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Posted on February 21, 2018
by Eric Holter

Museums in the Era of Micro-Philanthropy

Did you ever wonder where museums came from? Who enabled such vast collections of treasures – artistic, historic, and scientific – to be gathered together and presented to the public? While there are a few examples of ancient museums, up until modern times most collections were private, held by wealthy patrons and institutions. During the late middle ages the Vatican donated some of its collection for a public museum, and a little later opened its permanent collection for public view. The European Museums Network has a great post about the history of public museums.

But in the modern era of museums, following the Enlightenment, and blossoming in the 19th century, public museums were established through the bequest of wealthy patrons, or groups of patrons. These museum trusts were often accompanied with endowments to ensure their upkeep, operation, and continued operation. Up to this very day, a large part of a museum’s support comes from groups of wealthy donors who make annual gifts and contribute to the endowment.

But while the significant gifts of a few generous donors have historically made up the lion’s share of museum funding, this trendline is wavering.

Will museums continue to be supported by major gifts? Will the next generation of philanthropists share the values and commitments of those who have historically supported a museum? What about the new wealthy class, who have become philanthropic from wealth gains in technological innovation? Will they donate to museums to the same degree as past generations of museum donors? Recent books such as The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age by David Callahan and Generation Impact: How Next Gen Donors Are Revolutionizing Giving, by Sharna Goldseker and Michael Moody, explore these shifts in philanthropy. Generation Impact, in particular, notes that Next Gen donors are more inclined to give to causes that can demonstrate measurable impact, favoring social causes over traditional arts and culture institutions.

But not only is the wealth-oriented philanthropic landscape shifting, new digital fundraising platforms are opening up access to entirely new sources of funding. The historic pattern of seeking support from a relatively small set of major donors is changing due to the technological democratization of fundraising observed in the rise of small donations in political campaigns, or of crowdsourcing platforms like KickStarter and GoFundMe. How might these new technologies in digital fundraising shift a museum’s reliance from major donors to larger sets of micro-philanthropists?

How Might Museums Need to Adapt in an Era of Micro-Philanthropy?

With these changes in mind, museums not only need to consider the shifting priorities of their primary donors, they may also need to expand or re-target some of their fundraising efforts to take advantage of the philanthropic impulses of average museum visitors.

Current practices in museum fundraising tend to reserve the “philanthropic pitch,” to major donors, whereas fundraising messaging for average visitors tends to be more transactional in nature. Memberships are pitched in terms of payoff. How many visits until you save money? But as current trends in fundraising have shown, the average visitor can be appealed to for non-transactional, philanthropic contributions–if their gift is connected to a greater purpose and/or worthy need. Claire Axelrad wrote about cultivating small gifts on her excellent blog back in 2013. Even though the post is five years old, her ten principles for cultivating smaller gifts are still very applicable today.

With Claire’s permission, here are her main points, with a bit of commentary on how a museum might apply these practices:

1. Your request must be perceived as more than reasonable.
Your non-transactional ask needs to be well within their means. Asking website visitors, who are in the process of enjoying your digital catalogue, for a $5-$10 text donation to help keep the collection available for all to enjoy is a reasonable ask.

2. Your small donor must be made to feel like a big shot.
In the context of major fundraising a $50 gift wouldn’t even register on the low end. But for someone who has been asked for $5 to support a digital collection, but then gives $25-$50, that reach should be rewarded with special acknowledgement. Even if it’s just an personalized email or reply thanking them for going above and beyond.

3. Your ask must be targeted towards a specific goal.
It’s important for the average visitor to be made aware of the real ongoing needs for museum operational support. The perception of the average museum visitor is that museums must be profoundly wealthy and well funded. You need to help connect the dots that the free access to your online collection is not free to the museum.

4. Your ask must be targeted to someone with affinity for the cause.
Just about everyone who visits a museum, or a museum’s website, has affinity for your cause, but they don’t always know that you need their support. This is due to reserving the philanthropy pitch for major donors. But if you explain to the typical museum visitor that for every dollar they spend inside the museum you need to raise three or four more for operations, you may convert their affinity to into a donation.

5. Your ask must trigger impulse giving.
The impulse has to be quick and immediate, not a long pitch. “If you’ve enjoyed exploring our online collection, would you consider helping us by underwriting the costs of keeping it online?”

6. Your donor must be able to easily and quickly respond.
Inside a museum plexiglass donation boxes make dropping in a few bucks a very simple transaction. The online equivalent mightbe be a text donation, or a Paypal or Google Wallet payment. Avoid credit card processing forms for quick impulse giving.

7. Your organization must be able to secure contact information.
While you don’t want to hinder the impulse, or the ease of donating, you do want to, at least, capture a name and email address (or phone number in the case of text donation). Building a new set of potential donors is a big part of cultivating these smaller donations–give yourself the means of follow up. This post on the GiveGab blog points out additional benefits of cultivating smaller donors.

8. Your promotional platform of choice must reach your target audience.
Today museums enjoy a certain amount of passive traffic and traffic retention by simply getting their collections online. But little fundraising is happening at this contact point. Once a platform has been set up, and small donations begin to trickle in, you will have new incentives to find ways to drive traffic to the site, and increase the trickle into a stream.

9. You must have an acknowledgement and reporting system in place.
The biggest challenge for museums to begin capturing smaller donations and building a base of micro-philanthropists, is the implementation of automated CRMs and automated marketing. If you have to expend the same amount of effort to get a small donation as you do a large gift, it makes no sense to seek smaller donations. But if you have an automated marketing system working, you can be cultivating this new donor base with almost no effort–beyond that of setting up and configuring these systems in the first place. Garrett Hall at The Fundraising Authority blog has a few more thoughts about developing these kinds of systems.

10. Your campaign must be inexpensive to implement.
Just a few years ago automated platforms for marketing and fundraising were quite expensive, reserved for enterprise clients with big marketing budgets. But today there are a myriad of low-cost entry-level systems that can be implemented, and are sufficient to begin cultivating this new donor base.

Philanthropic Micro-Sponsorships

In the same way that museums can benefit from systems and campaigns targeting smaller donations for general support, these same approaches can be applied to another area of fundraising, namely soliciting sponsorships. Museum development efforts involve more than seeking major-donor philanthropic contributions. They also need to find sponsors for major exhibitions and projects. In the same way that fundraising trends are opening up avenues for micro-philanthropy, there are also opportunities for micro-sponsorships.

A small business does not have the wherewithal to underwrite a major exhibition, but smaller sponsorships might be able to fund less-costly digital content projects. Transforming museum scholarship into accessible, context illuminating digital presentations is an excellent way to expand the impact of some of the great work that is regularly produced by museum curatorial staff. These special digital projects do take some time to craft and produce. By framing these efforts as digital projects, “brought to you by local sponsors like these…” many new opportunities for cultivating sponsorships from local businesses can be created. Many of Claire’s points above apply to these efforts as well. You need to make the ask reachable, but the smaller sponsorships still need to be rewarded with thanks and gratitude like larger gifts. And these new sponsors should be valued, not just for the modest contributions themselves, but as a pool of potential donors to be built up over time.

Museum Content Strategies that Promote Micro-Philanthropy and Micro-Sponsorships
Cuberis endeavors to align the interests and efforts of all of a museum’s main departments: administration, marketing, curatorial, education, and development when formulating content strategies. Connecting the dots between the value that museums bring to the public, and their need for the public’s support will enable the resources of the museum to reach new audiences and fuel the process of cultivating new donors. As philanthropy changes in the 21st century, and funding begins to shift toward a more democratized and broader base, museums may need to change gears, adjust priorities, and retool their systems to ensure that their institutions will maintain communities of support as the philanthropic landscape continues to shift.

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