Conversations with Children’s Museum Leaders around COVID-19

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The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) held a series of three hour-long CEO Calls, sponsored by Blackbaud, on March 24, 25, and 26, 2020. These calls provided a space for ACM to connect with children’s museum executive leadership—and for leaders to connect with each other—in the aftermath of mass closures in our field due to COVID-19.

ACM research shows that all U.S. children’s museums, and most around the world, are currently closed. We started each call with a short update from ACM on U.S. federal advocacy efforts to support museums and nonprofits. For up-to-date information about ACM’s advocacy work, and current relief opportunities available to children’s museums, see ACM’s website.

The majority of each call was spent around CEO discussion of two broad topics: museum staffing and operations decisions in the coming weeks, as well as efforts to virtually engage with audiences. A through line throughout these conversations was the challenges children’s museums will face—and what  our field may look like—when they are able to reopen. 

Operations and Staffing Decisions:

When making staffing decisions, CEOs took into account their museum’s reserves, insurance, relief opportunities, and unemployment options (which vary state by state). All children’s museums are nonprofits, and most are lean organizations with limited reserves that rely on admissions to cover operational costs. Based on an analysis of the 34 museums that shared information about their staffing decisions during these calls, 32 percent reported furloughing staff and 26 percent reported laying off staff.

Some CEOs were advised to lay off workers so they could collect unemployment, rather than slowly reduce their hours over time. Museums also considered staffing decisions with their museum’s business interruption insurance in mind. (See CEO discussion on business interruption insurance on Groupsite here).

CEOs shared their staffing plans over the next few months. These staffing plans fell into a few broad categories:

  • Continuing to pay all staff, with plans to reassess after a few weeks or months.
  • Continuing to pay all full-time staff, but laying off or furloughing part-time staff.
  • Laying off or furloughing the majority of both full- and part-time staff, but keeping a few key positions (often with reduced pay and/or hours).
  • Keeping on all staff, but reducing pay and hours across the board.
  • Laying off the majority of staff, but continuing to pay healthcare and benefits for the next few months.

CEOs suggested additional strategies to mitigate costs, such as letting full-time staff use all vacation and sick leave and freezing 403B contributions.

Furloughs and layoffs were the most common options for reducing payrolls. CEOs discussed the many considerations that went into their decisions to furlough or layoff staff.

  • Unemployment Options: Unemployment options in each state affected whether museums opted to furlough or lay off staff. Some states have softened unemployment criteria, such as search for work requirements, making layoffs a better choice for staff without work.
  • Furlough Categories: Some CEOs said they furloughed staff through “unemployment without job seeking” as the best option. Others furloughed staff under “standby” category, which allows staff to collect unemployment, without having to look for other jobs.
  • Legal implications: CEOs noted the need to consider the legal implications for laying off or keeping on staff, in consultation with an employment attorney.
  • Health Insurance: CEOs considered the issue of layoffs vs. furloughs through the lens of health insurance coverage. One CEO recommended touching base with your organization’s health insurance carrier, as some are delaying payments without penalty to help businesses preserve cash.  
  • Relief Funding: One museum had furloughed staff, but was deciding whether to terminate to meet the fifty employee threshold to qualify for SBA loans.

CEOs also discussed their communications with major funders over the past few weeks.

  • Several CEOs reported their funders had encouraged them to continue to pay all staff.
  • One CEO scheduled one-on-one discussions with all key funders. As a result, some funders come forward with operating support or released funding ahead of schedule.
  • Some funders were allowing museums flexibility within existing grants, as long as museums could report out on their work.
  • CEOs requested an example of letters museums are sending to donors and supporters. (See one example on Groupsite).

Virtual Activities

CEOs also discussed the work their museums are doing to bring the museum experience online, with virtual activities, often retaining staff to create this virtual programming. Content is often designed to keep the museum’s community engaged. It focuses on repurposed museum activities families can do at home, such as experiments, physical activities, storytimes, and more. (ACM is tracking these virtual activities—see our ongoing list here).

CEOs shared other virtual content ideas.

  • Some museums are sharing lesson plans for various grade levels, and developing lessons for caregivers to support children with different developmental needs.
  • Additional content models include live events, interactive parent sessions on Zoom, Facebook groups, and virtual field trips.
  • Several museums surveyed their members to get their input on their preferred content and distribution methods.
  • Many museums are sharing content from other museums, to supplement making their own.

CEOs shared positive results so far.

  • Some CEOs found that major donors as well as corporate partners appreciate their museum’s virtual activities, and share it with family members with young children.
  • Some museums had seen an increase in engagement on social media, resulting in fun stats to share with their board members and funders.
  • Activities are seen as a good way to connect with the museum’s community and members. CEOs cited seeing familiar faces from the museum during live events. They create “normalcy” by taking a museum’s already-existing programs online.
  • One CEO shared they’re thinking about the content they’re developing as a new toolset. They may put it behind a member’s-only site or use it in other ways when their museum reopens.

CEOs noted a need for support around a few areas related to virtual activities, as well as posed questions for consideration.

  • Because museums are getting requests to offer content for different ages and needs, how can museums collaborate to create content that’s segmented by audience? 
  • CEOs flagged the need for a standard hashtag for social media (ACM launched the hashtag #ChildrensMuseumsatHome).
  • CEOs asked, how do we not bombard our members, who are receiving a glut of information? Should museums resist creating too much content, and rather encourage parents and kids to take a break and play at home? How do museums ensure they don’t “get lost in the craziness”?
  • CEOs noted that the current virtual activities model may change, asking, how do we leverage this crisis to articulate the big message about children’s museums and our reach, impact, connectivity to family, and community?

As most virtual activities are offered free of charge, CEOs discussed different creative money-makers they can explore related to their current efforts.

  • Offering gift certificates to local business with membership push.
  • Creating pay-to-attend digital camps (i.e. one hour daily via Zoom) to expand on their free activities to keep some revenue coming in.
  • One CEO shared they had converted a state arts council grant to from a performance at the museum to a livestreaming event, allowing them to keep the funds while delivering on their grant project.
  • One CEO shared that a local restaurant franchise had reached out to sponsor their online resources.

CEOs also discussed some of their museum’s offline activities.  

  • One CEO is considering redeploying their staff to help run regional enrichment childcare centers for essential workers.
  • One CEO noted their museum may use Zoom to connect educators with childcare centers, such as local YMCAs, for program delivery.
  • One museum noted specific efforts to serve children with disabilities in this time.

ACM will draw from the conversations of the first CEO Calls as we continue to identify opportunities for museum leaders, and all children’s museum professionals, to convene and share knowledge. Stay tuned for more information!

The Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) champions children’s museums worldwide. Follow ACM on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. Are you a children’s museum with online programming? Contact Alison.Howard@ChildrensMuseums.org. Follow and share museums’ virtual activities with the hashtag #ChildrensMuseumsatHome.