Thursday, February 4, 2016

Book Review - Fundraising for Small Museums

image from amazon.com
First off, let's not judge this book by its cover. Let's just agree it's a really ugly cover and move on.

This is one of our more recent library acquisitions. It includes 8 chapters on a variety of subjects - philanthropy trends, donor relations, solicitation methods, membership programs, capital campaigns, grant applications, and planned giving.

If you're like me, you didn't get into the museum field to do fundraising. That means we have a lot of learning to do about the money side of things. Quite frankly Cilella has included so many good suggestions, quick tips, and lists of additional resources to examine, that pulling out a short list to include in this post was not easy. As I read, I flagged points that resonated with me and/or spoke to issues in the Nova Scotian heritage community.

Chapter 1 dives right into the clich├ęs, the biggest of which is that people give to people, not to organizations. There has also been a big shift in how much information donors want about their donation, ie is it going to be used to make the building wheelchair accessible or pay for an artifact to be conserved or hire a summer student? People want to know they are making a good investment, and that means the museum is under pressure to perform well. Cilello recommends a 6-step approach to strategic fundraising: develop tangible goals, figure out how much it will cost, how long it will take, identify your sources, review & refine as you work through it, and finally, write all of this down.
A lot of time is spent in this chapter talking about the role of board members, and the author bemoans the fact that so few boards require members to actively fund-raise and/or contribute financially to the organization. I won't delve into all the details, but there is solid info on reviewing expectations, responsibilities, and making sure that you've got a mix of marketers, bridge builders, cultivators and closers on your board. It also recommends thinking twice about board members who are career builders, single-issue individuals, grandstanders, lone rangers, and wallflowers. Cilella includes descriptions of all of these roles and why they are good or bad, which is a pretty blunt but helpful reality check.

Chapter 2 is titled The Universe of Fundraising, and I think part of why I liked it so much is because of its forthright language. The author says that before you do anything, you've got to know why you exist, where you're going, how you're going to get there, and how you're perceived. "Some museums have been in existence so long that they have forgotten why they are in business". Ouch. But also, yes. I can think of examples of this and I'm sure you can too. Again there are just too many good lessons here to go into detail, but the bottom line is that without an understanding of your mission, goals, and community needs, you'll be spinning your wheels. Another great statement here is that "raising money without a strategic plan is wasteful, useless, and irresponsible. Keep your plan simple, articulate it to all who will listen, and then act on it to make it a living document. A plan on the shelf will gather dust, not support." If this is striking a chord with you, you might want to read this chapter and take the author's advice on how to change gears and be more effective.

The third chapter addresses stewardship, ie cultivating relationships and support from your community in an ongoing way. This is an activity for everyone, regardless of their role in the museum. You've got to be strategic, coordinated (mixed messages are bad), look at a broad range of prospective supporters rather than just the "large gift prospects", communicate via personal & impersonal methods, and have a solid understanding that timing is key, and sometimes it takes money to make money.
The list that I loved in this chapter is at the end and is titled "The Donor Bill of Rights". It's just a basic list of assurances and opportunities that our donors should be receiving, but it isn't any of the items in the list that I loved. I love the message that it sends, the reminder that we need to be respectful, that giving is voluntary, and that our donors should have full confidence in us. Not partial, not occasional, but full confidence. This message carries through into chapter 4 on methods of solicitation. Amid the tactics are some very sobering words about the realities of today's society; "donors are fearful today that you will not spend their money wisely", that media reports about rare instances of fraud and misconduct have left people wary of institutions and authorities. There has also been a shift in giving that means people want to see the social impact of their gift - are kids being educated, or hungry people being fed, or an aged building being restored...understanding and being able to engage in the impact of their gift validates the donor and creates a bond with the museum.

Chapter 5 addresses membership programs and special events, and I have to say again that Cilella's bluntness is extremely effective. He refers to our membership programs as "being in a confused state". "Older members view their membership as an investment...newer members are looking for an economic and economical exchange for an experience". In terms of membership levels, no mincing of words: "if you have a lifetime membership program, discontinue it as once. It is old concept and a very bad idea". For the other levels of membership, the problem/danger is that museums are offering certain things in its membership package, but these don't often reflect the wants/needs of our potential members. Quite frankly, we are out of touch. "The moral of this story is that administrators, directors, and managers need to constantly reevaluate the programs that have been in existence since the beginning of time to determine whether that program's future will provide growth for the institution or a playground for a few swells who really don't want others playing in their sandbox."
There was another paragraph in this chapter that really jumped off the page at me. It talks about a simple method of determining whether your fundraising venture was a success or failure. Typically we think about the bottom line; whether we made money or heaven forbid, lost money. Yes this is important. If we are devoting a lot of time, energy, and resources to a fundraiser and we barely meet our expenses, then we really didn't have a fundraiser did we? But Cilella goes on to explain that one of the other critical indicators "of failure is the inability to make new friends. Did your event attract the same old crowd? Or were there a lot of faces who were new to you and your board members?" If that isn't a marker of success I don't know what is. We've got to start thinking about long-term support instead of focusing on the current state of the bank account or how much money a particular fundraiser brought in. We've got to get away from being a club or clique that isn't reaching out and making new friends. This is partially why we put so much emphasis on the online work of museums. Online engagement is an entry point, a way to make those new friends.

This is getting long, so I'm going to cut it short, and end with one final thought. If I've piqued your interest, feel free to be in touch about borrowing the book.

One of the many lists in the book is "thirty ways to fail at fund raising in hard times". Yes, how to fail at fundraising. This is of course a tongue-in-cheek list, but item #2 is actually a variation of one of my (and my Mom's) favourite sayings: The 7 dying words of an organization are "we never did it that way before". How true is that? If you go around with that kind of an attitude you're doomed to fail. So let's stay positive, let's stay creative, and let's talk about money.

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