Sharing Back-Offices in the Cloud: The Case of the Chattanooga Museums Collaborative

  • Collaboration was established in 2001
  • 2009 winner of the Collaboration Prize

When the Creative Discovery Museum (CDM) found itself struggling to make ends meet after a disappointing first season in 1995, it reached out to the nearby Tennessee Aquarium for help. Though the aquarium was just three years old, its large business operations infrastructure supported a breadth and depth of expertise at all staff levels that the smaller organization could not rival.

CDM attendance projections were way off, said Katrina Craven, who worked for the aquarium at the time. The numbers were unrealistic, and they were overstaffed, so members of the CDM board suggested they approach the aquarium.

The aquarium began providing assistance with finances, human resources, Information Technology, marketing, advertising and public relations support. A few years later, the Hunter Museum of American Art found itself in need of similar business-side support.

Before the collaboration, the Hunter Museum was sort of internally focused, and hadnt made the effort to reach out to the community, said Katrina, who is now director of marketing and PR for the Hunter Museum. It had an incredibly outdated operational infrastructure. The watershed moment came when the leadership changedthe director at the time joked about coming in and there was one phone with an answering machine and one computer hooked to the internet.

Museum staff shared a single email account, reliant upon a dial-up internet connection. Someone who sat on both the Hunter and aquarium boards began a conversation about finding a partnership that could benefit both organizationsand before long, all three organizations, each within a short walking distance of one another, were working together as the Chattanooga Museums Collaborative.

The two smaller organizations pay a fee in exchange for the aquariums support. Initially, the aquarium offered services in four main areas: human resources, IT, marketing, and finance and accounting. In a paper about the collaboration published by the Brookings Institution, aquarium human resources director Byron Mulligan said his team worked hard to ease the transition and get buy-in from the other organizations staff.

Human resources issues are generally the same across the board, he said. Why pay two or three HR staffs to do the same work a few blocks apart?

Cost and time savings are returned to the individual missions of each institution. The partnership has led to collaboration in other areas, too. The three organizations pool resources for some marketing functions, from buying ads and video production to marketing research and website management, and undertake joint ticketing and fundraising campaigns.

The two smaller museums benefit from the shared expertise of IT staff and better resources, leading to wide-scale technology updates. From an IT standpoint, we have a shared IT dept that manages all the things you can think of that fall under that, Katrina said. All our servers, email systems, all the technology that we use each and every day. That means improved access and reliability, and it makes it easier to get them fixed.

They use a mixture of centralized and local servers, and are linked by network to facilitate information sharing among staff.

We can share calendars and all that, but theres some level of separation for donor information, Katrina said.

Another technological improvement has improved the museum stores of all three organizations, which use the same retail software and a shared database to make it easier to manage inventory across the different sites. In addition, the aquarium took over the purchasing role for the CDM and the Hunter Museum, eliminating the need for those organizations to hire managers with that expertise, which costs more. Now, managers can focus solely on customer service and operational issueswhich is true in other departments, as well.

Organizations our size and smaller simply cant afford to have a dedicated IT person, so it ends up being a piece of somebodys job, she said. And that being what it is, something always suffers. So in many ways, it did allow us to stop worrying about certain things, and not just on the IT side, but accounting and finance, too. When you think about the day-to-day of running an organization, having infrastructure in place and staff to support that, and always being concerned about whether were doing this the right wayit absolutely freed us up to focus on our missions.

The two smaller museums each save over $1.5 million annually, creating a more than $1 million revenue stream to date for the Aquarium. While all three organizations benefit from the collaboration by supporting each others needs, Katrina said, ultimately, the collaboration benefits the community at large.

Having worked for two of the three, I can say its a very beneficial relationship, she said. It has benefits that go just beyond the financial. Its created a real sense of were all in this together, lets see how else we can help each other out.

Editor’s note: This case study is part of an NTEN research series on Nonprofit Shared Back-Offices in the Cloud, which was conducted in June, 2012, and prepared by Idealware. You can read the overview article for this study here, and find the other case studies in this series in our case-study section.

Chris Bernard