The Buterfly Wall at Weston Park Museum. Museums Sheffield.

Fundraising campaigns

Rebecca Atkinson, 15.05.2013
Tangible causes appeal to donors of all sizes
When the Mary Rose Museum reopens to the public at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard later this month, one of the first things people will see on their approach will be the names of some of its supporters engraved in the black bricks of the Wilkinson Eyre Architects-designed building.

The sponsored bricks are just one aspect of a large public fundraising campaign that contributed £35,000 towards the £35m needed to secure a permanent home for the Tudor warship.

The donations were made through a JustGiving fundraising appeal, with the target hit just two weeks after launch.

To help raise awareness of the project, and encourage people to donate, one million commemorative Mary Rose £2 coins were released into public circulation alongside a marketing campaign encouraging anyone who found one to donate it to the fundraising appeal.

Campaigns to raise money for a specific cause are commonplace across the cultural sector, and can be extremely successful – providing the “ask” is right.

At the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry, for example, a campaign in 2010/11 to acquire a William Brooke painting proved a big hit with people giving anything between 50p and £2,000. But a later appeal to purchase a piece of contemporary art was less successful.

Last year, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford ran a high-profile fundraising campaign to acquire a Manet painting. Tess McCormick, head of development at the Ashmolean, says the museum is still reeling from the level of public support.

“We had to throw all fundraising methodology out of the window and just go for it and ask everybody we knew [because of the timeframe],” she says.

Museums of any size can develop campaigns around a cause that has widespread appeal and “pull at the heartstrings”, says Judy Niner, the founder of Development Partners fundraising consultancy.

Public fundraising around the Cogges Manor Farm in Witney, Oxfordshire, where Niner is chairwoman of the trustees, is a case in point. Forced to close after the local authority withdrew funding, the museum reopened thanks to a huge level of public support and a passionate team of community volunteers.

Campaign-led appeals are a central tenet of the fundraising strategy at the Black Country Living Museum (BCLM) in Dudley, West Midlands, which was implemented by the former manager of Arts and Business, Carolyn Sankey, when she joined the museum as director of development two years ago.

“Capital campaigns are fairly easy, because they are tangible and people can see what they’re putting their money towards,” she says. “They also help raise awareness that many of us are charities. Many people don’t realise we need to fundraise – the perception is that we’re paid for by the public purse – so as a sector more work is needed to get the message across.”

Last year, BCLM raised £20,000 in unrestricted and £273,000 in restricted funds. Individuals were a key driver of its capital campaigns.

This includes its 2012 campaign to rebuild a replica of a Thomas Newcomen steam engine to mark the centenary of the original steam engine. The museum needed £100,000 to get it fully working again, and managed to raise £74,000 from external sources and £12,500 from individuals.

“It’s important to raise a certain amount [from grants or large donations] before going out and asking the public,” says Sankey. “Otherwise the target seems too big – having money already pledged means the end is in sight and it’s more a question of topping up the pot.”

The museum developed a direct mail campaign that went out to existing donors, and was promoted in its e-newsletter and on the website. It also kept a blog so people could see the campaign’s process.

The museum is now in the midst of a new campaign to raise funds to repair the 100-year-old narrow boat, Kildare. Built in 1913 by Braithwaite & Kirk of West Bromwich for Fellows, Morton & Clayton, Kildare was bought in 1991 by the BCLM to accompany President, the only restored steam-powered narrow boat on the canals today, and provide crew accommodation.

“The total costs are about £25,000 and the Friends of President are running the campaign,” says Sankey. “They had the idea to hold a prize draw [to win £2,000 worth of holiday boat hire] as a starting point, so when the main campaign is launched people will already be aware of the ask.”

As well as campaigns, Sankey says a key focus going forward will be high-level givers and a membership scheme to generate unrestricted income – “the holy grail for fundraisers”.

Its membership scheme was introduced last August and is already generating good levels of income. “It’s a good way to get people to start a giving relationship with the museum, even though they may not see it as giving,” Sankey says.

But she adds that focusing on the benefits offered to givers can be counterproductive. “Sometimes we think donors want more than they do. Many people are happy to give, receive a thank you and some updates.

“The difference with high-level donors is that they tend to want a more personal relationship with the organisation. But with anyone who gives money, it’s important to remember to ask again, because if you don’t ask, they’re not going to give.”

Elsewhere, Museums Sheffield is in the process of developing a conservation campaign around its visual art collection.

Ceris Morris, fundraising and partnerships manager at Museums Sheffield, says the idea is to pick 10 paintings from the collection that are in disrepair and either offer people the chance to “sponsor” these or give to their favourite work.

“We haven’t worked out the fine detail yet, but the funding we raise would have to be restricted,” she says. “The difficulty is ensuring that you are transparent about identifying what the money is for, or where it has gone. It’s a common tension for all charities.”

But she believes that people are comfortable with general pots of money where this is clearly pointed out.

Museums Sheffield also recently introduced a sponsor-a-butterfly wall, inspired by a similar fundraising campaign at the Great North Museum in Newcastle, as a way for visitors to show their support for Weston Park Museum without having to join the Friends scheme.

Morris says 80% of people who have sponsored a butterfly are not part of the Friends scheme, showing the potential for new relationships.

As well as adapting fundraising strategies to the organisation and its audiences, understanding when to ask is also key.

McCormick says she wouldn’t like to have to run campaigns such as the Manet acquisition every year. "It took up a lot of our resources, and I would also worry that asking in this way too often would make people apathetic. But having said that, there are lots of generous people out there who like to give to something specific.”