(Note: This article was posted just hours before a shootout with the Marathon bombing suspects led to a massive lockdown in Boston. Our thoughts and well wishes are with those in the area. -IDM)

On Tuesday this week, Boston reawakened, with locals and visitors standing in support of one another after the tragic events at the Boston Marathon. Many beautiful things happened on Monday and Tuesday – people opened their homes to strangers who needed a place to stay, rushed to donate blood to Mass General Hospital, and joined forces to make sure everyone could contact their loved ones. Professional rescuers of all kinds did their jobs splendidly. People and businesses did their best to bring people together and offer them reassurance. I know of one bakery that handed out free cupcakes.

Both the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Art opened free to the public on Tuesday. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which is not open on Tuesdays, was free on Wednesday. Each of them released a statement expressing sympathy for all those impacted by Monday’s events, but the MFA put it most succinctly: “MFA admission will be free today. We hope the Museum will be a place of respite for our community.” Interestingly, all three museums made more of an announcement on social media than their websites, and appear to have taken down the announcement on their websites at the day’s end. Their Facebook and Twitter followers responded with very appreciative comments, affirming the idea that people do seek solace in museums. One commenter said, “thank you for giving us a sanctuary.”

ICA by Vanderlin on Flickr

ICA by Vanderlin on Flickr

I don’t want to take advantage of a bad situation to make a point. If you are not comfortable reading about the administrative side of the response to the tragedy, here are some articles you may prefer: USA Today’s sampling of the kind things people did, a comedian’s serious response to what happened, and Boston.com’s list of ways to help.

For those still reading, I wanted to share one thing on my mind: making a museum free for a day is not free for the museum. While only about seven percent of the MFA’s revenue comes from admissions, adult tickets to the MFA are $25 per person, and that adds up. On average, the institution brings in $18,880 in ticket sales per day ($6,79700 in admissions revenue for 2013 /360 open days per year data from their 2012 annual report). While museum visitation tends to vary highly by season, April is likely to be the midpoint, so an “average” day is probably more or less representative of what they would have made on April 16 if they had charged admission. The MFA essentially made a $19k donation to the city of Boston and to the community visiting for the marathon. Comparable data is not available for the ICA or the Gardner, because they report their ticket and program income together, but adult tickets are $15 at each institution, and that adds up too.

To me, the fact that these institutions opened their doors for free is a powerful argument that running nonprofits well cannot be done on a shoestring, break-even budget. While skeptics, and some funders, feel that lean budgets ensure that nonprofits are responsible with their money, nonprofits are actually more able to be responsible members of their communities when they have a robust budget. The institutions that offered free admission, with no way to have planned for Monday’s events, must have enough wiggle room in their budgets to withstand an unexpected loss in revenues, either permanently or until a donor or several respond with their own generosity. They may find that the goodwill they built was a good economic investment, or it may always be a loss on the balance sheet, but they did it anyway. The money may have come from risk capital or from building extra room in their budgets for seasonal ups and downs. Regardless of the mechanism, an institution constrained by a “lean” budget that constantly watching the bottom line would not have been able to afford to offer a spontaneous free day without its leaders wondering if it would jeopardize their ability to make payroll at some point down the road.

Whatever else you may say about how nonprofits run their finances, what the MFA, ICA, and Gardner did was commendable. They participated in a community effort to support everyone affected by the events, directly and indirectly, and gave people a place to go be with their neighbors and reflect on the beauty in the world.