Does Your Nonprofit Plan to Change the World? Will People Pay for That?

Your Ingenious Nonprofit
November 2013
Karen Eber Davis

In just four years, would you like to:

  • Grow your six figure donors by 30 percent?
  • Develop a new event that attracts seventy-five thousand people?
  • Earn 50 percent more from foundations such as Carnegie, Gates, Rockefeller and MacArthur?

While this column can’t promise you that, it will share how the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) achieved these feats. It also shares six elements your nonprofit might use to emulate them.

NYSCI is changing the way we help children learn by creating educational models for STEM topics which include science, technology, engineering, and math. Their STEM based learning models engage children in fun, play, and excitement with the goal of facilitating deeper learning of content.

Hosting nearly a half million visitors per year, NYSCI was originally built for the 1964 World’s Fair. Today, the site offers visitors four hundred and fifty interactive STEM exhibits and more. Dr. Margaret Honey, NYSCI President and CEO, leads the effort to, “use the informal environment of the science museum as a laboratory to innovate new models for science teaching and learning both in and out of the classroom.” NYSCI generates significant income by offering funding partners a chance to help them create, test, and distribute these models.

What’s the Appeal?  

1. Recognized Challenge. The work of NYSCI responds to a national challenge to improve STEM education.

You: Even if your nonprofit is not working on a presidentially recognized challenge, such as STEM, it does face a challenge that addresses well-known needs in your field. To create partnerships like those enjoyed by NYSCI, design a solution to it.

2. Value. Given their history and the groundswell of interest in STEM, some of NYSCI funding requests would have succeeded. Their overwhelming success suggests a more compelling value. What is it? The way their approach engages learners and creates delight.

For example, ratios are a critical STEM concept. Yet, they befuddle many middle school youth. Traditionally, teachers use word problems to teach them. During my visit, Peggy Monahan, Exhibit Projects Creative Director demonstrated the first in what NYSCI will release as a suite of digital noticing tools. Using a specially designed iPad application, she created a picture of me being stomped by a large foot.  Using another component of the tool, in this case a paper-doll-like pair of pants on a stick, she created a picture of me dressed in a business jacket and clown pants. To create the desired effect, she used ratios so the pants were neither too big or little, but just-right.

Now, that you’ve imagined me in clown pants, imagine young teens have making silly pictures with their friends while working with ratios. Imagine the fun individuals and foundation staff member have on site visits.

You: Design your proposals with appeal. NYSCI uses play to foster learner engagement. Unique and fresh thinking also appeal. For another example of creating appealing proposals read about Sesame Street’s service to military families here.

3. Experience. New York City families have plenty of museum and excursion options. To remain open for 50 years, NYSCI mastered engaging visitors. “Our visitors vote with their feet,” said Dr. Margaret Honey. NYSCI has extensive experiences in sharing STEM skills with joy—when the experience is elective. Traditional educators can’t make the same claim.

You: Include your massive expertise in your solutions. Be the logical choice for your funding partnerships.

4. Leverage. What happens at NYSCI doesn’t stay at NYSCI. NYSCI uses their physical site as a learning incubator. The goal is to reach classrooms nation- wide. NYSCI designs their models for classroom use and includes teacher education as key partners in their work.

You: To inspire partnerships like NYSCI, design your proposals to start at your site and move everywhere.

5. Location, Location, Location. Yes, NYSCI is located in New York City, close to a subway line and public transportation does provide NYSCI easy access to millions. Their Queens location, which some see as far less desirable than Manhattan, is in the nation’s most diverse communities. This means that they have the opportunity to test their ideas with people who reflect America’s growing diversity.

You: As you think about seeking partnership with foundations or individuals to create extraordinary impact, you’ll undoubtedly moan about some aspect of your location. Turn this around. Find your advantage.

6. A Culture of Yes. The NYSCI said yes to my request for an interview about nonprofit income opportunity. Not everyone does.

You: To create partnerships, create a culture of “yes.” This is subtle but critical.  Partnerships require openness. To succeed, especially with fiscal partners, you will need to balance your nonprofit’s needs with your partner’s needs. Are you ready to say yes, a lot?

The world you want to change may be as significant as STEM education in America. It might be midsize or small and still be critical to your endeavor. Whatever the size of the challenge to grow your impact and obtain income, use the six NYSCI elements. Apply them to get individuals and foundations excited about investing in your work.