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Ahead of her talk at the MuseumNext Digital Income Summit, Sarah Miguel gives a glimpse into how she and her team took action when the effects of the pandemic began to threaten the future of People’s History Museum.
After spending her early career in the housing sector and then at BBC Children in Need, Sarah’s career progression has seen her pivot from gamekeeper to hunter as she’s moved from grant distribution to her most recent role in business development and fundraising at People’s History Museum in Manchester.
Having developed a strong foundation in digital and a clear understanding of the benefits of lean and agile business practices in creating value for money during those early days, Sarah says believes that those transferable skills have helped her significantly in more recent times.
“I’m really glad my working life began in that working environment and not the other way around. I feel like there are skills and a certain business sense that I might not otherwise have been exposed to. It was also a working culture in which decision making always paid attention to the triple bottom line of financial, social and environmental impact.
“In my experience, I’ve found the museum sector to still be developing how business expertise and tech innovations can be applied in practice, without risking mission drift. I perhaps wouldn’t have been aware of it if I hadn’t lived it during my early career at a profit-for-purpose organisation.”
It was in her very first role within the housing association that Sarah was able to explore her passion for equality, diversity and community investment. From that point on she was almost destined to find her way to an institution like People’s History Museum.
“Having reviewed all of these grant applications I already knew what a strong one looked like and that gave me confidence that I had the ability to write a good bid. I think that has remained one of my fundraising strengths – and something I knew I could bring to the role at People’s History Museum when the vacancy for my current role arose.
“Along the way I’ve developed a range of other skills, though, from donor stewarding, leading social enterprise initiatives and embedding a culture which supports income generation. But, as I’ll be covering in my talk, I’d never planned a crowdfunder before 2020. That has been a new and interesting experience for me – and one I had some initial reservations about.
“It’s a channel that I’d always heard was a lot of hard work and relatively risky in nature. We were also crowdfunding for survival rather than to cover the cost of an object or a project – something more tangible – and I have to admit I initially wasn’t sure that it would resonate with people on that basis.
“So, it has been quite a journey over the last few months. and those are the experiences I’m happy to share with others at the Summit.”
Of course, every form of fundraising in 2020 took place against the backdrop of a global pandemic that was denying millions of people the opportunity to work, closing businesses and pushing the UK into a recession. With this in mind, Sarah admits that it was a tricky time to ask people to support the museum. Sensitive messaging and timing were both critical considerations, and it was important to her team to avoid a cry for help at a time when essential services such as the National Health Service were also being stretched.
“There were quite a lot of sensitivities when we began planning our #SupportOurMuseums crowdfunding campaign. We initially closed down in March during the first lockdown but it wasn’t until December of 2020 that we felt the time was right and that the situation was severe enough to warrant us launching an appeal of this kind.
You can read the museum’s original crowdfunder press release here.
“We had to be aware that during much of that year there were many other charities and organisations that had needed help more than we did. We certainly didn’t want to attract any negative press by acting inappropriately. Eventually, though, it came to the point where our financial reserves were depleting and I felt that there was a need to acquire new donors who loved what we do.
It is the acquisition element that provided perhaps the greatest impetus for People’s History Museum to crowdfund and leverage a new, digital pipeline in this way. Sarah explains:
“Our fundraising target was relatively modest and I did feel that we could have worked to seek that level of donation from a small number of existing donors. However, reaching out to a thousand small donors helped us to work on developing a long-term pipeline of generous individuals, whilst also spreading the retention risk.
Speaking on the digital transformation that has taken place within the museum over the last 12 months, Sarah sees significant progress in many aspects of the institution – many of which have provided a layer of data and insight that only digital can provide. She says,
“At the start of 2020 we had a digital blueprint we thought would take 4 years to implement. That’s been brought right into the present day, with cloud-based systems and remote working made an immediate priority – not to mention the digital content we are creating in partnership with universities and other organisations to inspire audiences online.
“From a fundraising perspective, the data we have gathered through our online channels is particularly interesting, offering insights that can inform future initiatives. For instance, it was great to see that our reach stretched beyond Manchester and that our donors were truly spread around the country. As a national museum that is important to us.
“We were also able to gather qualitative data from the comments left by donors, which gave us further information on the drivers behind donations and how invested people are in what we are doing at the museum.”
One crucial step the People’s History Museum had taken even before Covid hit was to incorporate Goodbox contactless payment facilities within the museum. During the brief windows of time in which the doors were able to open in 2020, Sarah says that this one single innovation proved itself to be hugely valuable:
“Even though we saw just 25% of our typical visitor numbers returning to the museum during those brief stints of opening in 2020, we were still able to accumulate the same level of donations as pre-pandemic. People were increasingly generous – perhaps because they had been able to save during the pandemic or just because of the convenience of being able to use a card rather than rummage around for change.
“Time will tell if this particular trend continues. But it certainly has been fantastic to see in the short term that our audiences are keen to support what the museum does and what it stands for.”
Interestingly, Sarah believes that despite all the benefits and data that can be acquired through digital means, there will always be room for something a little more analogue:
“That did mean that my team and I had to sit down and write out about a thousand thank you cards by hand! But sometimes those little gestures still need to feel memorable and tangible, I think, even in an increasingly digital world.”
Asked finally for her plans for her talk at the MuseumNext Digital Income Summit, Sarah says,
“My talk is designed to be candidly honest about my own initial reservations regarding crowdfunding. But I also want to share the stepping-stones we put in place to ensure that this campaign was such a success. It wasn’t perfect and I’ll touch on what we perhaps could have done differently . . . but I’ll save those particular learnings for the Summit delegates.”
Sarah Miguel spoke at the MuseumNext Digital Income Summit in June 2021.
Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.
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