The man, the museum and the dream
There is chatter suggesting what leaders do to lead nonprofits is different than what they do to lead for-profit organizations. According to George Sparks, the CEO of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the only difference is profit-focused organizations have shareholders and nonprofits have volunteers.
George would know the difference. Born in a small coal mining town in West Virginia, George left his hometown to attend school at the Air Force Academy where he became a pilot flying B-52s. Despite his dream of an academic career in the Air Force, George went to work for Hewlett Packard. George worked in many of the HP business units including marketing, sales and management and as a business unit leader. The year he turned 45, George woke up and took account of his life. His HP career was satisfying, but he knew there was another dream as lofty as the sky where he flew his Air Force planes. That vision was to run a major nonprofit organization by the time he was 55. As dreams sometimes unfold, 55 wasn’t the exact age but pretty close. George went into the consulting business with Rollie Heath (another community leader with great things to teach), and for ten months the two ran a practice that helped organizations identify their
visions and missions as well as create strategic plans that would bring their visions and missions to life. One day, Rollie’s phone rang. It was a call about the CEO job opening at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Rollie told the caller he knew exactly the right person for that job and gave the phone to George.
A beloved institution
George became the leader of the museum in 2004. The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is a beloved Denver institution. Literally millions of school children have had their first museum experience there among the dinosaurs, dioramas and special exhibits housed at the museum. Residing in Denver’s City Park with glorious views of the mountains, the museum employs 450 staff and utilizes the services of 1,750 volunteers who show up every week, each for a half day. These volunteers, if paid, would account for five million dollars of labor expenses. They, along with the staff, help each visitor have an incredible time at this institution. The museum has 65,000 household memberships. That includes more members than any other national nature and science facility. Another impressive number is the museum is the fourth largest natural science museum in the country.
A customer focus
Every life experience George has had culminates in running this fabulous place. His vision is clear: Love nature so to take care of the world; love science so young minds enter the science professions. To enact that vision, George describes Museum 2020 with its goal of raising $170 million dollars. With these funds the museum can be positioned to be a museum of the 21st century. That future museum will have the visitor creating his/her own experience. Customer focus is a unifier between the nonprofit and for-profit world. As in most organizations that excel in customer service, the museum is in constant touch with customers. This contact is done through the process of formative and summative evaluations. As they leave, many visitors are asked about their experience. That data is analyzed over time, creating summative data that drives new activities at the organization. Conducting these processes involves three full-time staff and 40 volunteers. This data not only determines what programs or interactions a visitor might desire but also tracks who the visitor is. As a southwestern city, Denver’s demographic is changing to a Hispanic majority. That shift portends a different museum. By asking questions now, the museum will be relevant far into this century.
Taking care of the troops
George’s leadership style was learned in the military. His leadership credo involves accomplishing the mission, taking care of the troops and creating new leaders. This approach to leadership honed in the military applies to any organization. For George, accomplishing the mission in a for-profit organization is making profit–that is the scorecard. In nonprofits it is knowing and realizing the vision. Taking care of the troops and creating new leaders mean the same in for-profits and nonprofits. Successful employees with the next generation of leadership identified create organizational sustainability and the future of the vision. Recently George, with support from the museum trustees, made a bold move to eliminate the entrance fee for school groups coming to the museum. That means 400,000 children and the school districts they represent can visit the museum more easily. Those visits tie students perfectly to the vision of loving nature and science.
George exemplifies powerful lessons for the next generation of nonprofit leaders. George’s greatest lesson is to dream the dream; give it ten years; and then live, execute and believe the dream is possible.