Let the Children Play

by RaeAnne Marsh

Children’s Museum of Phoenix

3 children riding trikes inside the Children's Museum

“On March 13, 2020, we made the hard decision to close our doors to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic,” says Kate Wells, president and CEO of one of the most loved and visited arts and cultural institutions in Arizona. That same day, she and her team began the thought process of how they could continue to fulfill the museum’s mission of engaging the minds, muscles and imaginations of children and the grown-ups who care about them. “We’ve successfully accomplished not one but four big pivots since then,” she says, “each assuring that we continue to serve our mission while finding ways to maximize any revenue we could muster to get us through the very unpredictable future.” 

Kate Wells, president and CEO of the Children’s Museum of Phoenix

Kate Wells, president and CEO of the Children’s Museum of Phoenix

A big change was moving from “hands-on” to “online.” But the museums young visitors — “Really, all the young children of our community,” Wells observes – were going to need extra support during such uncertain times. “Just four days after closing, we posted the first of 180 daily activities on our social media platforms in both English and Spanish, featuring our own staff presenting new and fun activities for kids to do each day of the week,” Wells says. And those videos garnered more than 250,000 viewers.

Two other very pressing needs were creating new revenue opportunities and keeping key staff employed, the first because earned revenue had accounted for 80% of the museum’s revenue prior to the pandemic, and the second to make sure the museum would be ready to re-open when the time came, Wells explains. One answer was to re-tool the museum’s highly successful summer camps to serve children who were at home all summer. Camp-In-A-Box was created, providing week-long activities for kids to do in the comfort and safety of their homes, including live, virtual content where camp counselors led campers in different activities throughout the day. 

“As the summer dragged on and it became clear that schools would not be back to business as usual, we built on the success of our Camp-in-a-Box and launched our ‘Thinker Player Creator’ (TPC) boxes, which were hands-on, creative, educational supplements for school-age kids returning to school via all-day or partial-day online learning,” Wells says. “We were proud to partner with Arizona Milk Producers and Dairy Council of Arizona in bringing the TPC Boxes to Valley families.” Something very special that came out of this was a groundbreaking partnership between Children’s Museum and the Cartwright Unified School District, a Title One district that was having significant challenges keeping children engaged in online learning, Wells reports. Children’s Museum provided more than 1,500 kindergarten students with eight weeks of bilingual, hands-on activities in math, literacy, numeracy, art and movement that gave them a much-needed break from academic screen time. 

“As the pandemic wore on, and with the beautiful Arizona fall, winter and spring weather ahead of us, we made our biggest pivot of all,” Wells relates. “Based on the scientific evidence that masks worked, that it was safer to have activities outdoor vs. indoors, and that sunlight and social distancing made play possible, we started to think about how we could bring people to the Museum for outdoor fun.” Adventure Play —100% Outside, 100% Fun, opened in late October 2020 and ran through early May 2021. The attraction spanned more than 35,000 square feet, spilling over the museum’s permanent front yard and taking over its entire north parking lot. “While Adventure Play has only allowed us to operate at about 20% of our pre-COVID numbers,” Wells says, it “has been enormously popular and received many positive reviews from our visitors who were missing our unique play spaces and were desperate for their children to have safe, fun experiences with other children.” 

Crediting the museum staff’s dedication and flexibility, Wells says, “All in all, this precarious time in our history has made us realize that we are resilient no matter what challenges are placed before us. Our commitment to provide fun, interactive play experiences, which will foster a joy of learning in the children of our community, will always be our goal whatever form it takes.” 

The Economic Roller Coaster 

By end of March 2020 Children’s Museum of Phoenix had to furlough 75% of its full-time staff and laid off 95% of its part-time staff. “In real numbers,” Wells says, “we went from about 95 employees to 13.” Making her singular focus the survival of the Museum and ensuring there would be enough cash to reopen when the time came, she says, “As a safety net, not knowing what the future held for us, we drew on our line of credit.”

The first turn-around came in April, Wells recalls, when the Museum was able to secure PPP funding, followed by a loan from SBA in early June, and then a generous, unrestricted grant from the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust gave us. Due to the very “mission focused” work the Museum continued to do — bi-lingual videos, Camp-in-a-Box and TPC Boxes — other foundations, the Gila River Indian Community, individual donors and a handful of corporations continued supporting its work, Wells says, noting that “because we were able to bring back and retain key staff, opening up Adventure Play — and the corresponding revenue — was possible.” A second round of PPP came in time to rehire staff and prepare for reopening the indoor, regular Museum space Memorial Day weekend. But she notes, “Even with PPP and grants, we are operating at 30% of fiscal year 2019.”

Early last summer, not knowing how the pandemic would affect the Museum for its next fiscal year, the management team created a “Museum closed with zero activities” budget — the worst-case scenario built around the intention to slash expenses and keep an eye on cash. “As information was gathered, we developed ways to meet the Museum’s mission and bring in revenue.,” Wells explains. “For each new program we developed, like the TPC Boxes and Adventure Play, we would present a new ‘add-on’ budget to our Board’s Finance Committee, and these individual budgets comprise our Comprehensive Organizational Budget.” Sharing that “we affectionately call our pandemic budget ‘the onion’ because we keep layering additional budgets onto it as conditions change,” Wells says, this method “enabled the Museum to survive, rebuild, manage revenue and expenses while being innovative and keeping an eye on cash.” 

In the unprecedented, even desperate, situation created by the pandemic, Wells says they weren’t sure they were making the right move. “But we worked really hard, made sure our eyes were looking forward 12 months ahead for obstacles and opportunities, and always knew what our cash position would be 12 months out given the best- and worst-case scenarios.” And now, with the Museum opening its indoor spaces on May 29, Wells shares, “I would say that yes, it definitely worked. Aside from knowing that we would re-open someday, we had very few expectations. Prior to COVID, as an organization we were doing a lot of work around ‘change’ and ‘resiliency’ — we were exercising our ‘change’ muscle for a couple of years and I feel we were really ready to respond. And, while it was painful, I was confident our team could manage through anything.”

Staying Strong and Moving Forward

The Museum has now finished its budget for next fiscal year, Wells reports it will go into the new year having enough operating cash in the bank to get it through more than a few months if things take a bad turn again. “Our former board member Mark Hillard would tell me pretty much every time I saw him, ‘Cash is king,’ and I think I have repeated this to myself every morning since last March. It really helps me keep my eye on that ball.”

Staffing is another key metric the Museum tracks, and Wells says, “Because we were able to retain most of our key, A-Team staff, rebuilding our team is going well — even in these tough hiring times! I honestly think our reputation as a diverse, empowering, equitable and fun place to work is really helping us find great talent while a lot of other businesses are struggling. 

“However, even as hopeful as we are for the future, we are opening with limited capacity, and we expect to have a loss again next year.” In fact, the Museum is budgeting for earned revenue to come in 21% less than its last full year open. 

“Coming out of our closure, we felt it was the optimal time to look at how and what we would like to change moving forward. As a result, we re-organized to focus on growing earned revenue, streamlining operations, and focusing on exceptional customer service,” Wells explains.

Wells believes the Museum’s work is more important than ever, given the pandemic’s impact on young children and families, an expected gap in school-based achievement, significant income inequity between families in our community, and a generation of children who’s social and emotional development will likely be impacted. “With an increased focus on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility (IDEA) our ‘Every Child’ program will endeavor to serve over 50,000 at-risk children next year, and we will be launching a new IDEA Fellowship program for students who are traditionally left out of traditional college internship programs,” says Wells. “As an organization, we look forward to getting back to a place of profitability so we can replenish our cash reserves and turn our profits into more good work.”

Children’s Museum of Phoenix is one segment of the June 2021 cover story “Fun Is Our Business: Survivors of a year that’s been anything but fun.” 

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