Friday, April 24, 2015

Book Review - Small Museum Toolkit 2: Financial Resource Development and Management

Here we go, round 2 of the AASLH Small Museum Toolkit. I have to admit that I wasn't really psyched about reading this one. Sure I can write grant applications and deal with budgeting and all that, but it is definitely not my favourite area of museum work. 

This book only has 4 chapters so in a way felt shorter than the first one, and two of these chapters contain a lot of uniquely American content regarding legal issues. Chapter one is all about budgeting and money management in compliance with IRS regulations. Chapter two discusses fundraising but in a very holistic way (two thumbs up). Chapter 3 talks about writing those never-ending grant applications, and chapter 4  reviews legal issues (again very USA-focused so not super applicable). 

Because of the American focus of some of this book, I'm going to skip over those parts and just share highlights of internationally relevant content (ie the info us Canucks can use).

Chapter two was definitely my favourite of this book. I was reading through museum reports recently and there were a lot of fundraisers mentioned, and almost all of them brought in very little money, especially when compared against the time & resources required for the activities. This chapter walks you through a development game plan - assessing the philanthropic culture in your community, making a plan (including assigning duties), and developing a key statement about your fundraising goals. And then comes the part where you start talking to your membership. This is a fantastic section. I've had a few conversations recently with museum board members about their membership numbers and models; basically consisting of an admission that something isn't working any more. And that means it's time to review what we offer our members. Newsletters, free admission, gift shop discounts...we need to take a step back and ask what makes membership to our institution different from other museums & societies. Whatever membership benefits we offer should be reflective of our museum & its unique work. There is a great example in the book of a museum with different membership levels. Each level has a special name connected with the site, and the higher the membership level, the more perks you get. This kind of personalization will take some extra work, but it is a lot more engaging than the traditional "send us a cheque and we'll mail you a newsletter" approach.

This chapter also had some great info on sponsorship, a particularly hot topic in the museum world. I can think of a few examples where I wandered through a museum, saw a big panel or sign thanking a company for sponsoring an exhibit or program, and felt a little dirty. Even if all they did was sign the cheque, I wondered what sort of input/influence they had. We've all read the letter asking museums to break ties with oil companies over the issue of climate change. That's just one example. But this is when our code of ethics comes in handy, and the guidance in this book works for businesses of all shapes and sizes.

As with many things, the key to success is in the planning. No matter how big or small the museum, your board should have a fundraising plan. From endowments to events to government grants, it is the board's responsibility to ensure the viability of the museum. But sometimes people (including board members) are reluctant to fund-raise. Part of what I like about this book series is the admission of such issues. "Simply put, if your board isn't willing to fundraise, you're in a bit of a pickle. But it's not hopeless. The nonprofit sector functions because board members and staff fundraise side by side in their communities, and if you let the board off the hook, the organization is in jeopardy." Yes! A thousand times yes! But as the author said, all is not lost. She goes on to provide ways to ease a board into seeing the varied methods of fundraising and how everyone can play their part. A little education and forthright conversation can go a long way.

The other broadly useful chapter is on writing grant applications. One of the first keys to success is the relationship - "people give to people, not to organizations". I know at first glance this might sound more applicable to other types of fundraising, but it is also relevant here. Foundations are run by people, program officers are get where I'm going with this. You've got to familiarize yourself with the granting agency and program officers; not just the funding guidelines. If you've never written a grant proposal there are some great tips here about how to write your abstract and goals.

I think my favourite section in this chapter is the time management section. Yes we are all really busy and it is hard to carve out time to write grant proposals. But there can be dire consequences if we don't take this point seriously. You need time to research, time to review with the program officer and staff or board members, need time to write the application and develop the budget, need time to just need time.

The message in this chapter (and really in this entire book) for small museums is to not be scared by the process, talk to other museums, look at what projects have been funded in the past, talk to the program officers, and take the time to research and plan your efforts.

Check out my reviews of the other books in the series:

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