From Debt to Donors, This Famed Museum Is On a Roll

Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History is on fire lately, racking up $70 million toward its $250 million capital campaign. The funding will back some new and expanded science programs, while also helping the museum recover from a notorious debt problem.

The museum is a treasured resource in Chicago, known worldwide as one of the best natural history museums in the world, and boasting a famed collection of scientific specimens and artifacts.

It’s also famously saddled with debt in the years since the 2008 recession, but also due to what’s been described as a decade-long spending and borrowing spree. Local media reported in 2013 that it had a tendency to launch too many big programs, while banking too much on bond debt and overly optimistic projections of attendance. 

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But things seem to be turning around for the museum. It’s in the thick of a $250 million capital fundraising campaign that has drawn some of the largest gifts in museum history. A chunk will go toward building up its endowment to improve financial stability, but the campaign is also supporting expanded science programming as part of its strategic plan. For example:  

 

  • The Grainger Foundation gave $20 million to the museum to create new science learning programs and to back research tech. Grainger is a major Midwestern funder that we wrote about last year, following a $25 million gift to UW-Madison.
  • Bill and Linda Gantz gave $10 million to support the research and specimen collections center. Bill Gantz is a museum trustee and chairman of a pharmaceutical company. 
  • Board chair Connie Keller and husband Dennis gave $10 million for an environmental conservation center. Dennis Keller is cofounder of the tech school DeVry.
  • Some of the money raised will also go to fund the Early Elementary Science Partnership, which helps teachers and principals strengthen science in their curriculum by working with museums. 

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In an era when many financial crises at nonprofits don't have happy endings, the Field Museum is an interesting case of a nonprofit turning its finances around. Granted, it has the distinct benefit of being a national treasure with some well-heeled board members. But it’s not just licking its wounds—its capital campaign and strategic plan are as much about expanding and offering value to the community as they are about stabilizing finances. Its collection is the source of its fame, but it recognizes the importance of evolving and growing.

Then again, it isn't throwing borrowed money around like the old days. Part of the recovery under a new president meant a consolidation of departments, layoffs, and reduction of operating expenses by $5 million. Moody's recently rated the museum a decent A2 with a "stable outlook." Keeping the future looking bright has clearly helped, but that's been accompanied by a fair amount of pain.