The fundraising environment and the donating habits shift all the time. This is why it’s necessary for museums, now more than ever, to take fundraising seriously, and dedicate appropriate resources and energy to the process.
When it comes to museum fundraising, it’s best to start with the basics. Get clear on your goals, make a convincing case that addresses a real need, showcase the impact of your work, and share powerful stories. A successful museum also harnesses the power of its people and is able to manage data and finances appropriately.
While there’s no “one size fits all” in museum fundraising, there are some best practices and powerful principles out there that can help you fund all of your museum’s dream projects.
This fundraising guide is intended to provide practical advice and useful fundraising insights to museums large and small on how to kick-start or improve their fundraising efforts.
1. Craft Your Message
Successful fundraising is essentially about selling. Whether you’re asking for donations to support a new gallery, start new education projects or exhibitions, fund a new acquisition, or fund a new building, you have to pitch it to your donors. They need to be persuaded to give.
For that, you need a clear proposition. Before launching a museum fundraising campaign, take the time to craft your message. What is the fundraising campaign about? Who is it for? Why do you need the funds now?
Naturally, you can only answer those questions if you’re clear on your museum’s goals and priorities. Reflect on what your museum aims to achieve and what is the expected positive impact of the project/initiative you wish to fund. Then, communicate that to a relevant audience, that shares your values and shares the passion for your mission. When communicating the message, ditch the jargon and the overly ‘salesy’ voice.
Clear and consistent messaging are vital for successful fundraising. It’s often helpful to write a “case for support” which clarifies the messaging and brings other practical information to one place.
For example, sharemuseumseast.org shared a story of The Museum of East Anglian Life. The museum had a specific message and got really clear about how people can get involved.
“Staff came up with the creative idea of producing piggy banks, which visitors can purchase from the museum shop for a refundable deposit. Each pig has its own name and comes with a personalised note. Visitors are encouraged to ‘adopt’ a pig, take it home or to work, ‘feed’ it with money, and return it to the museum to support the Heritage Farm.
The pigs cost the museum £3 per unit, and people can adopt them for a fee of £5. The pig has extra significance for the museum; the piggy bank was designed to look like the Large Black Pig, a heritage breed that is local to the area and one of rare breeds that will be preserved through the Heritage Farm. The museum has promoted the campaign through social media, with pictures of the piggy banks doing fun activities at the museum and raising awareness of rare breeds of the region.”
2. Mind Who You’re Talking To
Customizing your fundraising appeal to your audience will be quintessential to your success.
For example, if you’re reaching out to public bodies and charitable organizations, they’re more likely to be interested in the public value of your initiative and how it will contribute to the wider community.
On the other hand, if you’re trying to get corporate sponsors on board, it’s important to communicate to them how the sponsorship will increase their reputation and brand.
Private donors can be motivated by many different things, and the motivations will differ amongst different donor segments.
3. Run Patron Programs
Museums have relied on the support of private donors and patrons for centuries. Today, bigger museums might rely on their prestige and reputation to attract private wealthy donors, while smaller museums might rely on enabling the donor to get more closely involved with their work.
For example, the British Museum offers a patron membership program starting at £1,500 per year, or £125 per month, and there are four Patron Circles to choose from. Each provides a different way to support the British Museum.
If you decide to run a patron program, offer your patrons perks. For example, you could organize networking events or exclusive exhibition previews. You could also offer bespoke tours for your patrons with your museum’s expert curators.
However, Christopher Woodward, director of the Museum of Garden History in London, warns against excessive spending on benefits for patrons and says: “They (patrons) don’t want to have lots of dinners paid for. They want to see you spending the money not on entertaining but on exhibitions and on buying works of art.”
When you’re cultivating private donors, networking is essential. Network like mad, reach out to wealthy people you know and get them to introduce you to other wealthy people. Be persistent and don’t get discouraged by rejection. Sometimes, all you need is one “yes”.
4. Give Donors Options
Some donors prefer to donate to big structural funds, while some might be happier donating to smaller projects. Give your donors the opportunity to donate to a project or cause they care about. Also, offer your donors the option to donate to wherever the money could be best used by your museum at that time.
The British Museum’s Special Interest Groups give donors the opportunity to contribute towards expanding and sustaining a particular area of the Museum’s collection. For example, Ottley Group supporters donate to the acquisition of pre-1900 European drawings and Vollard Group supporters help to fund the acquisition of post-1945 prints and drawings.
You can also enable legacy giving. Make information available on your website about legacy giving and how that would benefit your museum. Consider investing in a wealth-screening program which can help you prioritize your resources.
5. Set Up a “Naming Rights” Initiative
A popular way for museums to raise funds, a “naming rights” initiative lets wings, galleries or bricks – even a brushstroke – be named after donors. Some donors will donate in memory of someone else.
For example, Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum raised £600,000 towards its refurbishment appeal by offering donors the chance to be named as a contributor, however modest, on a wall plaque in the museum’s central hall. There was no lower limit to donations, which ranged from £2 to £5,000. The wall now bears 9,500 names of individuals and families.
“Naming rights” used to be reserved only for major donors, but the initiatives such as the one run by the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum made this fundraising strategy much more inclusive. This can also help foster a stronger relationship between museums and their local communities.
Here’s how The Nikola Tesla Museum combined the “naming rights” with crowdfunding and raised over $500,000, surpassing their goal. In this case, $50 would have your name on a brick with two other people, and $1,200 USD would get you four 8″x8″ bricks grouped together. They also enabled donors to buy a Tesla Motors t-shirt if they couldn’t afford a brick. For each shirt sold, $15 went directly to the museum.
6. Explore Trusts and Foundations
Trusts and foundations are an important funding source for museums worldwide. However, the landscape has become increasingly competitive with more and more museums and organizations looking to fill their funding gaps.
Many trusts have narrowed their criteria, applying more scrutiny than ever to different bids. Moreover, every trust and foundation has its own specific aims and sets different criteria.
First, research the trusts you think are most likely to find your project. Make sure you meet their criteria, deadlines, funding levels, and other application requirements.
Trust applications are very time/consuming, so make sure you get started ahead of time and tailor them to the trust. Where possible, ring the correspondent to discuss the application process in more details.
Corporate sponsorships are another potential funding source for museums, although seeking corporate sponsorships is often not the best use of time for nonprofits these days. However, this avenue shouldn’t be completely dismissed. Especially if you are a small or medium-sized museum, it could be worthwhile to reach out to local businesses for sponsorships (and ask for in-kind sponsorships and volunteer time too).
7. Let Donors Give Online
Today, online giving is a “no brainer”. Many donors choose to and prefer to give online.
It’s very important that your museum’s website is up to date, reflects your mission and your values, speaks to your target audience, and is modern and functional.
Have a general donation page or (albeit more rare) choose to have different donation pages for different projects. Give the opportunity to the donor to give only once, if they wish to do so.
Even if your donation page is general and “catch-all”, make sure to highlight the positive impact of donations. For example, on the Tate website, the museum shares how the donations help their expert conservation team care for and restore works in the national collection and how donations help them to provide access events including British Sign Language talks, multimedia guides, and Deafblind/Touch tours. They also clearly tie in suggested donation amounts to a specific positive outcome (as seen in the image below) – which is a best practice for online fundraising.
What can you do?
Ensure there’s a “Donate Now” button which leads donors to a donation form.
Even if your website is perfectly crafted and your call to action is inspiring and compelling, if your potential donors click on your call to action and your donation process is complicated or confusing – you will lose them. If it’s hard to read and interact with a website, let alone make a donation, users will give up before they’ve even started.
By using an online donation system like Donorbox, you guarantee a hassle-free, optimized donation system to your museum donors – increasing your donations. Donorbox donation pages are simple, beautiful, and fully customizable. It’s safe and secure, and much more affordable than other tools on the market. Donorbox boasts tons of other features that can help you raise more funds for your nonprofit
- Suggested donation amounts with descriptions to let your donors feel great by knowing what they’re contributing to.
- Integrated employer donation matching.
- Recurring giving options. Place a recurring giving option on your form to see higher donor retention rates.
- Optimization for desktop computers, mobile phones, and tablets.
- Accepting donations on your Facebook Page.
- Donation ‘thermometer’ to encourage more donations.
- Multiple payment gateways (Apple Pay, Google Pay, PayPal Express).
8. Set Up a Membership Program
The original ‘recurring giving’ model – the membership program, in addition to bringing in sustainable revenues, can also lay the groundwork for future expansion and improvement projects. A key to growing your membership is establishing a membership model that is in alignment with your organization’s overarching strategy and the values of existing and future members.
A critical consideration when establishing the fees for your nonprofit membership levels is the return on investment, or net revenue, for a membership. Think about how much you spend to secure new members from your efforts and how much it will bring you.
The first step to build an effective membership program is accurately analyzing the visitors of the museum; the membership plan should adapt to their tastes. The membership campaigns should be shaped around their interests and mirror their need as museum’s users. The benefits associated with the different types of membership should be appealing and personalized to your audience.
American Natural History Museum, for example, offers a membership program letting their members immediately enjoy a number of benefits. These include unlimited General Admission and free tickets to special exhibitions, access to a Member entrance, previews of new special exhibitions before they open to the public, and more. Their memberships range from $115-$5000.
9. Work With Your Board
Museum Board members have many responsibilities. These can include setting the museum’s direction, ensuring necessary resources, and providing oversight. They are guardians of the mission, ensure compliance with legal and financial requirements, and enforce ethical guidelines for their organization.
They monitor progress, evaluate the performance of the organization and the chief executive, and demonstrate integrity in everything they do on behalf of the organization.
Fundraising is one of the key responsibilities of members sitting on your museum’s Board. When recruiting for directors, make the responsibilities and financial commitments very clear. If you don’t, you missed an opportunity to present a clear explanation of goals, timetables, staff resources, and expectations. Given the proper orientation and training, any board member who is willing to learn can become a highly valuable and effective member of the fundraising team.
10. Nurture Relationships With Donors
When a donor gives, it’s only the beginning. Relationships with donors, big or small, need to be nurtured. Depending on the donor segment and your capacity, keep your donors up to date on projects with newsletters and bulletins, invite them to events, and offer them a chance to make a personal visit to the museum. Send photos and videos, share stories, send progress reports.
Do however much you can to keep your donors engaged and involved.
“People give to people” is one of the most agreed upon tenants of fundraising. Relationships are often the most important component in successful fundraising. See your donors as more than just wallets, and it will pay off both in donations, reputation, and a sense of community.
Cultivating relationships with donors and building a sense of community helps create a feeling amongst donors that being a part of the museum is important.
In the last years, getting the necessary resources for museum activities has become a major challenge. With public funding in decline, it has now become vital that all museums, galleries and cultural institutions invest in acquiring the skills and expertise that will enable them to raise funds.
Fundraising is not only an important part of a museum’s activities because of ensuring the doors stay open, but also as a mean of development of the whole community. Grants, donations, and membership programs can work as instruments to create or reinforce the existing social community where the museum is located.
Fundraising is hard work and there aren’t any shortcuts or magic wands that will lead to quick success, so it is vital to get everyone in your museum involved in fundraising.