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.
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.
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