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Museum Fundraising: We Need To Talk About Donors

Maxwell Blowfield on the urgent need to share fundraising ideas as museums have to raise more money from donations

About the author: Maxwell Blowfield is Communications Officer at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. As part of his role, he manages the Museum’s press, website content and social media platforms. He is also Senior Editorial Consultant on the Museum’s printed publications – the SOANE magazine and the Annual Review – commissioning and overseeing a complete revamp of the latter publication in 2015. He has previously worked at the Museum of Brands in Notting Hill, the National Portrait Gallery and the Science Museum. In April 2016 he organised an all-day live reading across four London venues to celebrate the bicentenary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth which was featured on BBC Radio 4’s World at One. Maxwell has an MA in Museum Studies from University College London. @maxwellmuseums

The museum sector is good at talking. Sometimes we’re accused of talking too much and doing too little. But as a sector we are good at talking because we understand the benefits of sharing and exchanging knowledge, skills and experience. Every museum professional has benefited from a colleague offering their advice and every museum success has been influenced by the success – or failure – of others.

Sir John Soane’s Museum

The Picture Room © Sir John Soane’s Museum. Photo: Gareth Gardner

This peer-to-peer learning occurs daily – often in the unglamorous setting of a staff meeting room – but its most obvious manifestation is the ubiquitous museum conference. I must confess: I love them. You can go from one speaker offering advice of how to escape threats to our very survival (read: cuts), to another demonstrating how Snapchat filters put a rocket under their follower numbers. Conferences are diverse, they are inspiring and they are bursting with ideas that will help you do your job better.

I’ve attended as many conferences as I can this year, and they have all been fantastic. I’ve always returned to my job as Communications Officer at Sir John Soane’s Museum buzzing with new ideas and new perspectives on the work that we do. I try and circulate my notes to my team the day after so that I can play my part in passing the baton. However, when looking back over my notes for this article, I realise that there is one major area of museum work which is missing – fundraising.

At first I thought I was mistaken, but examining the programmes once again, I couldn’t find any talk that focussed on how to fundraise better. Even the Museums Association 2016 conference in Glasgow, the largest of its kind in Europe and surely the one that should offer the most comprehensive coverage of contemporary museum activity, did not have a fundraising-focussed session. Museum Ideas 2016 in London was packed with brilliant and inspiring talks but there was nothing on fundraising. MuseumNext, the global conference which aims to showcase “best practice today to shine a light on the museum of tomorrow,” was a fundraising-free zone at their latest session in Melbourne in February 2017. Is there no “best practice today” concerning donations to share with the sector?

At the Soane, our communication function sits within the development department. So fundraising is what my team do. Just like all other museums, it is hugely important to us – with dwindling public funding we need to raise more and more money from donations. I don’t need to elaborate further; we all know the state of things and the serious gaps in funding donors need to fill. It is universal to all museums. But if conferences aren’t talking about fundraising, we can’t expect the whole sector to improve.

We all know of course that there is a wealth of experience that can be shared. Fundraising income across the DCMS-sponsored museums (The National and some non-national museums which receive direct funding from the Department for Culture, Media & Sport and provide free entry) was up a huge 60% between 2012/13 and 2013/14. A year later, it had increased another 20.6%. Many museums have led hugely high-profile fundraising campaigns for capital projects – the Science Museum, Tate, and the Design Museum are just a few who have demonstrated success in this area in recent years. Others have managed to save objects that are worth millions of pounds from being sold abroad. It feels like we are doing the whole sector a disservice by not dissecting these experiences, and not talking about them and learning from them at every opportunity.

There really has never been a more important time to start having this dialogue. As I write this article, the Private Investment in Culture Survey, published by Arts Council England, shows that 66% of private investment went to London-based organisations in 2014/15. Organisations in the capital rely on private investment for 22% of their income – highlighting their established fundraising success. But for organisations in the North West and North East, it accounts for just 10% of their income. In the East Midlands, it is 9%. But in the West Midlands, just 6% of income is from private investment. It is no coincidence then that this is the region seeing the high-profile fight to save Walsall’s New Art Gallery, amongst many others. These regions are struggling to attract major donors, and they are the regions whose institutions are most under threat.

“We need to start talking about our donors and we should be talking about little else. This is a question of survival”

What’s perplexing about the relative silence surrounding fundraising, is that the figures above will be a surprise to no-one. We all know the direction of travel. Ever since the UK Coalition Government came to power in 2010, public funding has been decimated, whether through central government or local authorities. Nobody believes this will ever be reversed. Increasing individual giving has been on the government agenda for years – the DCMS launched their Philanthropy Beyond London report in 2012; the Museums Association said that fundraising “in all its forms, is going to be of increasing importance in the future”. That was in 2013. Yet as time has gone by, we’ve seen more and more museums close or cut their opening hours, and the Museums Association’s cuts survey continues to deliver bleak prospects for the sector year after year– the percentage of organisations reporting decreases in total income has been 58% in 2011, 32% in 2012, 49% in 2013, 52% in 2014, and 47% in 2015. Clearly museums need help with fundraising, and they are ready to embrace the experience and knowledge the sector can offer. In the most recent cuts survey, 79% of respondents were planning on increasing their focus on this area. We need to start talking about our donors and we should be talking about little else. This is a question of survival.

So with that in mind, what can I offer from our experience at the Soane? We are in a more privileged position than many museums – as a national in the heart of London, we enjoy more funding opportunities than many others – but we still face significant challenges. Nothing will ever replace our public funding, but in order to be more sustainable, we need to constantly channel our efforts into encouraging private donations. Individual giving plays a major part of this, and fostering relationships with high-net worth donors is key. We succeeded this year in delivering a big capital project, but as five years had elapsed since the fundraising campaign for this was completed, and with a new Director of Development and Communications and a new Director in post, it became clear late last year that we needed to review how we communicate with this group in order to build on our recent success.

Sir John Soane’s Museum

Sepulchral Chamber © Sir John Soane’s Museum. Photo: Gareth Gardner

Our Annual Review was our main focus. It is not the method of communication which necessarily ‘seals the deal’ with donations, but it plays a crucial role in laying the foundations. We began producing a Review five years ago as a way of updating major donors on progress to our capital project. But after four incarnations it was looking tired and directionless. Major donors want to know that their money is making a difference – they are agents for change, they don’t want their money to simply tinker around the edges. They will give if they see that they can support the whole organisation head into a brighter future. This can be a difficult concept to capture, but we know that an Annual Review is perfectly positioned to begin conversations about these big ideas. We were wasting an opportunity if our Review continued to offer nothing but a simple snapshot of highlights of the past twelve months.

We began working with CultureShock Media on the 2015/16 Review. Although museums are putting increasing effort into digital platforms and cutting back on printed materials, it would have been a mistake to follow that trend here. Donors like physical product; we needed to focus even harder on it. As Thomas Phongsathorn, former Editor at CultureShock told me, “print conveys a prestige and confidence – through tangibility, production values and objecthood.” In other words, an Annual Review is a statement of intent; a commitment to an ambitious vision that can only be fully demonstrated in print. When a Museum’s fundraisers go out to meet donors for the all-important one-on-one meetings to make ‘the ask’, they can take this document with them. It is the museum’s values condensed into beautiful pages.

So Thomas and CultureShock offered us a new direction, for both the content and design. As a small museum, we know that we can’t compete with the headline figures of other institutions – the millions of visitors or the hundreds of object loans for example. We have to show our value in other ways. So Thomas was clear: we should ensure the Soane Annual Review “reflected the depth and rigour of discussion that occurs within the museum itself, among staff and visitors, while also providing something readable, interesting (and) clear.” So out went disjointed department-by-department reports, in came a body of subjects that reflected our activities, distilled into fully-formed essay ideas to be commissioned from both internal and external contributors. These essays provided the space to not only bring together various strands from across the institution, but they allowed us to confidently discuss our position within the cultural landscape, and the unique way in which we can enrich people’s lives. The external writers we commissioned – journalists, architects, academics – were some of the most well respected in their fields and they demonstrated how the Soane’s work reaches far beyond the four walls of the museum.

“Fundraising is a massive beast, equal parts art and science, and getting it right is difficult”

The feedback we received from major donors and stakeholders after publication was overwhelmingly positive. Many have told us that it is not only the best Annual Review we have produced, but the best publication of this type they have ever read. As many of our donors are philanthropists for numerous London cultural institutions, this puts us in a very strong position. We will use the messages we set out in the Review to guide all our interactions with donors in the year ahead. The publication is just the start of the conversation.

While our experience in revamping our Annual Review are not the most ground-breaking, I hope at least it provides an insight that can be useful, or that it will spark an idea or discussion in others that may well lead to better fundraising. Fundraising is a massive beast, equal parts art and science, and getting it right is difficult. As every museum worker has a part to play in this process, it is vital that it is prominent in our conversation. I hope that we can all become better at talking about our donors, and that it finally takes centre-stage, including at a conference.

Maxwell Blowfield
Communications Officer
Sir John Soane’s Museum

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