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Tag: development (Page 1 of 3)

Fundraising Galas: Effective or Expensive?

As we enter another busy holiday season and close out 2022, many museums and non-profits are engaging in special fundraising projects to increase end-of-year giving. Among these development strategies is one that many museum professionals have come to know and even fear: the annual gala.

Fundraising galas, most popular during the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day, are one of the most popular and commonly used high-yield development projects. A well-executed gala not only brings in significant income—it also attracts media and drives public interest in the museum or charity hosting the event. Many of these events, such as the notorious Met Gala, are synonymous with wealth and popularity, but are they effective in creating economic stability for the host institution? It’s a complicated issue over which development and museum professionals are divided.

One could describe them the same way Winston Churchill famously described democracy: the worst option, except for all the other options that have been tried before.

Taylor Dafoe, ArtNET

Galas clearly create economic opportunities for those participating. During gala season, event planning agencies, furniture rentals, event venues, caterers, and entertainers experience a significance increase in business. Many museums and non-profits lack the operating capacity to achieve an event of such scope with their in-house resources, so they seek out community partners to pull of these fundraisers. This creates fantastic opportunities for collaboration, but often stretches the financial limits of the fundraising institution.

Best fundraising tactics stipulate that the cost for executing a gala should not exceed 30% of the income generated by the event; however, this is a budgeting goal that is oftentimes unrealistic, especially for nascent and small organizations. Galas come at a staggering cost to plan—a study for ArtNet reveals that some museums’ gala budgets exceed the total income brought in by their yearly admission sales. This ratchets pressure for museum staff to plan and execute an event that will surpass the steep investment.

Not only is the stress of planning a successful event a considerable burden for museum staff—it also often precludes them from completing their typical professional duties. This is especially true for smaller organizations, as development departments often cease other projects in the months leading up to the gala in order to complete the rigorous planning process. As seasoned fundraising professionals note, this can considerably negatively impact a museum’s overall fundraising success by derailing other significant revenue-generating projects.

In addition to apprehensions regarding the fundraising efficacy of galas, some professionals note the ethical dilemmas of such projects. Academics Philip Hackney and Brian Middendorf reveal that galas can potentially contradict the intentions and missions of the non-profit institution. Because these celebrations often focus on grand gestures of decadence, they may not represent the non-profit’s philanthropic values. This may be especially relevant for nonprofits dedicated to serving an economically disadvantaged population. 

In light of these arguments against the traditional gala fundraising model, some alternatives may point towards a more sustainable future. The COVID-19 pandemic forced many museums to forgo their annual in-person galas. Some institutions opted to host virtual events. While these events typically worked towards a reduced fundraising goal, the virtual nature also decreased overhead costs. Some nonprofits like St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital also produce “no-go” galas, sponsored events with no in-person party. As fundraising professionals recognize, annual galas are attractive because of their abilities to drive large donations; however, museums can work towards this goal with other major gift campaigns that may require less investment of limited resources.

Overall, galas are a recognizable form of fundraising that increases visibility in the public eye and introduces museums to potential repeat donors. Museums should exercise caution, however, before pursuing such an event. Fundraising professionals recommend museums consult their boards and operations staff to determine feasibility and goals for such an involved project.


Article by Danielle Maurer

MA Candidate: History and Museum Studies

Tufts University

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?

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