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Posted on February 17, 2017
by Eric Holter

Motivating Donations Into Your Museum’s “Digital Donation Box”

Museums are profoundly generous, giving institutions. Behind the scenes, you continually give of yourselves as you preserve, protect, and promote our valued cultural objects and artifacts. That is a huge gift to our communities. And then, remarkably, there is a growing trend to offer free admission to your halls and galleries. A gift upon a gift! Even if your museum still charges admission, you still give far more than you receive. Admissions account for only around 6% of museum revenue (see AAMD’s Art Museums By The Numbers Reports 2014 and 2015). On top of all that, you give to your communities by providing educational opportunities and community events, and you invest in scholarly research. Museums have historically been pouring themselves out for the benefit of their communities.

And that historical stewardship and generosity has only expanded as museums today work hard, expend effort, and incur huge costs in order to digitize and integrate new systems in order to provide global access to their collections–for free.

Behind all that giving, however, are real hard costs. And the funds have to come from somewhere. Grants, donors, memberships, and capital campaigns to sustain endowments all must be cultivated in order to support the ongoing altruistic mission of museums. As a museum attender, let me just take this opportunity to say “Thank you!”

Museums need our support. And some people do give back. But as a lifelong museum attender, I must confess that I always assumed that my cost of admission was sufficient. I never knew that even after I bought a ticket, I still left the museum with a net loss. I think that part of my assumption resulted from the reality that your facilities are so beautiful and elegant. They certainly don’t give the impression that every contribution counts. Not until I began my role here at Cuberis did I learn that 70% or more of a museum’s operating budget has to come from outside revenues sources (see those AAMD reports).

Why didn’t I know this? Why don’t museums tell that part of their stories? You give so much to us, why are you afraid to ask for our help in return?

Of course museums always have that plexiglass box for cash donations, and your websites usually have donate links. But personally, I’ve never felt motivated to take action by those subtle opportunities. That’s because those donate links are not telling your story.

Museum visitors, and visitors to a museum’s website, need to hear a bit about what goes on behind the scenes. If they hear that story, they would be much more inclined to help out.

As museums you do an amazing job of telling the stories of the art and objects in your collections, but I need to be an honest friend and tell you the hard truth–you’re doing a terrible job of telling your own story! I believe that if you did communicate the realities, the behind the scenes stories, visitors, including website visitors, would be willing to drop a few bucks in the box. And, in the case of the website, if you tell your story, and then make it simple to drop a few bucks into the digital box–you could start transforming what is currently a cost center into a new stream of revenue to support the generous mission of your museum, as you continue to service your communities.

How To Simplify Drops into the Digital Donation Box

When it comes to asking for a donation, timing is everything. That’s why NPR pushes their on-air fundraising during the morning and evening commutes. So museums need to ask for donations while their visitors are benefiting from their collections–whether in the museum or online. So, when a site visitor has spent several minutes browsing your collection, or once they’ve viewed a certain number of your works, why not subtly slide out a Call to Action box with a donation request? But don’t just ask. Start by telling your story. “Did you know… that museums need to raise $5 for every $1 they earn from visitor revenue?” Tell them that story, then ask for their support. Tell them that the very fact that they are able to enjoy your collection online is the result of the museum investing in a collections management system, digital asset management systems, and costly specialized hosting systems. Tell them that they can help support the continuing effort to broaden access to the collection by giving just a few dollars.

An example of how a museum could request text donations from site visitors.


And Then Make it Simple to Drop a Donation

Most museums have enabled donations via credit card through an online form—but what if you made it even simpler? How about setting up a text donation service, so that a Call To Action slider with your story can be followed up with a simple TEXT to contribute $5 now option? These kinds of casual and informative CTAs don’t have to be obnoxious screen blockers common to online publications. They can be simple, unobtrusive sliders with large “No thanks” or “Not now” buttons to close them. But they should at least show up, now and again, to remind your visitors that their support is important for the museum to continue to advance their generous and altruistic missions.

Of course, individual text donations will never replace the need for museums to cultivate other financial resources from grants, donors, and capital campaigns, but developing this channel will start to turn some percentage of your site traffic into a slice of the operating budget pie. And if you can convert some percentage into donors, that would be an incentive to increase overall traffic to the site. Seeing revenue from traffic would justify and incentivize more development of site content. That’s a much better trend than having your site remain just one more financial burden upon limited resources.

Why not turn one of your cost centers into a revenue contributor? It just takes a little effort to tell your story, and taking the initiative to ask.

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