One-on-One: CEO of the Edison & Ford Winter Estates Michael Flanders
"Obviously, what is lacking is the philanthropy."
In a world of on-demand entertainment, museums and historical sites around the country are finding it difficult to adapt and stay relevant. Some look to blockbuster exhibitions or acquisitions. But that isn’t in the cards for the Edison & Ford Winter Estates. As valuable as they may be, even the most exciting artifacts from the life of Thomas Edison or Henry Ford don’t cause as much of a stir as the Estates would like. This is compounded by the fact that the downtown Fort Myers historical museum and botanical garden relies more heavily on admissions than do similar organizations. It doesn’t have the same robust philanthropic support as, say, Artis—Naples or Naples Botanical Garden. All of this might concern Michael Flanders, the architect and former Fort Myers city councilman who this year assumed the reins as CEO of the Estates. Instead, he sees a bright future with great potential to be an even more important part of the city’s ecosystem.
On his journey to the Edison & Ford Winter Estates
“I’ve been an architect in downtown Fort Myers since 1984, and since 1998 I’ve been doing two jobs as a member of Fort Myers City Council. I don’t think it would have worked if my offices hadn’t been just a few blocks away (from each other). In that time, I was really focused on bringing back downtown Fort Myers. And now, for the first time since really the 1970s, downtown is the epicenter of activity in the city. So, it felt like the right time to leave. And I’d like to just have one job at this point in my life. My architecture firm will close by the end of the year, per my agreement with the Edison Ford board.”
On what he brings to the job
“It’s an exciting and challenging time to move to the Estates. It’s a time for thinking about what the future of this organization will be. We have so much we can and need to be doing that we aren’t doing yet. That’s why I’m here. I can offer a strategic vision for the future.”
On the role museums should play in the community
“We need to involve the community more. Museums should be as much of a community gathering place as they are a holder of artifacts. We have 17 acres of historical gardens and buildings, but then we have another 5 to 6 acres that are not historical. That’s where we can focus on building something for the community. We can create a space that the community can use for so many different things, which is something that is lacking now.”
On the challenges facing Edison Ford going forward
“In a perfect world, museum funding should be 60 percent from admissions and 40 percent (from) elsewhere, from things like grant writing and philanthropy. In 2017, admission was 65 percent, retail was 18 percent, memberships 6 percent and special events 10 percent. Obviously, what is lacking is the philanthropy. We feel good about our admission numbers; we are really strong in retail. But we need to do more in the other areas. We need to get away from always needing to sell something for revenue.”
On how to fix the fundraising problem
“First, you have to have diversity in the people you serve. We need to touch all different types of people. If you don’t appeal to a lot of people, your pool of potential donors is small. So we need to be broad in our offerings. Then we have to create a vision people can get behind. That’s why I’m here. We have to have a compelling reason for people to support the cause. We are getting ready for a campaign with maybe an $18 million first phase, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to have that level of community support.”