Getting Forward to Normal: The Road Ahead for Museums and Cultural Institutions

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By Nick Ellinger

For months, we have hoped things would get back to normal post-COVID. Now we know that we won’t come out unchanged. Rather, we have an opportunity to choose what we take with us and what we leave behind. This series will aim to highlight the normal that lies ahead.

Museums and cultural institutions were among the hardest hit by the pandemic. Many shut their doors with some not having reopened, which challenges ticket and membership revenue. And donors’ time horizons sometimes narrowed, understandably thinking about what we need to do to get through the pandemic together but perhaps thinking less of what we want society to look like when we get through this. That future hopefully includes museums, plays, concerts and more.

Few have found fundraising innovation to be enough in these challenging times, but there are some innovations from the space worth sharing in the hopes of helping many of these venerable and venerated institutions pull through.

Steps Into Monthly Giving

The American Alliance of Museums created an interesting piece on the rise of monthly giving. While its membership may be late to the party, with some of the earlier monthly giving programs only six years old, there are lessons in there for all nonprofits:

  • Make the monthly giving offer an IQ test. The San Antonio Zoo recently started a monthly giving program and priced its benefits so visitors could always get more benefits for less cost if they opted for the monthly payment option. You too may be able to make the benefits of such a deal too good to pass up.
  • Target a specific audience. Denver’s Museum of Contemporary Art wanted to attract more young people, so its monthly giving offer starts at $1.95 per month, knowing that something this small could be seen as an impulse purchase and affordable for even most young people. The offer includes free admission, with a hope of getting young people in the habit of coming and supporting.
  • Know why people are giving. For the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, it was about families coming together. Many parents are getting memberships so their children can learn and experience the museums. Thus, the first monthly giving offer on the museums’ pages are family membership offers.

Consider New Membership Structures

To wit, it may be time to deconstruct the membership structure somewhat. When we survey donors and members, they tend to conflate being a donor and being a member. That can result in anger when donors don’t get membership benefits to which they think they are entitled or confusion from members when they are solicited for additional gifts.

What some museums are doing, according to Becky Odum from Edge Direct, is eliminating a separate membership. If people donate at or above the level of what a normal membership would be, they get the benefits of that level as if they were members. No more two-system donation/membership tracking. No more confusion about why they are being asked for an additional gift—they are donors after all. No more member services challenges trying to reallocate donor dollars to membership programs.

Remember What’s Essential About Your Mission

And it isn’t your building. If you can’t get to Mount Vernon because of COVID-19, that team is committed to bringing Mount Vernon to you with its virtual tour. The goal of the National World War II Museum is to educate about that war, so it has electronic field trips for students who can’t get there.

And then there was perhaps the most famous museum social campaign of the pandemic. In November 2018, the National Cowboy and Western Museum in Oklahoma City broke ground on a $15 million investment for kids that was supposed to open during spring break 2020 with a week of themed activities.

As you might have guessed, it didn’t. So the team decided to bring the museum to the public through Twitter.

There’s a tiny bit of artifice, as the digital team talked about this takeover with its head of security before being closed. Either way, the result is funny:


And inspirational:

So how is the engagement doing? Before the crisis, the National Cowboy Museum’s Twitter account had almost 10,000 followers. It has 275,000 as of this writing.

The Seth Spillman, museum’s chief marketing officer, said of the takeover:

“I am genuinely happy to have good news to share at this time, and I am hopeful that all of this puts the museum in a good position to bounce back and bounce back quickly once we open the doors. Getting engagement … is only as good as how much it actually drives people coming to your museum, people actually being able to experience directly the things that we’ve curated here.”

So, if you are at an organization where people can’t come to your mission, how can you bring your mission to them?

Hopefully these help you. After all, once we get through the COVID-19 pandemic, we want to preserve and come back to the cultural part of the world. You are an essential part of that and we want to help you get forward to normal.

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