Please Touch Museum 'Drowning in Administrative Costs' - Or Not


One of the standard rating services meant to help donors decide where to put their money is Charity Navigator, so when the Please Touch Museum showed up on its list of "10 Charities Drowning in Administrative Costs," we took notice.

So did the museum. After all, the introduction to the list all but waves donors away from the groups:

"These 10 charities are not models of efficiency. Each directs more than 44% of its budget towards administrative costs. That means most of your money goes toward such expenses as liability insurance, accounting and legal services, administrative salaries, and investment expenses, not the programs you aim to support."

Please Touch made the 10th spot on the list of ignominy, with 44.9 percent of its income going to administrative costs.

That would be valuable information to any prospective donor - but there's more to the story.

It turns out the year Charity Navigator measured was the year the museum made its move from Center City to the renovated 1876 Memorial Hall (pictured) in Fairmount Park. It's understood in the cultural world that the first year in a new facility for any group requires a temporary period of larger staffing, since the crowds in the first year are larger than the second and third, and no one fully knows what size staff will be required to handle a new facility in the long run.

In fact, the museum says, its staff level has already dropped, from 144 in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2009 to 117 today (measured in full-time equivalents).

"The huge uptick was for hiring front of house staff to accommodate opening and 4,000 visitors a day, which is what we experienced in our first months - porters, security, admissions staff," says museum executive vice president Concetta Anne Bencivenga.

Attendance for the last full year in the old facility was 180,000; the first year of operation in the new facility drew 687,000 visitors. This year, the museum is projecting that 595,000 children and their keepers will pass through the doors of Memorial Hall.

Sandra Miniutti, Charity Navigator's vice president for marketing, says the move was not taken into account when calculating the museum's administrative efficiency.

"We solely look at the financial data on their form 990s," she said, referring to the IRS tax return for non-profits. "No special allowances are made for special activities going on."

Asked whether she thought the museum's appearance on the list fastened any kind of stigma to the organization, she said, simply: "No."

No one can prove it, of course, but I doubt she's right. I suspect that many who see this list in its unexplained state may hesitate to give money. This at a time when the museum is still trying to raise $30 million to pay off its new digs.