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How Museums Can Win at E-Commerce and Online Donations

Sure, having a snazzy museum website is great for brand awareness, impressing users, making information about visiting and programmes easy to find, but let’s get real… Websites can also make you money which is essential for many organisations in the arts and culture sector. Museums as notoriously not very good at soliciting donations online and promoting online shops. Galleries are often littered with clear boxes asking visitors to give their extra change, but when it comes to actually making that asking for funding online or promoting their available products, museums and heritage sites could take a leaf from other sectors like arts and health nonprofits and the performing arts for funding/e-commerce raising tips. 

In this article, we will discuss how to win and e-commerce and online donations. In this sense, we are talking about e-commerce as the practice of selling items online through a website, and online donations as driving site visitors to give charitable donations to your organisation. Both of these methods are common, popular and easy to set up and maintain. There is definitely best practice when it comes to dealing with people and money online, and we will lay out all of that framework so you can not only succeed at negotiating e-commerce and online donations, but so you can WIN! 

To begin, we will start with online donations.

Let’s start with a little quiz:

  1. Is your organisation a registered and eligible charity? 
  2. Does your organisation accept individual donations? Is this something you would like to further promote and continue? 
  3. Do you have a person in your organisation who is tasked with managing donors (recording, following up, thanking them).

Well, hopefully you answered yes to 90% of these questions. All of the elements and questions above need to be considered within your organisation before making the leap to accepting donations online. Once your team is on the same page and ready to start on this journey, go through all of the points we’ll present below to make sure that your online donations targeted, clean, user-friendly and most of all, productive! 

1) Keep it clean

User-friendly and visually appealing is the key here. Just as no one wants to enter a cluttered store to search for an item, no one will be willing to give you their hard-earned money unless the method for them doing so is clean, easy to identify and even easier to use. 

Text needs to be powerful and to the point. Use the call to action phrases that we learned about in week 2, but gear it towards specifically driving people to donate. They need to feel a sense of need, urgency, compassion and empathy. Knowing that their money is going to someone or something that truly needs it is imperative. Whether that be supporting programmes for vulnerable children or helping a museum to purchase a new collection object, the value must power the drive for the donor to take action. Short and sweet, succinct and to the point. Here are some phrases you can incorporate:

These words tug at the heartstrings:

Give back
Click here
Donate (now)
Help out
Support (us, now)
Join (us, now)
You (you can, your impact, etc….)

These words make your wallet sing:


The aesthetics of your donate page and how it is presented and navigable within your website is just as important as the language; they go hand in hand. Just as text can motivate and empower site visitors, they will be guided by their passion and your streamlined website design to walk them through the process and incentivise them to increase donations. From the moment your visitors arrive at your webpage, it should be evident to them that donating online is possible and that they could have a direct click-through if they wished to do-so. 

Website pop-ups are a great way to immediately let donors know that they need your help! Make sure this is on-brand and easy to either engage with or navigate away from as you don’t want donors to feel too pressured the second they land on your homepage (Check out this article reviewing different fundraising plugin’s for your website).

The homepage example below is from Astral Artists, a classical music nonprofit organisation in the United States. From first glance, the option to donate or “support” as they’ve worded it, is clearly evident and catches the eye immediately.

Once they’ve arrived at the donation page on your website, it’s important to make sure that any imagery is mission focused and on-brand. The image below is from Southbank Sinfonia, another classical music organisation but based in London. They use compelling imagery of children and people playing classical instruments to connect to their mission and give donors a visual of what their money will be funding.

This image also illustrates another compelling method of increasing online donations….

Potential donors appreciate quick and easy ways to donate and offering pre-selected donation levels is often one less click for them. If you are going this route, select a range of price-points to increase accessibility, but offer no more than 3-5. Think about your audience and their income levels. Compare this with previous donation frequencies and amounts to help establish your rates. It’s important to always add an option for users to determine their own donation amount when also offering pre-selected levels. 

In the example below from Wac Arts in North London, they use visual and text elements to demonstrate to donors how much support their donation will ensure. They can see the true monetary value of the programming and feel that they are truly helping to improve the life of a young person.

2) Support with email and social media 

You can have the brightest and shiniest donation page in the sector, but with no traffic being driven to it, it will be collecting cobwebs and not living up to it’s true potential. If you are helping development to organise a campaign then map out when the funding initially begins and when the deadline falls. Then, carve out a few dates to send targeted emails encouraging your audience to donate by telling a story through visuals as well as text that illustrates the need for their support. Make sure your emails are compelling otherwise they risk coming off as whiny or insincere. They need to have photos of the children in your programmes that will benefit from funds, or perhaps plans/progress photos of a major renovation project that needs a monetary boot. Keep your audience updated and use those emails as chances to check in with them and remind them of your ongoing need for their support. 

BEWARE of donor exhaustion. We’ve seen far too many organisations become overzealous with making donor requests and it results in the donors feeling undervalued and overall bothered by the multiple asks. There is a fine line between being consistent and pushy. It’s not advisable to send fundraising emails more than every fortnight and definitely no more than 2-3 for an average campaign (2-3 months).

With that being said, putting a “donate now” button at the bottom of every regular email and museum e-newsletter is perfectly acceptable. It’s important to remember however that the big-ask emails need to be sparing whilst the regular small-touch reminders are present in all digital marketing communications. 

3) Say Please and Thank You

Don’t let donors fall of your radar after they’ve contributed to your organisation. Be sure to follow up with them with a thank you email or letter in which you detail how their donation specifically helped your organisation. 

That’s the most popular and first step to say thank you to donors. However, some organisations do get really creative with it. We’d like to challenge your org to come up with some mission-based and memorable ways to thank donors and make them feel valued. Here are some of our favourite examples: 

  1. A hand-written note (oldie but goodie)
  2. Private tour
  3. Private collection hours 
  4. Social media shoutout (check for permission first)
  5. Video thank-you
  6. Appreciation party
  7. Private event
  8. Personalised phone call 
  9. Acknowledge donor anniversary or birthday

4) Be seasonal and cyclical

Many fundraising campaigns are run twice annually, once in the spring and again in the autumn. This however is not the case for all nonprofits and fundraising organisations. Perhaps you fundraise to support a certain annual festival or programme. Perhaps you align your fundraising events with the end of your financial year. Any way you slice it, it’s important for your audience to become accustomed with when you will be making that ask and how they can best support your organisation. 

Giving Tuesday is an internationally recognised day for making charitable donations. It began in the United States in 2012 to encourage charitable donations just after the holiday of American Thanksgiving. It is always celebrated on the Tuesday that falls just after Thanksgiving and has grown to international significance. 

There are options to participate as an individual, a business and a charity. If you become a partner, you will receive Giving Tuesday logos as well as inspiration for your own campaigns. Joining up with a world-wide initiative like this can help to attract new donors, spread brand awareness and have a platform through which you can speak about the amazing things your organisation is doing. 

When participating in a campaign like Giving Tuesday, or thinking through your own fundraising campaigns, it’s best to look at a calendar and give yourself ample time to run a robust campaign that fully engages current and new donors. Utilise special banners, graphics and text to let your audience know that NOW is the time to donate and that your organisation needs their support. 

AmazonSmile is a great programme to take advantage of if your organisation is a qualifying charity. This website associated with Amazon allows customers to choose a charity that they would like to receive 0.5% of the net profits of their purchase. If your organisation qualities (you must be an official representative of a charity registered with the charity commission of either England and Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland), then definitely take advantage of this way to increase brand awareness and raise worthwhile funds. 

Time for part two…

Museums and E-Commerce

Now it’s time for quiz #2! Answer the questions below to find out if you are ready to dive into the world of e-commerce:

  1. Does your organisation currently have a gift shop or sell merchandise on-site?
  2. Do you have a person in your organisation who will be tasked with managing orders and processing shipping? 
  3. Are you intending to relate your products to your collection/mission?
  4. Do you think your audience is interested in buying products from your organisation?

E-commerce has the ability to do very well, or very poorly. It’s all about supply and demand as well as how thoughtfully the items are curated and presented to your target audience. These questions needs to be asked…. Are these things that people want to buy? Is there a definite need for them? Am I selling items that people can’t get anywhere else? Establishing a demand is integral to then thinking through the supply. 

A good way to test the waters is to start to sell on a small scale at your organisation’s physical location, or assess the most popular items if you already are undertaking this practice. Give out a few freebie items at events as prizes or incentives. Assess the public’s reaction to your proposed wares and then make tweaks as necessary. 

Once you’ve established that yes, you want to go to the next level and sell items online, you need to explore whether or not your existing website has e-commerce capabilities and if not, consider using an e-commerce site like Shopify as an online shop extension of your brand. 

Shopify is a major player in the e-commerce game and they offer lots of customisable options to choose from that will fit any size organisation. Their plans start at £29 and offer various different ways to integrate e-commerce into your existing business: 

  1. Online store
  2. Point of sale (in person, pop-ups etc…)
  3. Buy button (can be added existing site)
  4. Sales channels (use for social media campaigns and various marketplaces)

Before saying yes to a powerful platform like this. Take a good look at your organisation’s business and digital marketing strategies. If e-commerce is a priority and you have the inventory, or have plans to develop extensive inventory, then go for it! However, if you are just dipping your toes in the e-commerce world, then do more research and sales trials before investing in a platform like this. 

Once you’ve gotten the nitty gritty technical details of e-commerce down, it’s good to think about the variety of items and objects that you’ll be selling and how they can be presented in a way that’s motivating and enticing the customers. 

If it’s within your budget, consider working with a graphic designer or illustrator to create compelling designs that your customers will ONLY be able to get from your brand. Make sure to work out a fair agreement with the original designer to make sure that they are paid appropriately but then that you maintain all of the design rights. If your organisation works with artists, this could be a great chance to work with them towards a mutually beneficial goal. In every instance possible, try to utilise the creativity within your organisation and always make sure that the products and design relate back to your mission and values

PROFIT is incredibly important. That’s kind of a no-brainer, but it’s something that many organisations who dive into the world of e-commerce overlook in favor of keeping up with competitors and filling their shop with perceived “must-haves”. If you are investing time, energy and money into branding items and having them available in your online shop, then choose profitable items. 

Think about buying habits of your current audience. Be realistic about whether or not they are likely to buy a branded sweatshirt or if they would rather buy an artisanal soap from a local artist. What are they most likely to be excited to see in your online shop and buy? 

If you do choose to go the route of branded items. Check out Printful, a website that can save you time and money by storing your logo and creating made to order items as the demand arises. In other words, this will eliminate boxes filled with hoodies and t-shirts in the storage room as Printful will print to fill an existing customer order and then ship it right to them. This takes a lot of the guess-work out of pre-ordering stock and can be a very handy tool. 

Another way to maximise profits is to offer discounts and bundles on certain items. Are you able to put together a “festive package” a “birthday package” an “art lovers package”? Taking little profit cuts can help you to move more inventory and will incentivise buyers to come back to your website when they are shopping for themselves or loved ones. They will remember that your organisation provided valuable for their money and will likely return to buy again in the future. 

Wrapping it all up

Websites and social media are great ways to further involve the digitally inclined in the charitable and commercial aspects of organisations. To capitalise off of their interest in and presence on these platforms, it’s important to be clear and direct when asking for donations as well as interesting and enticing when it comes to promote e-commerce products. 

There isn’t any ONE way to go about getting the most donations or selling an abundance of products. As with all aspects of digital marketing, there will be a lot of trial and error before you can find something that works for your organisation. 

MuseumNext offer online learning for museum professionals striving for engaging, relevant and flexible professional growth content. Learn more about our virtual museum conferences here.

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