Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Tag: development (page 1 of 3)

Membership Models for the Modern Museum

For visitors seeking immersive exhibitions or riveting programming, memberships may seem to be the least exciting offerings at museums. That’s no surprise—without exhibits or programs, memberships would have little value to museum visitors. Internally, however, memberships can be one of the most integral components to a museum’s operations, and the structure of these programs can reveal the institutional priorities and value with which museums hold their members.

For museums with an established membership base, memberships can be a critical source of operating funds. Members are, after all, repeat donors. Other fundraising efforts often produce restricted funds that can only be used for specific projects (often exhibitions, programming, or DEAI), whereas unrestricted revenue allows museum leadership to apply the funds to other underfunded initiatives such as staffing or facilities maintenance. This study by Colleen Dilen shows just how large an impact members have. Many members are unaware that their support allows their museum to keep the lights on, so it is important that museums express their gratitude to their members.

Valuable benefits are critical to a sustainable membership program.

While acknowledgement letters and other expressions of appreciation are important means of recognizing members for their contributions, studies have shown that members feel more fulfilled by meaningful benefits such as museum shop discounts, complimentary admission, and members-only programming. These deliverables can come at a cost to museum operations, showing that membership programs are not just another method of donor cultivation, but a more involved investment into key community relationships. Many museums struggle to fund staffing positions that can dedicate sufficient time to membership, meaning these programs should be integrated into feasibility studies and strategic plans to ensure the development of a sustainable program.

The ideal membership program has options for both guests seeking affordable experiences and patrons seeking philanthropic opportunities. An interesting study by Audesh Paswan and Lisa Troy examines the many motivations of members, and museums must cater their levels to match these interests. Membership levels that are too expensive may alienate a significant portion of a museum’s audience, while too many low-cost options may not attract higher-level donors. Museums struggling to produce meaningful benefits should look into reciprocal programs, such as the North American Reciprocal Museum Association, that allow members to enjoy the benefits of museum membership beyond the walls of their host institution.

With the purchase of an admission ticket, Museum of Us visitors may seek complimentary membership for one year.

Many museums are experimenting with new models that may shape how we perceive museum memberships in the future. Some museums, like San Diego’s Museum of Us, have embraced a free membership program aimed at increasing accessibility and audience retention. Other museums, like the San Antonio Zoo, have launched monthly membership options. Similar to a Netflix subscription, these levels seek to increase giving by providing a more digestible alternative to annual membership fees.

Whether following a traditional model or offering more updated alternatives, museums offering memberships must continue to evaluate the efficacy and accessibility of their programs. Luckily, there are many professional development resources designed to inform museum staff of the latest strategies and theories in membership cultivation and retention. Those interested in learning more should visit the online resources provided by the American Museum Membership Conference and the American Alliance of Museums.


Article by Danielle Maurer

MA Candidate: History and Museum Studies

Tufts University

Building belonging at the MFA with free memberships

When I went to the MFA Boston Hanukkah party this past Wednesday, I wasn’t expecting to walk away with a free membership.

I have an MFA membership now. Go figure.

I didn’t complete a scavenger hunt for the privilege or win any sort of raffle. As it turns out, the MFA is launching a free first-year membership program in celebration of the 150th anniversary of its founding. The only way to enroll is onsite at 14 cultural and Late Nite events held throughout 2020, so it looks like I got lucky with an early opportunity.

Just by the numbers, giving out free memberships is a huge move – even for only one year. An entry-level Supporter membership can cost $75-$114 for one person. Multiply that by one or two hundred visitors (conservatively) signing up at each of the 14 events and you have a six-figure sum that the MFA could theoretically make otherwise. Why is the MFA undertaking such a colossal initiative when even the The Met’s 150-year celebration will comprise mostly a few events and exhibitions?

I wonder if the free first-year memberships were thought of before or after the school group incident in May. In short, a class of seventh graders reported being targeted by racist speech from MFA staff and visitors and racial profiling by security. The MFA was criticized for its handling of the report and communication in the days afterwards; even Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey opened an investigation into the event. In (ongoing) response, the MFA began a “Toward a More Inclusive MFA” initiative involving staff and volunteer trainings, community roundtables, new executive positions dedicated to inclusion and working with the community, and other endeavors.

Reading over the 150th anniversary press release again, it looks like the bulk of the related celebrations will champion diversity and inclusion. The release mentions “community” 16 times, “diversity” 4 times, and “inclusion” 3 times. The focus on community does relate to the strategic plan released in 2017, but I suspect the MFA is also still trying to make up for the events in May and move forward.

The MFA has been working hard to position itself as a place of belonging for the community – something many museums grapple with. We know free admission doesn’t bring in new or more diverse members on its own; however, the slate of cultural events with free admission planned for 2020, including celebrations for Nowruz, Juneteenth, and an ASL night, may attract such a crowd. By providing free first-year memberships at these events, the MFA incentivizes return visits by audience segments it desperately seeks to connect with. In theory, this will give the Museum more opportunities to build and rebuild relationships with the community.

I haven’t heard of other museums offering free memberships like this, so I’m curious to see how the next year unfolds for the MFA. What do you think of the plan – will you be going to get your free membership?

Invisible Factors for Financial Sustainability

Quick post to say that I LOVE this post from GuideStar’s Trust blog about the unnoticed factors in building a nonprofit organization’s longterm financial sustainability.

In short: make your organization good from the inside out, and you’ll be on solid footing to address challenges as they come.

Top Revenue Builders for Nonprofits

Free Fundraising Webinar Series

Okay, I get that fundraising and development isn’t everyone’s favorite topic in the nonprofit world, but it’s crucially important, especially in this day and age. AAM has partnered up with Alexander Haas fundraising counselors to present a series of three free webinars about how fundraising and development are changing for the years ahead.

There’s a full description and registration information on their website.

Museum Admissions Fees

This is a bit older, but it still discusses the question in a variety of interesting lights: The Cultural Calculation: Museum Fees.

On the one hand: museums need any source of revenue they can get, and shouldn’t be selling themselves short. They are great enough that people should be willing to pay for the quality product they receive.

On the other hand: museums are a cultural resource, and any museum that relies on admissions to support any significant portion of its budget is not in a very good financial position for the longterm. Expecting families to shell out as much as $100 to visit your museum for a few hours is not exactly growing your audience and working with your community.

Speaking purely for myself, I tend to lean toward free admission. I know that I couldn’t afford to go to nearly as many museums as I do without my reciprocal admission benefits. I also think that pricing out families in the middle-income range and catering only to those who can spend significant amounts of money on a cultural visit is not the way to build audience. (Yes, families can purchase memberships to visit one museum multiple times, but we want them to be visiting multiple museums and broadening their exposure, right?)

I suspect few museums are willing to share the nitty-gritty details of their funding, but how much are museums really taking in from their admissions fees – 5%? 10%? Anything more and I’d really start to worry about so much of the budget depending on such a highly unpredictable and varying revenue stream.

What do you think, Tufts community? Yea or nay to museum admission fees?

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