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Nonprofit organizations make up for cash dearth with creative programs

Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Thomas Hartmann of Watchung, N.J., walks his daughter Beatrix, of Washington, down the aisle at the beginning of her wedding ceremony at Phipps Conservatory on September 14, 2013.

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Sunday, June 1, 2014, 10:00 p.m.

Ann Metzger would watch toddlers pluck ping-pong balls out of the Carnegie Science Center's splash stations as middle-schoolers tumbled over each other chasing parachutes. Their parents always held back.

“They didn't want to push the 8-year-olds out of the way, but we thought, ‘If the kids weren't invited, I bet they'd get in there.' ”

She was right. When the North Side center started its new 21+ Nights for adults, Metzger, the center's director, said she expected a couple hundred grown-ups. The latest one attracted 1,200 people.

Some nonprofit organizations are squeezing revenue out of innovative programs and events to compensate for shrinking government funding.

The Allegheny Regional Asset District credited Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Oakland with staying ahead of the fiscal curve by beefing up its events schedule to include as many as 375 weddings and celebrations in 2013. Phipps events, which generate between $250 to $15,000 for the Schenley Park venue depending on duration and other factors, account for about one-fourth of the nonprofit's $8.4 million in annual revenue.

The Downtown-based Civic Light Opera pads its ticket sales revenue by contracting with outside productions to build its sets. John Edkins, production technical supervisor at the CLO, helps tackle construction for five or six extra shows a year, often for nationally touring companies based in New York City and Los Angeles.

“We try to keep our bottom line as close to breaking even as we can, but because we're a nonprofit, the shops in New York and Chicago hate to see us at the bargaining table,” Edkins said. “They know our bids will come in a lot lower than theirs.”

The CLO's five-month season feels pretty routine, he said. The seven months “off” are when the real work starts.

“The extra sets we produce add a small percentage to offset our operating costs,” he said. “It's not a gigantic amount, but it covers our overhead and pays for supplies.”

The Regional Asset District distributes money to some of these nonprofits from part of the extra 1 percent sales tax collected in Allegheny County, and that funding has not dropped. RAD director David Donahoe said a decline in government funding, though, left nonprofits struggling to pay their most basic bills.

“We used to see a lot more unencumbered funds,” Donahoe said. “Nonprofits can get grants like we give, but a lot of corporate funders tie their gifts to a very specific project. That's great, but it also makes it very difficult for nonprofits to pay their bills.”

Leaders from more than 5,000 nonprofits nationwide participated in the Nonprofit Finance Fund's sixth annual survey, including 171 in Pennsylvania.

Nearly a third of in-state respondents reported ending fiscal year 2013 with an operating deficit; 42 percent reported a surplus.

Achieving long-term financial sustainability was far and away the biggest concern, among Pennsylvania nonprofits, with funding and diversification distant seconds.

Federal, state and local government support declined in the past five years, according to the report, but almost half of respondents reported hiring staff members, providing professional development for workers, attending networking events and giving raises.

Metzger said the Carnegie Science Center is more self-sustaining than most science centers nationwide, funding more than half its $12 million in annual revenue through store sales, concessions, parking, admissions, special events and fees.

“Our earned income makes up 55 percent of our operating budget; that's really high,” she said. “Your typical art museum might be in the high teens, other types of traditional museums might see 24 to 25 percent. We're very cognizant of our visitors and anything we can do to bring more of them through the door.”

Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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