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Developing and Managing Business and Individual Donor Support

Purpose and Importance

Not-for-profit, charitable, educational and scientific organizations and those they serve have always benefited from the business sector and the generosity of individual donors. Businesses and individual donors also have benefited from their relationships with the museum community. Through association with museums, businesses seek to positively affect their enterprise by showing their commitment to a not-for-profit’s mission, generating goodwill within communities in which they operate and increasing the recognition of their business identity. Through their generosity, donors reaffirm their commitment to the arts, sciences, history and lifelong learning and to creating a stronger and more civil society by making objects and information accessible. In addition, individual donors often have family connections or other close personal relationships with the museums they support.

In light of often intricate museum-donor relationships, the Alliance has worked with the field to create these guidelines on developing and managing business and individual donor support. While these guidelines provide general guidance, it is essential that each museum draft its own policies appropriate to its mission and programs.

General Principles

  • Loyalty to mission. To ensure accountability and informed decision making, museums should develop written policies, approved by their governing authorities, guiding the museum’s development and management of business and individual support in a manner that protects their assets and reputation and is consistent with their mission.
  • Public trust and accountability. The museum community recognizes and encourages appropriate collaborations with a variety of stakeholders, including a museum’s donors. Such support often comes with expectations regarding involvement in the museum’s activities. It is essential to a museum’s public trust responsibilities that it maintain control over the content and integrity of its programs, exhibitions and activities.
  • Transparency. Museums should provide business and individual donors with accurate information about mission, finances and programs.
  • Fidelity to donor intent. Museums should use support from business and individual donors for purposes that are mutually agreed upon.
  • Ethics and conflict of interest. In soliciting and managing business and individual support, the museum should comply with the Alliance’s Code of Ethics for Museums and its own ethics policies, with particular attention to potential conflicts of interest.
  • Confidentiality. A museum should ensure that information about donations is handled with respect for the wishes of the donor and with confidentiality to the extent provided by law.


Managing Support

Museums should create policies regarding business and individual donor support either as separate documents or as part of other museum policies. A museum should be consistent in following its policy; any changes should be driven by evolving standards and best practices and the institution’s mission and strategic direction. A museum should not change policy solely in response to a specific situation.

These policies should: identify the museum’s goals for developing and managing support; define the responsibilities of the governing body and staff for decisions about business and individual donor support, including but not limited to solicitation, gift acceptance, fulfillment, recognition and public inquiry; ensure that the museum has the necessary human and financial resources for fulfilling its obligations in any donor relationship; and address conflicts of interest in situations involving business or individual donor support opportunities in which a member of the museum’s governing authority or staff may have an interest.

Conflict of Interest

The policy should address the obligation of members of the staff or governing authority to disclose any interest in the relationship under consideration. Such disclosure does not imply ethical impropriety. The museum may require that the individual recuse himself from any discussion and/or action regarding support from a business or donor with whom he or she is associated or has an interest, and document the individual’s role in any other aspect of the project or program supported by that donation.

Donor Communication and Relationships

The policy should clearly identify which staff or governing body members are authorized to make or change agreements with businesses or individual donors. In addition, a museum should have a clear policy concerning the level of financial, tax and legal information it will provide to supporters, including a policy of recommending that they consult their own legal and financial advisors.

Types of Support a Museum Will Accept

A museum should develop a gift acceptance policy outlining the types of support it accepts from businesses or individual donors and delineating a process for determining whether or not—from a mission, operational, business and legal perspective—to accept a gift as offered. A museum should determine whether it will exclude any business or category of business because of the business’s products and services, taking into consideration the characteristics, values and attitudes of its community and audience, discipline and mission. In deciding whether to exclude certain supporters a museum may wish to consider: products and services provided by a business; the business practices of the potential supporter; and whether to associate certain exclusions with particular activities (e.g., children’s programming).


A museum should consider the range of recognition it may offer a business or individual donor. In doing so, it should consider general standards for recognizing donor support based on the level of support received, such as those relating to the use, placement, size of names and signage.


A museum should ensure that a relationship of trust is established and maintained with its donors by respecting the private nature of information about the donor and the donation, if appropriate. In doing so, it may consider developing a system to control access to and handling of donor information; balancing the museum’s obligation to maintain public accountability with its obligation to protect donors’ privacy by outlining what type of information can and cannot be kept confidential; and collecting only relevant information about donors or potential donors.


A museum must determine whether and under what circumstances it will accept anonymous gifts. A museum should avoid agreeing to requests for anonymity that conceal a conflict of interest, real or perceived, or raise other ethical concerns.

Uncollectable Pledges

Situations may arise when donors cannot or do not honor a pledge. In determining the enforceability of a pledge that is not honored, a museum may consider legal and accounting implications; the overall impact of the gift on the museum; the museum’s history and previous relationship with the donor; and the attitude of the community toward the situation.


A museum should require that all documents relating to the development of donor support be maintained and retained in accordance with applicable law and record-retention policies.

Application of Policy

A museum should identify clearly all entities, such as friends groups, voluntary organizations, components of a museum system, etc., that must comply with its policies about business and individual donor support.

Public Accountability

A museum should respond to all public and media inquiries about its support from businesses and individual donors, including allegations of unethical behavior, with a prompt, full and frank discussion of the issue, the institution’s actions and the rationale for such actions.

Issues Related Specifically to Business Support

Use of Museum Names and Logos

A museum should set clear parameters for the use of any of its names and logos by a business supporter. In creating such a policy a museum might address: the contexts in which it will permit such use; its responsibility to approve all uses of its names and logos; specific prohibitions; and conformity with its policies for protecting intellectual property (e.g., trademark, copyright).

Promotion of the Museum-Business Relationship

A business may wish to promote its relationship with a museum in its marketing, advertising and public relations activities. In its policy, a museum might address: limits on the scope of how and the extent to which a business may promote its relationship with the museum, and the responsibility of the museum to approve any such promotion.

Support from Vendors

Current or potential relationships between a museum and a vendor providing goods or services should not be contingent upon a contribution from the vendor.

Exclusive Arrangements

A museum should carefully consider whether or not it is willing to enter into a relationship with a business that restricts the museum from receiving support from the business’s competitors or from using a competitor’s products and services.

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