the process. It only took us a few months once we submitted the paper work, but some organizations wait much longer.

Before registering as both a Society and a Charity it is best to take some time to really think through your Mission first. It’s best not to have to change it later, so try to come up with something compelling but generic enough that you can change your focus a bit over time.

Meeting people

In the first couple of years my main focus was meeting as many influential people as I could. I had over 130 such meetings. I did not ask for money, but rather for advice and letters of support. I gave presentations to groups and took displays to events. These things were important for getting the word out and for garnering support for our project, but I have to say that in the end I was disappointed with the uptake. I had hoped that some influential people would take up our cause in a big way, but no one did. Most everyone loved the idea, but not enough people were willing to lend us a hand to really make it happen.

Business Plan

I spent a great deal of time creating a Business Plan for Kids Around the World. It is important to show that your endeavor will be financially viable and that it has a compelling mission.

In our case my husband and I had the research, writing and number crunching skills to do this on our own. We relied heavily on material from the Association of Children’s Museums for our comparison to other museums. You might need to hire someone or find skilled volunteers to help with this work.

Perhaps I spent too much time on this. I think our Business Plan would have been strengthened by more visual representations of the vision; a picture says a thousand words….

Our Business Plan may be viewed upon request.

The Engine Behind the Machine

On one hand it was very important to have one person (me) fully behind the project. Organizations that do not have one individual to focus on the work, often fail. That said, it was also detrimental that we were not able to develop a larger group of people that could devote significant time to the dream. Our Board of Directors was much more engaged that many Boards are, but the reality is that they all had full time jobs and most of them had young children. We needed some connected retirees or more people without young children to help in a big way.

The Commitment

I think it is important to understand the amount of time and forgone income that is involved in starting a new organization. I worked without income for more than 2800 hours (that is 1.5 year’s worth of work) before I got paid at all. After that I worked for one year at more than full time hours for less than $20,000. We had hoped to have funds to cover at least a low ED salary for 2007, but after the year had already started we were very far from that minimal goal – and even further from being able to cover programming costs.

In my case I was prepared to make this investment of time up front; I felt honoured to have the opportunity to pursue such a dream. By the end though I could no longer afford to do so - both financially and in terms of the time away from my family.

Every organization has its own financial story to tell, but you need to be prepared to work very hard for little or no money in the early years. All told I worked on the project for nearly 4 years (only full time about 1.5 of those years). This does not include all the hard work done by our Board of Directors and numerous volunteers….

Board of Directors

For the first few years the Board consisted of people who were friends of mine – people I knew I could work with and who shared the same values. We all got along very well and had fun together, but as a group we were lacking some skills in terms of running a non-profit.

So, we searched out new Board members that had fundraising and other management experience. This was very helpful in terms of helping us improve our organizational capacity. It also changed the dynamic of the Board.


1. In the early days the founding members of the organization should write down the core values of the organization to ensure that any new Board members know what they are getting into (especially in terms of who you will and will not accept money from when it comes to fundraising).

2. Constantly recruit board members; more is better to share the load (but don’t make it too big. The most we had was 8, but 9-11 would have been ideal in our case).

3. Screen your Board members. Do reference checks and work with them for some time before they join the board to ensure you will work well together.

Advisory Committee

We had an Advisory Committee that met a few times a year (as well as addressed questions over email). This was a good way to get input from a wide range of individuals who might not be willing to commit to the work involved in being on a Board.

Promotional Material

We made the smart decision to ensure a professional look right from the start. One of our board members designed our logo. We created an excellent website, letterhead, business cards, and thank you cards. All of these things helped ensure that we came across as a serious organization.

Very early on we set up a quarterly electronic newsletter. People could sign up on our website – and we collected names all the time. I never added anyone without permission (I hate it when people do that to me….).

Every three months I wrote an update to our supporters. I think this was crucial in getting folks involved and excited about our mission.

Organizational Development

We had a lot to learn in terms of running a non-profit. Over time we had to figure out many systems: running board meetings, keeping track of donors, fundraising. There was always something new - such as how to take donations by credit card or how to allow people to donate on-line or how to use Excel. It would have been easier if I’d had more management experience, but often Founders come by this via the passion for the mission and need to learn some specific skills along the way.

You should not underestimate the time it takes to keep on top of the administrative aspect of running an organization. You might prefer to do other more exciting tasks, but writing tax receipts is time-consuming and must be done in a timely manner. We made good progress in terms of improving our organizational capacity, but it is a never-ending journey.


Monthly donors

In the beginning we did not fundraise at all. We knew no one would pay us to write a Business Plan and have meetings; we had to wait until we were doing something.

The first fundraising we did was to solicit monthly donations. This was one area of fundraising that worked well for us. Once you get people set up they are less likely to stop giving; it is easier than asking each year for another donation – and it allows you to budget into the future. The best way is via cheques because credit cards expire.

We set up a ‘Founding Funder’ category (ie a minimum of $25 a month). This was to be only for the first 100 people to give $25 a month and they would get their name on a plaque in the permanent museum. Other monthly donors gave between $5-$20 a month.

We had a year-end prize draw just for monthly donors. It did not inspire people to donate as we had hoped, but it was greatly appreciated by the winners – and made them more loyal to the organization.

In addition to the e-newsletter we wrote the occasional letter just to donors. I think our attention to detail as far as donors goes was very important.

At first my husband and I covered all expenses. Once we had monthly donors we no longer had to pay for things such as office expenses, postage etc.

Fundraising events

We held two fundraising events – neither of which raised much money and they were a lot of work and stress. The second one was better because we focused on monthly donations so that would have paid off in the long run.

That said, these events were good for getting our name out into the community and ‘friend-raising’ amongst our supporters. Just keep in mind that such events are not great for moneymaking – though in time you can develop a signature event that may raise money once it catches on.

A few people held events in their home to help raise money and awareness. This means little work for staff and volunteers and thus they are more worthwhile.

Organizational donations

We applied to get some funding from a range of sources to help get going but it was not until we asked for funds for our Tigers and Dragons exhibit that we were successful; donors want to fund programs not process.

Most of us on the Board did not have a lot of fundraising experience. I read a lot, took some very helpful courses and the whole Board got some excellent training in fundraising. That said, it would have been better to have some people with non-profit fundraising experience involved earlier on in the process.

We sent proposals to a wide range of organizations to be sponsors for our Tigers and Dragons exhibit. As to be expected, most said no. You have to devote a tremendous amount of time to fundraising and be prepared for many refusals. I see now that we were unrealistic about how much money we thought we could raise in the time frame we had.

We hoped that more of our 2006 sponsors would come back to support us in 2007 as they seemed happy with our progress and we worked to develop the relationships. In the end only 3 sponsors said they’d support us in 2007, only one of which was for a (second, smallish) cash donation. This was a huge indication to us that it was going to be very difficult to go forward in 2007.

Building an Exhibit

We knew all along that our plan was to build a traveling exhibit to show the people of Vancouver what Kids Around the World was all about. We decided to create Tigers and Dragons – China and India for Kids.

We were VERY fortunate to have the help of a professional designer, Melanie Greenaway of Double Dare Design. She was fantastic to work with and she was willing to do a bunch of work up front so that we had professional material to present while fundraising. We would have never built the exhibit without her support.

As I mentioned, fundraising for the exhibit was a challenge, but it also took a tremendous amount of time to actually build the exhibit. It was loads of fun, but it entailed hundreds of hours of meetings – which took time away from fundraising and other important tasks.

Running the Exhibit

As we planned to run the exhibit on Granville Island for the summer, we were very pressed for time to get the exhibit built, hire summer staff and promote the exhibit in the community. In the end we took on too much for our level of organizational capacity and staff. We did not heed the lesson another museum Executive Director had put forward: it’s better to do less and do it well than do too much and not as well as it could be done.

From an outsider’s perspective our frenzied pace was probably not noticed, but after that experience I realized that we needed to be more realistic about what we could take on.

Summer on Granville Island

The best part of our summer on Granville Island was that we opened with a fantastic VIP event. The Honourable Iona V. Campagnolo, PC, CM, OBC, Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia was gracious enough not only to be a Patron of the exhibit during its tour, but also to give a stirring speech at our VIP Opening. This, I think, inspired a good number of important people to attend – and those that did not attend still received the beautiful invitations we sent out. The whole thing was a marketing coup….

We received fantastic media over the summer – both print and TV. Visitors loved it and we collected wonderful quotes from our comment cards, emails for our e-newsletter, and photos of happy kids. All of these were useful for improving our fundraising material and website.

We did not, however, get as many visitors as we hoped. We had 100-200 a day – less some days. We thought that Granville Island would be a great location, but some folks were keener to play in the water park.

We found that it is hard to get some people to part with their money. Although we had a suggested entry donation of $5 per family, many people gave very little even though they clearly enjoyed it and often stayed for more than one hour.

The fall in Gastown

We found that we were so busy running the summer program that we did not have the proper time to prepare for the fall. But we had promised our sponsors that we would have a fall program, so we had to do it.

We had been looking in Chinatown for a long time for a location for the fall, but it was a huge scramble to find a good, inexpensive spot. In the end we were lucky to find a terrific location in Gastown.

Considering the effort and money involved, the time spent in Gastown in the fall was not worth it. We had CBC ads, Channel M ads, Bus Stop ads all over the city, and flyers. Despite promoting to all schools in the city/region, we had relatively few school visits. All together we had just over 1000 visitors in our 2.5-month fall program – very poor given all the promotion.

Was Tigers and Dragons worth it?

Although Tigers and Dragons allowed us to get tremendous exposure and media, in hindsight I wonder if it was the right thing to do.

We thought that with a great exhibit and all the media we got, running the exhibit would 'take us off' but it did not; do not overestimate what an exhibit can do for you.

We realized just how hard it is to market with a low budget. We also did not garner as many donors or volunteers as we hoped as a result of the run of our exhibit.

It is important to keep in mind the costs of running an exhibit - staff, promotion etc. You'll be overwhelmed by all of that and not have time to think about the bigger museum project....Do not underestimate how much work this will be!

Make sure you have staff that is GOOD AT MARKETING. They need not only be good at working with children, they MUST be adept at promoting the idea of a permanent museum.

If not an exhibit, then what?

It might have been better to create something simpler (ie more program oriented than an exhibit which is hard to move) and take it to events across the city to promote our plans. I am thinking of something fun, interactive, colourful and impressive - more than just a display.

We went to a number of big events last Spring (such as the Vancouver International Children’s Festival) which were great for promotion because thousands of people attended – and we did not have to do the promotion to draw a crowd. It would have been better for us to go to 2-3 big events in the fall than it was to have our exhibit in Gastown. The lesson for us is that it is hard for a new organization to market itself, and events that others organize can be more effective ways to spread the word.

Why We Folded

In the letter that we sent out to our supporters we explained our reasons for folding as follows:

1. Lack of funds: We were running on just over $600 a month. That is not enough to cover even our most basic operating expenses, let alone move us towards a permanent museum.

Cash-flow problems might be surmountable if other things were going well and we could see some hope on the horizon, but that is not the case.

2. Lack of support: Although we have had lots of support from families who love our vision, we have had very little concrete support from the big players who are in a position to move this kind of project to the next level. This is not something you do with small grants and donations - it is a multi-million dollar endeavor that needs powerful people and organizations behind it.

The bigger question of why did people not support such a good idea is harder to answer, but here are some thoughts:

• Some people felt that we were too similar to Science World (the hands-on approach is similar, but the mission is totally different)

• There are many capital campaigns going on in the city that are struggling to move forward; even well-established organizations find it hard to raise money

• We hoped that the 2010 Olympics would help us, but in fact people were too busy working on things to do with the Olympics to take on our idea (even though KAW was a perfect fit)

• People do not know what children’s museums are (and they did not fully understand the early childhood educational benefits of our vision)

What We Would Have Needed to Keep Going

We came a long way in less than four years. In the end we had:

• More than 30 monthly donors and about 50 one-time donors
• 850 people on our newsletter list
• Some influential people showing support (but not opening doors or helping fundraise))
• Improved organizational capacity
• Great exposure in 2006
• Improved promotional material and a great website

What we needed but did not have:

• Money (not a million dollars, but thousands of dollars to keep afloat)
• Serious support from big players (to help open doors and fundraise)
• Connections to people with money
• People power (people with time to really move us forward – successful children’s museums have had more than one person who is committed to working full-time to realize a vision)
• Not only people to give us money, but more people to help raise money
• Larger of numbers visitors to Tigers and Dragons
• Serious leads to a possible building to call home (the only way we could have been considered for any of the possible leads we had was if we raised A LOT of money
• Leads to funding sources that met our ethics (ie our ethical stance made it harder to raise money)

We knew from the start that it would take years to open a permanent museum, but after nearly four years, the gap between what we had and what we needed was just too great. We simply had not received any indication that the project would move forward in a big way.

Wrapping Up

If you decide to wrap things up, keep in mind what I said at the beginning: EVERYTHING TAKES LONGER THAN YOU THINK! There are letters of thanks to send, tax receipts to write, details regarding shutting down a Society/Charity, assets to distribute, offices to be cleared etc.

It is a sad time. It is so hard for me to look around my office and see the evidence of all the hours of work put into this dream. That said, I received dozens and dozens of emails from people who were so appreciative of our efforts. It made the transition easier…

I have no regrets. I learned a lot and met some amazing people along the way. Thousands of kids loved our exhibit and now it will live on in the children’s museum in Winnipeg. We showed Vancouver what a children’s museum could be. We have planted a seed that perhaps some day shall bear fruit.

Jessie Smith
May 2007

1 comment:

Matsonian said...

Good letter with lots of details. May I suggest using a strategic planning program like QuickPlanner Plus to lay out a comprehensive step-by-step guide to achieve the goals and objectives?