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Tips for Fundraisers

Category: Financial Stability

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2020 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.


In the unforgiving economic environment in which museum fundraising staff find themselves these days, it can be tempting to throw in the towel and wait until conditions improve—and whenever that will happen is another matter entirely. But that’s no way to run an institution; just ask the experts we’ve interviewed below. Each offers time-tested strategies for muddling through this period, however long it may last.

1. Keep asking.

Jim Hackney, managing partner at Alexander Haas, an Atlanta-based firm specializing in fundraising for museums and higher education, says too many organizations stop or slow their appeals for donations during a difficult economy—the very time they should not let up. “The message that gives a donor base is, ‘Oh, we didn’t really mean it,’” he says. “People give because they are asked, and if we stop asking, they stop giving.” Hackney speculates that fear of wasting precious resources prompts some to scale back solicitations in hard times. Yet once that psychological hurdle is surmounted, he says, “the reality of keeping our missions out there” can take center stage.

2. Get creative.

Melanie Ulle, development director at the Denver Art Museum, says her team is devising innovative ways of packaging appeals to potential corporate sponsors. “We’ll combine corporate memberships with exhibition sponsorships and maybe include some invitations to a couple of events,” she says. When times were flush, donors might have been more apt to “take clients to dinner at the Palm,” Ulle observes. “Now they can bring them to an event at the DAM and show the client that they are active in the community.” Response to the newly packaged opportunities has been “really positive,” she says.

3. Stick with the tried and true.

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At the Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford, Mass., the annual Halloween event called “Boo at the Zoo” has been a reliable source of earned income for well over a decade, says Interim Executive Director Patty Burke. The zoo, which saw its state funding cut completely this year, “counted on this event more than ever” last October, says Burke. Some 13,000 people visited the zoo then, with members paying $5 per adult and $3 per child and nonmembers paying $9 and $7. “In general, we’ll try to get our people to keep repeating the programs that we know work.”

4. Or go out on a limb.

When the National Portrait Gallery displayed a portrait of Comedy Central’s mock pundit Stephen Colbert last year, “it was a risky thing to do,” recalls Sherri Weil, director of development and external affairs. “But our visitorship doubled.” That boost, she says, “really helps with our communications to our donors and funders”—especially as it became clear that many visitors drawn to the Colbert painting—and presumably, to other items in NPG’s collection—were teens and 20-somethings. “We were able to demonstrate what the NPG meant to a newer demographic,” Weil says. “That’s attractive to funders because those visitors are our future.” Cultivating young people’s support for the institution now bodes well for their continuing commitment in the years ahead.

5. Cultivate the locals.

Venues that are geographically close become more important in tough times, when people may rethink vacations involving significant air or car travel, says Charles H. Bentz, an Ohio-based fundraising consultant. “While in the past you may have gone further afield, you can and should market closer to home”—potentially reaching new visitors, donors and other supporters who may never have taken the time to visit nearby cultural organizations. One strategy Bentz says has worked with several clients: Approach a local newspaper and see if it would be willing to donate page space once or twice a month to publicize a current exhibition. The newspaper stands to gain story ideas; the museum could witness a new influx of visitors looking for affordable attractions close to home. After all, “it’s $300 to take a family of four to Disneyland,” says Elizabeth Kennedy, vice president of marketing and development at Los Angeles’ Autry National Center of the American West. Parents and two kids can enjoy an evening of salsa music and dancing at the Autry for less than $50, she says—and pay nothing if they are members.

6. Be more transparent than ever.

“Letting donors know exactly how their funds are being used—and the differences funds are making—is absolutely critical,” says Barbara A. Hall, director of development at Washington, D.C.’s Phillips Collection, which recently received $23.5 million in gifts to its endowment. Alexander Haas’ Hackney says he advises clients to demonstrate to donors the myriad ways in which they have tightened their belts, from detailing staff reductions to explaining which programs are being cut, which have expanded and why. “Show them that you are doing everything possible to protect the core and intellectual capital of the museum.”

7. Treat staff as you would donors.

“The principles of fundraising work for your staff, too,” says NPG’s Weil. In other words, when those working to appeal to donors are feeling discouraged, it’s okay to take a break, just as a donor who may have given generously in recent years may opt out of this cycle due to shrinking resources. “I don’t believe in people being run ragged,” says Weil, who encourages staffers approaching burnout to find a quiet corner in the museum to contemplate a favorite painting. Be they contributors or staffers, “you can’t thank people too much.”

8. Pick and choose among goals.

The Autry opted to keep its 2009 fundraising goals flat, says Kennedy. What’s more, “our three-year-old capital campaign has been ‘on pause,’ and we’ve recently elected to keep it on pause for a few more months,” she explains. “It didn’t seem like the right time to be going out looking for money,” she says of meeting new building goals. On the other hand, programming and conservation are being more heavily underscored in pitches to would-be donors, she says.

9. And consider prioritizing education.

Programs that teach appeal most to donors who believe the educational realm is where their gifts will be used to greatest effect, says Elizabeth Williams, senior director of marketing at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, Calif. She says opportunities to support school field trips featuring scientific and technological experiments have met with donors’ wholehearted support, even in these challenging times. “We have found donors willing to support Title 1 initiatives,” Williams says, referring to the federal program that provides supplemental funds to school districts in which a high concentration of students live at or below federal poverty guidelines. As a result, many youths take part for free at the museum, conducting experiments about genetics, the solar system and other subjects, some designed in conjunction with nearby Stanford University.

10. Look for opportunities to collaborate.

The Henry Ford museum and Greenfield Village are partnering with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra to cultivate a group of would-be donors: Michiganders who winter in Florida. “The DSO will bring some of its musicians, and we will provide our Stradivarius for them to play,” says Patricia Mooradian, president of The Henry Ford in Dearborn, Mich. She and her DSO counterpart hope the event will elicit support from this group of potential supporters, who will be invited later to DSO performances on the grounds of Greenfield Village. While the relationship between the cultural institutions is not new, efforts to jointly cultivate new funders are. “It’s a difficult [fundraising] environment, but also an environment that provides opportunities,” Mooradian says. “We are trying to look at the glass as half full.”


Formerly with the Smithsonian’s Office of Policy and Analysis, Amy Rogers Nazarov is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

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