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GUEST COMMENTARY: Former YouZeum director deserved better

Wednesday, November 12, 2008 | 2:41 p.m. CST; updated 3:09 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 10, 2010

On Thursday, Nov. 6, I was astonished to read, in a front page article in the Columbia Tribune, “YouZeum director forced to step down.” There are always two sides to any story and sometimes many more. I write now to show another side of what has turned out to be an unfortunate public airing of problems in a non-profit organization that has struggled for its very existence since its inception. 

Since reading the article, I have spoken to quite a few individuals who know the YouZeum, know former director Gwen Robbins, know board members and know non-profits, either by being involved on boards or in development. All are sad that the problems between the board and the executive director were aired in such an article, since both the board and the executive director have poured their heart and soul into the YouZeum. Comments included, “It did not need to be this way;” “The Board’s going public is damaging to all;” “Whatever the problems were, the Board should have made their decision, and then with Gwen Robbins, decided a way she could resign without a public 'hanging;'” and “Personnel matters should be handled privately, always.”

Gwen Robbins moved to Columbia in fall of 2005 from Seattle with her husband, who took a job at MU, and two small children under the age of 6. In Seattle, she was the director of a non-profit for senior citizens. The YouZeum board hired her in summer of 2006 as the executive director and gave her a part-time staff member to work with until close to the time the museum was opened. I have not seen her job description, but believe it was to work with the board to get the museum open as quickly as possible.

In 1991, Ann Cohen first brought forth the idea of a health science museum. The Tribune wrote, “The idea for the YouZeum was proposed in the early 1990s by a group of physicians’ wives known as the Boone County Medical Alliance and the Columbia Chamber of Commerce Health Committee.” Glenn McElroy and Ann Cohen gave a presentation in 1991 to the Chamber of Commerce Health Committee. They are founding members of the YouZeum board. Michael Szewczyk became involved with the Health Adventure Center in the 1990s and has been on the board since 1992. In 2004, Dr. Ali Hussam and his team from the Strategic Technology Group at the MU School of Medicine, and Mark Brush of Brushmarks were brought on to design exhibits. They worked with Joe Graff of Graff Enterprises of Columbia.

Gwen Robbins was quoted as saying, “There isn’t another health museum like it in the country because local talent was used to create the YouZeum’s unique character.” Gwen told me that the interactive displays and machines would be like the museum’s endowment, as the rights to them could be sold to other museums. Now with the financial meltdown, this will not happen as easily as was expected.

The project slowed down while a place for the museum was sought. In 2003, U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., and U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, R-Mo., helped secure the Federal Building  from the U.S. General Services Administration. In 2005, Bond again rescued the project with a $250,000 grant. Donations for the center have come from the community, including $1.1 million from Boone Hospital Center and BJC Health Care. Eight million dollars has been raised, with $3 million used on exhibits. Much of the money was public money and grants.

Now, one needs to put the YouZeum’s fundraising into perspective with what has been happening in Columbia with fundraising by other non-profits and MU.  Major capital campaigns have been under way for at least the last five years. To name a few: the MU capital campaign fund and, with that, the School of Journalism's 100th anniversary, area hospitals, the Missouri Theatre, Ragtag Cinema, Columbia Independent School and building programs at local churches.

This is a city of 90,000. It does not have large corporations, a lot of very wealthy lawyers and very wealthy doctors, all of whom are tapped in other cities for capital campaigns and to keep non-profit institutions alive and healthy. It is amazing and wonderful that this city, and its residents and alumni, have given as much as they have to the institutions I just listed. That is one reason why Columbia is thriving as a city. But the YouZeum does not have the same local faithful followers as the Missouri Theatre, Ragtag Cinema or MU. The YouZeum will be drawing many of their visitors from out of town. And, it is more for children — not for every age.  The museum projected it would have 60,000 visitors a year, but that might change for individuals, families and, especially, schools with the economy and if gas prices rise again. Yet another problem for meeting a budget.

In addition to competing for funds, the extent to which the YouZeum board may not have realized it would have to do, the board took on a building that had many problems. This was what Gwen Robbins, who was new to town, took on. In addition to the job she was hired for, she became the construction manager, and had to deal with the demolition of some of the building due to major problems that were discovered. This was all before she could go on to building the museum and its displays. So Gwen spent many long days and weekends coordinating trades, suppliers, designers, committee members and, importantly, code officials. Essentially, she was given an impossible task with, again, a part-time staff member.

To “force” Gwen out was to put the blame on the person who, all along, had worked diligently to work with the board to solve all problems. And when she could not, they made her the problem.

This city owes Gwen a debt of gratitude for what she has done. When the board became desperate as bills kept coming due, and decided and acted as it did, the least it could have done would have been to allow Gwen the decency to resign quietly with the dignity she deserves, and with a statement from the board and Gwen that she has decided to go on to other things.  

Gwen is one of the most capable and caring individuals I know. As a newcomer to town, she took on something that nobody could do unless they had money themselves, or had several extremely wealthy friends and contacts. She was not from Columbia and did not have the connections that one needs to tap people into giving for whatever reason makes them want to give — name and recognition for giving, etc.

In a non-profit, one of the main responsibilities of a board is "duty of care" — the responsibility to "ensure the organization has adequate resources to fulfill its mission. To this end, every board must be proactive in helping to procure resources to accomplish the organization’s mission. Members need to work with the staff through the chief staff executive (and chief development office, as appropriate) as partners in the development process, from planning through fundraising activities. This entails being involved in fundraising and making personal contributions.” This comes from the S.F. Gray Company's piece, “Ethical Responsibilities of Boards of Directors of Non-Profit Organizations.”

I would ask the board, How much did you fundraise from individuals you have known in Columbia for years? Did each of you directly ask big donors for money, or introduce Gwen to individuals at lunches and dinners and ask for money with her?

I believe without Gwen’s dedication to the YouZeum and all the hard work she did, this museum would not have opened when it did or might have never opened. 

McElroy said in the Tribune article, "the board will create a separate job solely devoted to 'development'." I ask the board, why didn’t you create a development director's job in the beginning or, at least, a year ago. Then Gwen Robbins and the board would not have come to an impasse, and probably would have avoided “forcing out the director.” And this city would not have to witness a very sad situation, which happens, unfortunately, more frequently when expectations are beyond reality, when the board and executive director do not define what it is that is needed and can be done, and when anxiety causes emotional reactivity and not cognitive activity. It is a very sad situation.

Nancy Harter is a Columbia resident.


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