Cultivating private donors

Julie Nightingale, Issue 42, p60-62, Summer 2008
For smaller museums, cultivating private donors by matching their passions with your aspirations is often the most fruitful fundraising strategy

Small museums are at a disadvantage where successful fundraising depends on maintaining a high public profile and attracting lots of media attention. But they can fare better when private donors enter the frame.

Christopher Woodward, director of the Museum of Garden History in London, says: "[Fundraising] overall is about prestige in larger museums, and that seldom applies to small and independent museums where support is much more personal and individual."

For a smaller museum, donors want to feel a greater sense of involvement than with a large institution and it is important that they can see the impact of their funding in a visible way, he says.

"For example, £1,000 can pay for a really nice half-term education project, and the donor would be happy to receive a write-up and some pictures afterwards explaining what happened on the day. We had some tulips in the garden here that were funded by a donor in Seattle as a wedding present for a friend. It's easy for us then to send them pictures."

The museum is currently aiming to raise just under £600,000 to support its goal of becoming the UK's leading centre for British garden history. The appeal focuses on projects because some donors prefer to home in on a specific initiative - the chronological story, plant hunting or local heritage, for example - rather than add their cash to a larger development fund.

The museum is also creating a patrons group, a collection of up to 50 individuals who will each pledge £500 annually to the museum. Woodward ran a similar scheme at the Holburne Museum of Art in Bath, attracting around 75 annual donors. Interestingly, he believes these groups have flourished in part because donors were not showered with freebies in gratitude for their generosity.

"The patrons groups has been a success because we have been very clear that we were not giving them benefits in return. They don't want to have lots of dinners paid for. They want to see you spending the money not on entertaining but on exhibitions and on buying works of art." Similarly, few donors to small museums are impressed by glossy brochures and other fancy packaging, he says.


When it comes to finding potential donors with the kind of wealth that could make the difference between a project getting off the ground and never leaving the drawing board, networking is important. For one thing, philanthropists all seem to know each other, says Rhian Harris, the director of the Foundling Museum in London. "If they can see that you have some money from the usual suspects, it prompts others to give," she says.

The Foundling Museum raised £4.4m to add to a £3.3m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for its refurbishment project, which was completed in 2004. One tactic in the fundraising campaign was a series of appeal lunches held twice a month for movers and shakers where Harris and her team networked like mad.

She says: "We invited influential people who we thought would be able to put us in touch with other people who were also wealthy. There were up to 20 guests including myself and a couple of trustees, which worked well.

"Taking people round our dilapidated building meant they could see the need, plus having a lunch in-house is cheap so people don't get the impression you are trying to wine and dine them."
But building networks takes patience and persistence, she emphasises.

"We had to court people for two years sometimes and you do get turned down. I did get very upset in the beginning when we were rejected, and it happens nine times out of ten. But you have to realise that's part of the way things operate." But eventually, says Harris, you develop a network of people who are interested and know about you. "No one had heard of the Foundling Museum when we began."


One thing to avoid is "cold calling". "It didn't work for us at all, especially with wealthy individuals. Even with trusts and foundations your chance of success is much greater if you have some contact beforehand through your development committee or development manager," Harris says.

An individual's personal passion plays a crucial role when it comes to deciding whether to write a cheque for an institution. An enthusiasm - for an institution, a painter, a town or a social issue, such as education or poverty reduction - frequently lies behind a private donor's link with a museum and it is something to capitalise on.

By the same token, it is difficult to drum up passion for a project if the donor is clearly unmoved by it. If you are having to "hard sell" your organisation to the potential donor then the fit is not right. You are actually competing for their interest, not their money, and if the former is lacking, their money will not follow.

Once hooked, relationships with private donors need to be nurtured. This does not mean getting them to spend more time with your marketing team. It means inviting them to events, keeping them up to date on projects with newsletters and bulletins, offering the chance to make a personal visit to the museum to see the project's progress with staff - in short, trying to bring them as close as possible to the work you are doing.


1. Networking is key - invite local people with influence to see your museum close-up

2. Be patient - it can take time to get to meet the wealthy philanthropist in person, and you may need to go through intermediaries

3. Do not spend time and money on glossy marketing if you do not have the budget for it. Private donors to small museums expect their money to be spent on the museum and its projects, not hospitality

4. Find out what your potential donors are passionate about and consider how their enthusiasm could be harnessed to your funding needs.


Naming schemes, in which individuals are offered the opportunity to fund a specific work, are an increasingly popular way of enhancing that vital personal link between a museum and a donor. Whether it is naming a wing, a gallery or a brick - even a brushstroke - there are opportunities to suit every pocket.

In the UK, Dulwich Picture Gallery in London has run an "adopt-an-old-master" scheme, which has raised money to conserve more than 100 paintings over 20 years. The gallery draws up a list of paintings in need of help, and donors contribute between £2,000 and £15,000. As well as the works themselves, donors can also sponsor the restoration of a picture's frame separately.

Besides the gratification of supporting the gallery, they are offered behind-the-scenes visits to see the conservators at work, and are invited to a ceremony when the restored work goes on display with a label noting their contribution.

"People are incredibly proud, and enjoy the association with the gallery," says Cat Savoca, the development officer at Dulwich. "There's less of the 'vanity' aspect of giving with these particular donors and often they will adopt a painting in memory of someone else. One person recently adopted a work to mark the birth of a grandchild."

Naming rights

The Yorkshire Sculpture Park has raised money in the past with its Walk of Art, a 100-metre metal pathway inscribed with its donors' names. The adoption principle has been extended to the virtual world: in 2007 the Art Fund raised part of the £4.95m needed by the Tate to buy Turner's The Blue Rigi with a "buy-a-brushstroke" scheme, offering pixels of the painting for sale online for £5 each.

Glasgow's Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum raised £600,000 towards its refurbishment appeal by offering donors the chance to be named as a contributor, however modest, on a wall plaque in the museum's central hall. There was no lower limit to donations, which ranged from £2 to £5,000. The wall now bears 9,500 names of individuals and families.

Alan Horn, director of development for Culture and Sport Glasgow, says: "It was incredibly successful in terms of raising money and it also emphasises the relationship that the museum has with its community."

Wall of donors

At the other end of the scale, the Museum of Chinese in America (Moca) in New York has commissioned a work for its new home expressly to create naming opportunities to elicit substantial donations from Chinese Americans.

Journey Wall is an installation made of 300 bronze tiles designed by Maya Lin, the artist and architect famous for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC.

In Moca, Chinese Americans can commemorate their family roots by buying a tile that will be inscribed with an individual's or family's name and place of origin and their home in the US. Tile text can be in both English and Chinese. Donors are asked to give $10,000 (£5,000) or more, and those who give $25,000 receive a replica of their tile made by the artist.

The wall was conceived as a fundraiser and a work of art in its own right to illuminate the museum's key themes. A number of families and individuals signed up even before the fundraising campaign was formerly launched to the public.

(Image: the Foundling Museum)