Patricia "Trish" Wellenbach, 59, leads a children's museum, but the financial situation the Please Touch Museum found itself in last year was not child's play.

Driven into bankruptcy trying to cover costs incurred in its 2008 move from Center City to Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park, the museum owed $60 million.

To shed the debt and exit bankruptcy, the museum paid $11.25 million, raising $5.75 million from donors, with a $3.25 million gift from an anonymous donor, and the rest from a 2006 bond sale.

The plan presented to the bankruptcy judge in March assumed the museum would be able to substantially increase the dollars from donors, up to roughly $2 million a year.

Is that goal reasonable?

There are a couple factors that are different now. We don't have $60 million worth of debt burden.

Does that help fund-raising?

It means that if we're fund-raising the money is actually going into programs and reimagining the museum experience and that it's not going to pay off a debt burden. It's hard to get people excited about paying off a debt.

For the last several years you've been working with nonprofits in distress, the museum, Green Tree School, the Philadelphia Orchestra. Any lessons?

The personal emotional lesson is that you can never get emotional. You have to leave that at the door when you go to the table and make the tough decisions. You have to keep a kernel in the back of your head about the mission and the fundamental purpose of the entity, but if you let that invade too much, you'll not make the best decision.

How do you handle bad news?

Your first instinct is to lean forward and try to counter it.

But you have to just take a deep breath and kind of absorb it in your head and think, "OK, what are they really telling me?"

Sometimes the best thing you do is say, "You know what? I hear you. I might disagree with it, but I need a little time to think about it. Can we revisit it?" It's disarming to the person on the other side.

What about appearance? I hate to ask women that, but it seems to be a factor in a way it isn't for men.

Here's the deal. From 6 in the morning until around 11 at night, I have to look like I'm worth investing millions of dollars in. It's my job to make the investor, the partner, the funder believe that I've got it together and I can handle it.

What's the key to doing that, especially in those tough down-to-the-wire financial situations?

Deep breath, exercise, and being willing to gain 10 pounds. You just eat badly. You don't always have time to take care of yourself because you are working pretty much 24/7. It's lonely. I will say that. You have to have an outside life.

Charity Navigator, which rates nonprofits based on finances and transparency, gave Please Touch a low rating, saying its program spending was low relative to administrative overhead.

The way PTM had been quantifying its allocation of fund-raising, administrative, and program costs was not in alignment with how others do it. We were allocating them in the wrong boxes. Now we're more in line with best practices.

Your plan for the museum's future includes drawing a wider audience by adding exhibits to appeal to older children.

I think we told ourselves that our [toddlers] age out. But I see older siblings who are having just as much joy in learning at the age of 8 or 9 as the 3- or 4-year-olds. The Curious George exhibit has been fascinating to see, because, really, the adults love it just as much as the younger kids do.

So it may be as simple as changing the wording on your brochures?

It might be as simple as that. We're going to utilize [a Pew grant] to explore maker space and STEAM [science, technology, engineering, art, math] exhibits. That lends itself toward an older child.

Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.




Title: President, CEO.

Home: Center City.

Sons: Matthew, Jeffrey.

Getting married: To Lawrence McMichael.

Diplomas: Boston College, School of Nursing.

Resume: Started as a labor and delivery nurse at Pennsylvania Hospital; moved into nonprofit management and consulting. Led Green Tree School and Services.

Favorite dolls as a youngster: Barbie, Chatty Cathy.

Loved to read: Charlotte's Web, all the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. EndText



Where: Fairmount Park.

What: Hands-on museum for children, now featuring a Curious George exhibit.

Revenues: $8.96 million.

Employees: 124.

New start: Emerged from bankruptcy in March, after the museum paid $11.25 million to bond-holders, after an anonymous $3.25 million donation.


CEO's advice: Women, it's OK to take credit at work.