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There was a time when museum fundraising was as simple as asking your visitors to contribute to your fundraising efforts with the spare cash in their pockets or adding to your friends program to increase your support base. But, as cash stops being king for most everyday spending, will there be any spare change to put in those donation boxes? And can traditional museum fundraising methods keep up with the ever changing parade of new technology, the ups and downs of the economy and the changing role of charitable giving?
Over the past decade many museums in Europe have found that they are facing a growing funding problem as austerity bites larger chunks from the grants that support them. According to The Independent as much as £400m has been cut from museum services in the UK alone and it’s hitting many hard.
As government funding falls, museums will have to look to other sources of income to fill the gap and museum fundraising is becoming more important that ever. The sad fact is that while government funding continues to be pulled back there will be museums who lose the battle to continue offering their services. However, if museums can focus their efforts on working with their private supporters, members, friends groups and local communities, there is good news.
The pressure to replace government funding with private fundraising has always been there and, though most museums would prefer not to have to depend on private income for ongoing service delivery, it is a surprisingly stable way to fund your goals. Whilst income from government sources may be falling, so far the funds from private donations have proved remarkably resilient and continue to stay stable year on year. According to the Charities Aid Foundation’s 2018 report “latest analysis continues to bear out our observation that economic events do not appear to have an impact on charitable giving in the UK.” It seems that even through tumultuous times donations from the public seem to be a continuous and dependable source of income.
Social media has boomed since its birth in 2003. We now spend more time than ever before in a virtual world and it’s become habit that we can control our surroundings from the tablets, phone and PC’s we interact with daily. We’ve become curators of our own online lives and this is spilling out into our real world experiences in ways we could never have predicted. We want more control over our environment than ever before and some museums have been quick to recognise this trend and capitalise on it.
Whilst personalised marketing content has been around for a number of years it took a brave museum to allow the public to tailor its own displays. In the Design Museum, London the Designer, Maker, User exhibition allowed the general public to contribute to its display by voting for, and helping fund, some new purchases to fill the galleries. By allowing their online community input into what was on display within the gallery, the museum were able to gain donations to purchase new exhibits and also encourage visitors who may not otherwise attend the exhibition to come along and see their chosen items on display. This “crowd-sourced wall” engaged new visitors and donors to have their say and also shows exactly how donations can directly impact on the contents of an exhibition.
These efforts to tailor content don’t have to be related to your physical museum contents nor are they the sole love of the generations who grew up with the need to curate. Empowered by The Design Museums call to action there are many who felt passionately enough that a certain item should be exhibited that they donated even if they were never going to be able to see the object on display for themselves. To have a museum collect, curate and conserve an object is, for many donors, the reason for donating altogether and, especially for those who donate with a legacy donation when they simply want a life for their favourite objects after they are no longer able to enjoy them personally.
They may be a staple of museum fundraising but don’t discount the humble donation box just yet. In 2015 The Natural History Museum, London installed new look donations boxes throughout the galleries and entrance areas. Alongside the sleek new branded donation boxes there was something else new; the installation was accompanied by a new team of staff members and volunteers who were responsible for assisting guests but also with making it clear that the museum needed donations whenever possible. This combination of elements made a huge impact on the amount of money generated by the museum and through careful testing, changing and monitoring, the team were able to make the most of their investment in new hardware and staff.
Their findings concluded that there were a number of factors which influenced the public’s desire to partake in the museums fundraising efforts with a direct monetary donation.
Firstly, they needed to be clear and upfront about their museum fundraising goals and make sure all guests knew that museum fundraising is vital to delivering its services. Each donations box clearly expressed that the recommended donation was £5. These tall, clear sided boxes made the fundraising goal clear, allowed potential donors to see donations others had made and when the guest could see that the £5 donation was routinely being made this effectively backed up the £5 claim. This small reminder that it’s socially accepted practice to add to the museums donations boxes pushed more people to donate and over time the museum were able to perfect the level of donations to be left in the boxes which would encourage others to donate themselves.
Secondly, the team were hugely instrumental to the offering of donations. The many services they provide throughout the day were followed up with short requests for donations and explanation of what the funds would be used to deliver. By making the request for a donation at the exact moment the guest had received the service they encouraged guests to link the good experience with the act of donating. Additional training for the staff members who worked in those positions also equipped them with the understanding of exactly why they were asking for donations and confirmed the money would be going towards specific causes they felt passionate about.
Thirdly, was removing all barriers to donating money. Many museums will know that the use of cash is falling at its till points and if people aren’t paying with cash they may not be carrying cash at all. In order to remove this barrier the Natural History Museum began trialling contactless donations boxes alongside their traditional cash donations and the results were astonishing. Through trials involving increasing the amount of donation boxes, changing the donation amounts and changing box locations, the Museum Fundraising team were able to increase their donations by around 64%. In their own report on the success of the trial, Isabelle Foss of Goodbox, who provided the terminals, concluded that “Proactive experimentation and a strong partnership has resulted in contactless donations forming an average of 22% of NHM’s total donations since our launch in June 2017. All in all, NHM have seen a rise of 64% in their donation income.”
Between our expanding online worlds and increasing global travel we are now exposed to more museums than any previous generation could ever have hoped for. Virtual content, online events and social media presence can make your fundraising efforts less location based and vastly increase the amount of potential fundraisers across the world. Whilst these supporters may never set foot through your front doors they can still be passionate and valuable contributors to your mission and there are many ways to make your global community feel valued. If you can put effort into making online content, hosting exclusive online events and having regular communication via email and social media, you may even find your most valuable supporters never visit.
And for those of you who worry that online content may reduce visitation take a leaf out of The Met’s book. The Met, is New York’s most visited tourist attraction with attendance of over 7.35 million visitors during its 2017 – 2018 season despite having one of the largest online collection of any museum in the world. The Met’s collections are available online free for anyone to access and from its 30.4million online visitors around 32% were international visitors. This open approach to online content combined with its multi-language Facebook live events and active social media accounts reaches many communities who would never normally have the opportunity to physically engage with the museum. And the more people that engage with the museum, the larger the pool who can be relied upon to support your causes when funds are needed.
And if open access content online is still making you nervous how about making a start by boosting your online memberships or adding some virtual value to your real life members? Also based in New York, The Museum of Modern Art, began by offering its members a simple online portal where they could renew their memberships, sign up for events and update their details. From these practical online beginnings The Museum of Modern Art moved into a second phase offering exclusive online content for their members alongside the other services. The online members area includes virtual tours of galleries, exclusive content from the archives and specially recorded tours and lectures that only members can access. For those that held a traditional membership nothing much changed, they got more online content to engage with and a better value membership but for those who wanted to support the museum financially but never attended the change was substantial. The online content allowed art-lovers the world over to feel a connection to the Museum they never had before and engaged a whole new section of the art community who could support the museums fundraising efforts from afar.
Even whilst looking to grow your museum attendance you can work towards engaging further visitors online so that when your blockbuster exhibition is sold out in venue you can offer virtual tours instead, increasing visitation without overcrowding and allowing those who would never be able to visit in person access to the same content your real world visitors are experiencing. Instead of losing that revenue and goodwill you could reach a new audience and increase your supporters long term by moving some of your physical content into a virtual space.
With the constant march of progress, new technologies and changing priorities it can feel like museum fundraising is a treadmill we can never get off. The good news is that now is the future, museums all over the world are having to change their approach to funding their missions and by working together, learning from each other and sharing ideas we can start to build a more robust way to finance our services and meet our fundraising goals.
Whatever that fundraising goal is, the new technologies we have, the online worlds we have created and the opportunities we have to travel allow us to expand our communities outwards, gathering new supporters and finding new funding opportunities as we grow. But we must be ready to meet those challenges, change the way we think and operate, and embrace change in the way we work.
If you can imagine a world in which an informed staff member encourages contactless donations at every opportunity, where a virtual tour can be given thousands of miles away from your venue for an active global membership community and where your supporters vote with their donations to secure your next prize exhibition piece then you’re already some way to meeting your future museum fundraising goals.
We have more ideas for small museums fundraising campaigns here.
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