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Small Museums Guide to Successful Fundraising Campaigns

Ah, fundraising. For small museums, it can be one of the most vexing issues. This is usually because simply keeping the museum afloat on a day to day basis absorbs all available time, energy and resources. Museum staff may have some fantastic ideas for developing or promoting their museum, but are constantly frustrated by lack of funds. How can a small museum fundraise successfully from public sources in competition with much larger organisations?

It’s all about the base

Reading some of the major success stories that hit the press, it can be tempting to rush off and set up a crowdfunding campaign. However, those successful and high-profile campaigns, as we’ll see, are usually the result of long-term planning behind the scenes. The best tip to begin the process is to follow the lead of the larger museums and carry out an audit on what you already have; your existing support base in other words.

It should go without saying that lists of current donors and supporters should be up-to-date, that all the names and addresses on them should be correct and that your museum is in regular contact with all of them. Do they receive regular letters or emails of appreciation and invites to events? If not, all that needs to be in place before any fundraising expansion begins.

When supporters regularly receive standard letters with their names misspelt or incorrect addresses, it leaves them with the impression that firstly, the museum doesn’t care very much about them, and secondly, the museum is not very professional. This may be unfair as inaccuracies are often the result of staff with too many other duties, but unfortunately it does have an affect on donations. Let’s not get started on incorrect email addresses that bounce back.

Administrative activities like this can seem to be real chore, and demanding on resources, but they’re vital to the success of your future efforts. Above all, do you feel you have a personal relationship with your current supporters? How do they feel about your museum – do you know? What response does it evoke in them?

As part of consolidating your current fundraising activity, perhaps it will be worthwhile to ask visitors and supporters, either through questionnaires or informal discussions, exactly how they feel about your museum. Also, keep records of all donations, preferably in a relational database, but in a simple spreadsheet of names and amounts at the very
minimum. Include a field for “thank you” letters and follow-ups.

The most fascinating thing about museums is how so many of them are theoretically about feeding the intellect, but in fact, it’s the personal and emotional connection that people have with them that really counts. Understanding this makes all the difference to fundraising.

Identify your funding needs

What do you need money for? No, seriously. What are your funding needs? They’re likely to come under one of three headings. The first is major refurbishment or even renovation, of a building, a gallery or some major item. The second is on-going costs for conserving or curating collections. The third, and this is the area that’s mainly of interest, is to fundraise for a specific project with a definite timescale in mind.

The advantage of “going public” for funding on the last of the three, rather than looking for grants or awards, is that there’s something immensely appealing about a successfully completed project with a distinct beginning, middle and end. This type of well-defined project is likely to gain better press coverage and draw more attention from members of the public. Shortly we’ll take a look at how crowdfunding for a project like this worked for one major museum.

A successful and well-defined project also has the advantage of setting a precedent for future plans. People will remember your museum as the one that rebuilt that steam engine/successfully conserved the world’s oldest teddy bear/exhibited those pieces of medieval glass that were thought to be lost. If you have more than one project in mind, which should get priority?

Be specific. Don’t set up any fundraising project or approach any donors before you know exactly what it is you want, have an idea of costs, and can see not only how your museum will benefit, but also how it will benefit your donors. This isn’t necessarily in some kind of corporate quid pro quo sense either. Sometimes individuals and companies just like to be involved – and they like to be thanked and remembered, whether by name or in some other way, hence the appeal (and success) of “buy a brick” and similar campaigns.

The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow raised £600,000 for its refurbishment appeal in this way, setting no lower limit on donations. The people who gave £1 were treated just the same as those who gave thousands of pounds, with their names added to a plaque listing 9,500 contributors. What a fantastic way to recognise support!

What’s your story?

There’s a story doing the rounds that illustrates how small museums can raise money effectively simply by using their own assets in imaginative ways. The staff at the Museum of East Anglian Life had the brilliant idea of handing out piggy banks to visitors and potential sponsors for an adoption fee of £5.00. The pigs have names, are taken home and fed with money and returned to the museum when they’re full. The piggy banks have ended up in homes, offices and other buildings.

The really unique thing about this project was that the pigs were in the shape of the rare Large Black Pig that is a heritage breed from East Anglia, and which the museum is actively helping to preserve. This story has all the elements to make a template for successful small museum fundraising: a unique local story that also has appeal nationally and internationally; characterful ambassadors in the shape of the personalised piggy banks; and a fun task for the adopters of the pigs in feeding them with money.

It’s easy to visualise why this is successful. Can you visualise, even storyboard, your fundraising project in a similar way? The message is clear: story first, then fundraising. Museums must have a clear vision of what they need, and why. This is the way that big museums work and it’s just as applicable to small ones, as we’ll discuss next when we look at the “really great story” that the Science Museum “didn’t quite know what to do with” until the elements fell into place.

Myth: crowd-funding will save us

Many of us will have experienced or participated in successful crowdfunding, either as individual donors or corporate beneficiaries. In May 2017, Will Stanley, Senior Communications Officer with the Science Museum in London, told MuseumNext about the museum’s highly successful Kickstarter campaign to rebuild Eric, the first British robot. In total, 861 people donated, raising over £51,000 in total to bring Eric back to life.

Will’s insightful comments reveal the pros and cons of using crowdfunding platforms to raise funding. The conclusions are that successful crowd-funding requires good preparation. His museum learned a lot from the process too, so now smaller museums can benefit from that. Hint: they received quite a lot of donations from people called Eric!

One thing to bear in mind is that applicants for many crowd-funding programmes must meet or exceed their targets. This means there’s a great deal of time and investment at stake. Certainly, small museums have a lot to gain from crowd-funding, but they also have a lot to lose and tend not to have any safety net if it all goes wrong.

Advice from the professionals? Hone your fundraising skills by using other avenues first, before you move on to crowd-funding. Only start a crowd-funding campaign when you know exactly what it is you want to achieve and know you can commit the resources to developing and promoting the project in the right way. You need to be confident that you can follow-through successfully once the fund-raising is over. Then go for it!

Trust the locals

From personal experience, I know that local trusts and bursaries can be incredibly supportive. They need to know about you first though! Local trusts don’t tend to go looking for good causes, especially if they are small, as they want to keep administrative costs as low as possible while applying funds in the most effective way.

If your small museum has a local theme, then it may very well touch on the priorities of local businesses and bursaries. One area that comes immediately to mind, particularly in the UK, is textile mills. In the 19th century, enlightened mill owners invested in building facilities specifically for their mill workers, including housing, shops, churches and sometimes various entertainments.

Many of them also set up educational and training trusts, as well as funding for apprenticeships and some had antiquarian interests too. Some of these trusts are still active – local libraries (and librarians!) are often the best source of information. These funds can be the perfect match for a local museum with an eclectic collection of artefacts and diverse themes.

Why quirky works

In his presentation for MuseumNext, the Science Museum’s Will Stanley revealed one of the key ingredients of successful fundraising, along with an appealing story. It’s a museum curator with “a good mix of charm and curatorial eccentricity”.

Museum staff are the best champions of the potential project and its story, and their enthusiasm is catching. In fact, rather than the traditional corporate brainstorming session of yesteryear, there’s probably far greater potential in regular story-telling sessions, in which staff have the opportunity to talk to each other about their favourite piece in the museum to see which one may be a candidate for a fundraising project. It’s not necessarily the most charismatic item that might capture the imagination of potential supporters, either.

It’s about building personal connections and establishing relatability. For example, Neil MacGregor, formerly director of the British Museum, chose a fork as one of his artefacts to illustrate Shakespeare’s world for a BBC radio programme. Far from being an everyday item, in the late 16th century only the elite used forks, and this one was discovered during excavations at the Rose Theatre. It had been lost by a member of the audience. The connections that McGregor drew with other areas of life illustrated clearly the social and economic circumstances of the time. All from the starting point of a 16th century two-pronged fork.

How to use your museum’s unique qualities

How to apply this to fundraising? Let’s take the not-so-humble fork as an example. It raises associations with mining and metal processing, cutlery manufacturers, restaurants, homeware shops and metal recycling. It could be compared and contrasted with other culinary artefacts from other cultures. What other potential connections can you make? All these sectors have businesses which may be very happy to be approached as potential sponsors. If they’re local to your small museum, so much the better.

So if you’re worried that your museum is too small or too quirky to go for major fundraising, what do you think is your most charming and eccentric item? Have you captured it on video yet? You could be looking at your biggest asset.

Bear in mind that different age groups respond to different types of appeal, and corporate sponsors respond differently to private individuals. Fortunately there’s some useful literature out there for preparing approaches to the different groups.

And finally: one excellent tip, recommended by professional fundraisers, is to only contact existing or potential donors when you’re in a good mood. People want to feel needed and valued. Being offhand with someone can result in losing their support forever. Alternatively, being appreciative and really having a good relationship with your donors, however great or small their donations, gets results.

About the author – Miriam Bibby

Miriam Bibby has worked at Beamish Museum, Manchester Museum, Clan Armstrong Trust Museum and Gilnockie Tower giving her a broad overview of the museum sector. She has written and edited a number of magazines and developed an Egyptology distance learning course for University of Manchester.

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