Nonprofit Makes Most of a Bad Situation

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Little work was being done at the Austin Children's Museum on the morning of Sept. 11 as employees gathered around the television watching coverage of the terrorist attacks, when a staff member asked, "What am I going to tell my son?"

"Suddenly a bell went off and we realized what we could do," said Ken Stein, the nonprofit's director of marketing and development.

The staffer's question prompted the organization to send an e-mail to its opt-in house file of 1,700 donors with tips on helping children cope with the disaster. It also was the start of a change in fundraising strategy for the museum.

The e-mail went out within hours of the attacks, and positive feedback from parents flooded in almost immediately. A bonus for the museum was that many recipients forwarded the e-mail to friends who then signed up at the museum's Web site.

"With that one e-mail, suddenly my online house file grew by 100 people that day and has been growing daily since Sept. 11," Stein said.

The file is now at 2,700 names, after the organization started with 35 e-mail addresses a little more than a year ago. That was when the museum began trying to build its e-mail file and Web presence with the help of application service provider Convio.

"Austin Children's Museum was definitely very proactive as to how they would respond," said Vinay Bhagat, founder/CEO of Convio, also of Austin, TX.

The museum followed with another e-mail Sept. 27 promoting an exhibit that fit with issues families faced after the attacks. Called Busytown, the exhibit was based on children's books by author Richard Scarry and discussed how people work, live and play together to form a community. Characters in Busytown include firefighters, police officers and construction workers.

The e-mail said in part, "To help children cope with disaster, the National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends focusing on experiences that help children release tension. Create props that children can use to pretend they are firefighters, doctors, rescue workers or other helpers. In dramatic play, children can pretend that they are big and strong to gain control over their trauma and to overcome feelings of helplessness."

The e-mail seemed to pull people in to see the exhibit. While attendance at museums nationwide was generally down following the attacks, Austin Children's Museum had a 3 percent rise in admissions, Stein said.

The next step was for the museum to decide what to do about its upcoming direct mail fundraising campaign.

"We didn't know what to do, fundraising-wise," Stein said. "Our first thought was this isn't the time to ask people for money. Our second thought was people are never going to give their money to us again."

Fundraising is crucial to the 18-year-old nonprofit, which has a small budget and relies on repeat donations from its 5,000 members and donors rather than more expensive prospecting efforts.

Stein altered the planned direct mail campaign to address the events of Sept. 11. In addition, it will be mailed in early November instead of the usual time of early December. These decisions are an attempt to continue the dialogue the museum began with its donors through the e-mails sent since Sept. 11.

"We were valuable before Sept. 11, and we think that we've shown people that that's a value that will hold up over time," Stein said.

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