Donated labor, materials help urban museum Volunteers boost industry showcase


December 28, 1992|By LESTER S. PICKER

Suppose, for a moment, that you are the director of an urban museum. Someone offers you a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to acquire a major showpiece -- a famous symbol of the city's past -- for free. All you have to do is get it from its present site to your location. Simple, right?

Well, for Executive Director Dennis Zembala and the board of directors of the Baltimore Museum of Industry, the decision wasn't quite so simple. The showpiece in question was the Bethlehem Steel Key Highway crane, the 85-foot-tall city landmark at Harborview, and a silent reminder of Baltimore's shipbuilding days.

Moving the 110-ton behemoth was no easy task. How the move was accomplished, and the crane resurrected at the museum's site, is instructive for all nonprofits.

The Museum of Industry is, plainly and simply, a Baltimore jewel. Within seconds of walking through the front door, one instantly sees why Baltimore magazine rated it the best children's museum. Unlike all too many museums, this one has interactive exhibits that kids love.

On a recent visit, I happened on a class from Paint Branch Elementary School involved in a recreation of a long-forgotten Baltimore industry -- an oyster cannery. The kids were divided into groups shucking oysters, steaming them, making cans, printing labels, packing and managing the operations. This program is so head and heels above other museum exhibits, it won the prestigious Dibner Award for Excellence in Museum Exhibits in 1992.

The children obviously loved what they were doing. Ten-year-old Tyra Niblack was busily making cans in a loft above the shucking and steaming floor. "I like everything about this job. If you know how to do it, it's fun," she said proudly.

At the Museum of Industry one senses the excitement and gets a feeling for the rich industrial heritage that links present-day Baltimore with its past. How does a museum operating on a very modest budget manage to achieve the level of excellence so obvious even to the casual observer?

The answer, in a nutshell, involves donations of materials, expertise and labor. Lots of labor, as in hundreds of thousands of hours.

"We're really a million-dollar-a-year operation with a half-million dollar budget," quips Assistant Director Ann Steele. "We only have 30 employees, but hundreds of volunteers."

The crane is a perfect example of how the museum is able to use in-kind donations to leverage scarce funds during hard economic times. Museum staff and board members negotiated to have the crane donated. It was then disassembled and floated on barges to the museum site, just a quarter mile away.

Dozens of companies volunteered their expertise and workers with the mammoth move, and the subsequent sandblasting, painting, driving of pilings, setting of a huge foundation, and painstaking reconstruction. In all, more than $300,000 of in-kind services and materials were donated to this effort alone.

Take another example. Several years ago, the museum was given a donation of a rare steam-powered tugboat. A minor problem was that the tug was on the bottom of a river in Cecil County.

After in-kind help raising and transporting the tug to Baltimore, volunteers tackled the job of restoration. Now, more than 275,000 volunteer hours later, the working tug is used to help schoolchildren learn some exciting maritime history.

Of course, a nonprofit cannot live by in-kind donations alone. In the case of the Museum of Industry, the board is examining ways to diversify revenues, increase membership, and generate ever more exciting and interactive exhibits for the more than 60,000 visitors a year.

However, when times are tough, in-kind donations can play an integral role in helping a nonprofit survive. When I hear nonprofit executives complain of the enormous effort needed to recruit and train volunteers and secure donations of in-kind materials, I think of places like the Baltimore Museum of Industry. When the economic pain ends, look how solidly entrenched they will be in the philanthropic market.

They have used this time to build credibility, a reputation for excellence, and a cadre of volunteers who are committed to the museum's mission. At some point, and with proper planning, that will translate into solid financial support, too.

(Les Picker is a philanthropy consultant. Write to him at 71 Bathon Circle, Elkton, Md. 21921; [410] 392-3160.)

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