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Film: Digital Fundraising for Museums

In his own words, Steve Bridger helps some of the UK’s biggest charities to unlearn stuff and trust more of their own people to build relationships online that support collaboration, transparency, advocacy and philanthropy.

Steve spoke at the MuseumNext conference in Edinburgh about building relationships and fundraising through networks – and look at what museums can learn from charities with regards to strengthening the relationships between museums and supporters.

What is the Future of Museum Fundraising?

Steve: Thank you. It’s been good hasn’t it? It’s been a long day. Well, it’s been good up until now anyway.

I’m not going to take up too much of your time. Maybe 20, 25 minutes or so. I am going to talk a little bit about fundraising, but I’m going to put it in a bigger context, because I feel very strongly that people will donate as a consequence of their engagement with you. That will become increasingly the case as time goes on. Not that donation is the be-all and end-all.

A couple of things I’ve seen running through the day, things that have come up a lot, like taking risks, trying new stuff, being very experimental. Particularly Jasper’s thing. Participatory stuff people have been trying. But I think there has been something missing, which is you guys, the people who actually work in museum, because I think it needs your participation too. It’s not just the job of the people who work on the digital team, if in fact you are big enough to have a digital team.

As Jim said, I work pretty exclusively with not for profits in the UK. I try and encourage them to recognise they have a passionate community right under their noses, which, as I said, is their staff, their own people. But you’re often overlooked or you receive the wrong signals from the cold hands of HR and IT, as I like to call them. You don’t receive the signals which will suggest to you that you can embrace social media to talk about the amazing stuff that you hear about and see every day.

As Linda was saying, we are living in incredible times. Every sector is being affected by social media, and the kind of behaviors that it’s engendering. A lot of the changes I think still remain quite hidden. For example, in the work I do with charities, if I have a conversation with a finance director, he or she will still look at social media through the lens of how much money it’s actually bringing in. So, for example, the amount of money given on-line to charities in the UK is still below 5% of total donations. But it’s increasing 30-35% a year. So that figure’s increasing quite quickly. But if you only look at the bottom line then it doesn’t look that impressive. It’s a long haul, some of this stuff.

Again, a lot of conversations I get myself into are trying to convince organizations that we’re beyond the point, hopefully, of just adding internet. You know, just add social media to whatever it is you were doing previously. Hopefully you have a strategy, but I think we’re moving to an era where your whole organization has to be social. You have to become a social organization. And I’m going to explain what I mean by that hopefully in the next ten, fifteen minutes or so.

Because I feel like a slight imposter given that I don’t have any current clients who are galleries and museums, I thought I would just kind of take myself back to bed myself in this topic. A long time ago, when I was at University, 24 years ago – does anybody recognize this, actually, from this? Probably no, it’s a bit – I went to the University of East Anglia, in Norwich, which has the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts on campus. Does anyone know it? Pretty amazing kind of place to have on your university campus. This is the walkway going up to the building, you kind of enter it and it’s at the first floor level and then goes down some steps. I was thinking back to my relationship with that building, that gallery if you like, and the thing I remember most about it was I tended to want to sit in the same seat in the cafeteria all the time because of the certain alignment of some of the exhibits. There was a kind of Giacometti kind of figures, long tall figures, and there was a mirror over there, and there’s some Elizabeth Frink, and I just used to sit near a window in the corner, doing some patching (laughs). No computers then. Handwriting, doing some essays and stuff. I just liked being there, and there as something very visceral about that place. Not necessarily interacting directly with the exhibits, but just being there really resonated with me and was something that I remembered this week thinking about it.

I’ve been really impressed with what is going on in this sector, to be honest. Lots of amazing stuff.

This is something I fished out this week, Object Stories which I think is from the Portland Museum in the states. Anyone seen that? Really interesting project where they’re inviting people to bring in an object. It could be anything, that’s of value to them or has meaning, perhaps has a memory attached, and they tell a little story. There’s a couple of photos of them, and there’s an audio piece of them telling us why that object is so important to them.

I wanted to put in something that I liked a lot from Flickr, going back four years ago, where someone who had been holidaying in the Republic of Ireland in 1972 had posted an old postcard or a photograph of that postcard up on Flicker, of this town called Listowel, and then in the comments, I’m not sure if you can read that, someone has just layered – just knows that street so well, and has told the story and added the extra layer. So it’s just a photo, and yet someone is saying, “Thanks. Here’s the story. I grew up on that street, it’s called Upper William Street. It used to be called Patrick Street. I lived nine doors up from the building with the balcony. That hall is called St. Patrick’s Hall. They had snooker and video tables, the man standing at the door is Tony Feeney. I remember that wee black dog well, I used to play with him. I was 12 when that photo was taken. I know everyone who lived in all those houses, and one of them was derelict back then, the one with the brown door where the dog is. We thought it was haunted. The guy who owned the donkey is probably having a pint in Sheehan’s bar, which was just a little bit up on the left from where the donkey and cart were parked.” Fantastic. So what was just a photo that someone had wacked up on Flickr, suddenly becomes so much more than that.

I just wanted to put a Banksy slide in my presentation. I live very close to Bristol, and there was a big Banksy exhibition which I didn’t manage to get to because thousands and thousands of people got there before me. Last year, I think, or the year before. But looking at some of the images being up on Flickr, there are quite of few of the queue to get in, and people taking photographs of the stamp that was stamped on their hand to say they had been in the Banksy Bristol queue. So again, conversations happening around things like that, not the actual exhibits themselves, although there’s plenty of that too.

Moving along. Recently, I’ve been reading a book called The Hearing Trumpet written by a British woman, a British artist who has lived in Mexico for forty years. My wife is Mexican, so there was an added interest there, and the story is about a 92 year old woman who is a bit deaf, who receives a present from her best friend of a hearing aid, a hearing trumpet. And at the end of the first paragraph in the novel there’s a sentence that ends, after she views this thing for the first time, “Ordinary conversation became quite audible to my ears.” And I thought, that’s social media, really. Social media. That’s what it is to me. Lots of stuff that otherwise would have remained hidden, suddenly become visible.

Another example of a tweet. Thames Reach is a homelessness charity on the outskirts of London, and this guy, Alex Hazel, has tweeted to the charity, “Met one of your stuff in the pub the other day. Was really impressed by how passionate they were and felt compelled to follow.” Again, if I worked at that charity, that would be exactly the kind of thing I would want to see more off and capture and report back into the organization. And it’s those things that remained in the past, hidden, which are now surfacing, which excites me so much about social media.

Big slide there. A bit like Linda really, museums without walls. I tend to think of an organisation’s walls as being walls you can step over. Walls that you should allow people to literally step over. So while I was sitting in that cafeteria at the Sainsbury Center 20 years ago, it would have been great to have a conversation with a curator, maybe. And even through some of the presentations today, I felt that when some of the people, there’s participation, there’s lot of user-generated content, and stuff going on, which I don’t like really using user-generated content as a term. I prefer to see it as people kind of doing stuff they feel passionate about and then sharing it. There’s lots of that, but I still feel there’s this relative absence, and challenge me later by all means, of the people who work in the museums and the galleries. I think in theory you could be uniting two passions, saying you’re hopefully passionate about what you do, and for the stuff that’s in your buildings and there’s a shared narrative with other people who are experiencing your exhibits in your museums and galleries too. I think the distance between you and them should really shrink to almost anything.

I tend to spend a lot of my time working with organizations, there’s a porous membrane, if you like, trying to let outsiders in and insiders out, trying to be people to understand that in the future. It’s going to be sort of unsustainable, I think, to expect your digital person or digital people to undertake all the participation stuff, conversations themselves. You’re going to have to get to a point where everyone who wants to, everyone who feels comfortable, should be able to use social media and certainly to talk about things. Talk about the stuff that you do. Also, give us a bit of an insider view of what’s going on. I’d like to see more imagery, most stories in between exhibitions. For example, when stuff is being – The Guardian has a really good blog, I think it’s The Guardian’s editors’ blog, where you get kind of a bit of a window into what the editorial process of The Guardian newspaper. Maybe it exists, I haven’t found it yet, but I’d like to get some sort of window into what goes on inside museums and galleries more. I don’t think there’s enough of that.

I’m not saying this is easy. It’s obviously a huge challenge to the brand people who think that not all of you, not all of the staff, will be on message, which isn’t the fault of social media of course. But I think there is a huge opportunity, and the way I look at is that part of the brand of whether you work is the aggregate of all your staff. In a sense it’s your social brand, your people, you guys.

Unfortunately, one thing that charities do very well and a lot of you will work for charities too, be charitable organizations. They do silos very well. Do you all work in your silos? And organisations are not structured for conversation and participation. They’re structured for transactions, mostly. Getting, you know, bums on seats, people through the door, so on and so forth. And you can just replace beneficiary with perhaps a visit to a gallery, just in your context.

I think one of the issues is perhaps that the behaviors that have been established around using old technologies, like the telephone, and an old technology like e-mail, a lot of those behaviors have been established inside the workplace more or less. But the behaviors that have established themselves around the use of social media and social networks and so on have been established outside the workplace, hence this culture clash you get, the issue that the HR department or whatever will have about allowing more staff other than a trusted few. In one organisation they refer to it as the legitimate voices, i.e., just the handful of people who worked on the media team, who were trusted to talk about what it is that you do every day.
And it’s certainly a challenge, because people are using the social web to congregate in new ways.

The UK-based people have heard of a guy called Tony Hart, yeah? Who when I was growing up was on TV a lot, had a program called Vision On and there was this little plasticene figure called Morph, and a couple of years ago Tony Hart died and spontaneously facebook groups sprung up and within a week or so, there was effectively a flash mob outside Tate Britain, in London, where people brought their own little Morphs, with black armbands and little placards saying, “Tony, you move on.” To me, that’s the holy grail of engagement, when people start doing things like this that you haven’t asked them to do. Imagine in your context if people start doing things like that. You haven’t asked them to do it, they just do it spontaneously.

Going back to UEA again, 20 plus years ago, when I was there Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister. Boo. I studied Development Studies and the school was threatened with closure whilst I was there. I wanted to finish my course. There were about sixty people in our course, and because it was Development Studies, about 45 of those students were from overseas. This is pre-email folks. And we were scared stiff that when we all broke up for the Christmas holiday, and we all dispersed around the globe, or mostly around the globe, I went home to Somerset, that they would so something once we were not there. Does anyone know what that is? Shout it out.

You can call each other when class is.

Yeah, a telephone tree. Yeah. So social media basically. I happen to have it here, actually. Can you imagine what my garage is like? It’s a pretty good nick. I think I’ve kept it because I’m at the top of the tree. See? So they’re just technologies, but obviously they give us far greater reach. I think there’s another interesting way we need to change our mindset, the way we look at the whole web. We’ve had to worry, perhaps, about our own corporate website, maybe our Google ranking, maybe a few micro sites here and there, but we still tend to think – I’m generalising, but we still tend to think of the web as a relatively static web of pages. And we think of stuff ourselves, from the center, from the museum, from the gallery, or for your charity from headquarters.

Increasingly, the web, I think, has shifted to what I call a web of flow. Which will reduce the benefit you get from it if you’re just dipping in and out around doing lots of really cool social media stuff around an exhibition. There’s maybe a big gap between that and the next one and so on. I try to work with people to try and get them to understand that they need to be, like the national lottery, in it to win it. You need to be in this social web, in that flow, constantly. And again, that’s another reason why it’s really impossible to expect one or two people in the digital team to do all the work themselves. It needs to have many more people inside your organization participating in conversations and so on.

The final slide. Making the experience a better one shared. There’s an example here on the right of an organization which has been, I think, acting in this way of being in this flow. A couple of years ago I was on a holiday in Northumberland, not so terribly far away. Was about an hour and a half to get there from here I suppose. It was a beautiful sunny day, almost cloudless, except this one humungous cloud. We were all walking along this beach, and there was just this enormous cloud out to sea. So I took this photo and you can possibly see the rain coming down from this cloud. I was with my family, and it was just one of those moments of which maybe, if you’re like me, you carry maybe a really small number, maybe a half a dozen of incredible moments that you sort of want to kind of capture and bottle and keep forever. Very sort of visceral moments.

It’s kind of the stuff you want to share with people. You want to take that photo and share it in the moment. In my experience, again with charities, when you hear a really good story or something that makes you laugh or cry and so on, the reaction – I’m maybe being a big cruel, but the reaction has tended to be, “That will be good for the annual report.” Or, “That will be good for a piece of direct mail” or something, and that really meaningful story where there was a raw emotion attached to that somehow two weeks later, or two months later, it loses some of that impact. So again, it’s an appeal really, and to be honest I’m not sure if I’m right or wrong, it’s an appeal for more people who work with this stuff, work with these exhibits, artifacts, or whatever, to share in the moment how it makes you feel, essentially.

There’s an agency in London called Made By Many, and there’s a big conference that happens in Austin every March called South by Southwest. It’s pretty well known, and Made By Many sent a whole load of their staff to South by Southwest, and they all used – for those of you who have iPhones, the Histogram app? It’s just an app for taking photos and you can use it for a few funky filters, and they set up this page that basically pulled in the photos that maybe a dozen staff on tour in Austin – they pulled in photos of what they were doing. Very banal stuff, but together, in the aggregate, you get a sense of I call it a business life stream and it had blog posts and things woven into that. It just gave me a real sense of, yeah, these guys get it. They’re in the flow. I want to work with them or for them or whatever. And they understand the web.

I think one of the intrinsic values of social media is this ability to share what’s right in front of you in the moment with an audience out there, some of whom will be equally passionate about what you’re passionate about.

I just wanted to finish up with that Maya Angelou quote, “People never forget how you made them feel.” So really my appeal to you is that you guys are the champions, you need to go back on Monday or Tuesday. It’s a bank holiday, isn’t it, in this country. Is it a Bank Holiday in Scotland on Monday? I don’t know. To go back to your organisations and become the social media champions. Okay? You got yourselves here, you need to go back and if you don’t feel as if you have permission to share more of what you do, of what you feel passionate about, in the moment with your networks, then ask, “Why not? “ Anyway, I look forward to speaking to some of you later.

Thanks a lot.

In his own words, Steve Bridger helps some of the UK’s biggest charities to unlearn stuff and trust more of their own people to build relationships online that support collaboration, transparency, advocacy and philanthropy.

Steve spoke at the MuseumNext conference in Edinburgh about building relationships and fundraising through networks – and look at what museums can learn from charities with regards to strengthening the relationships between museums and supporters.

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