Visitors to the Ashmolean Museum's Discovering Tutankhamun exhibition. Image: David Fisher

Developing membership schemes

Julie Nightingale, 15.04.2015
Tips on how much to charge to what benefits to offer
There is no one-size-fits-all in terms of how a scheme is configured or what it should include. Some museums have gold, silver and bronze grades of membership with benefits attached on a sliding scale; some museums offer schools membership while others provide life membership arrangements.

Others, such as Tullie House in Cumbria, offer two membership schemes – one for individuals and the other for corporate members.

The latter allows companies to use their passes for staff visits or to entertain clients, and there are also marketing and sponsorship opportunities on offer.

A report by Culture Label into the commercial issues around discounted family tickets concluded that “marketing to families represents an efficient investment of limited budgets … marketing to one person in the family has the potential to result in four or five visitors”.

As a rule of thumb, it calculated that the number of new visitors that result from creating an attractive discount offer can provide an increase in sales of 20-25% of ticket sales, provided that what’s on offer is marketed well.

For example, Canterbury Museums and Galleries relaunched its Friends scheme as a membership programme in 2013. The £45 adult annual membership provides free entry to the city’s Roman and heritage museums (which normally cost £8 each) and enables children to enter free as well.

“It is developing what we do for families and means someone with a membership card can bring kids down to the Roman Museum two or three times during half-term for free,” says James Williams, the service’s head of marketing.

What to charge

Benchmarking against other visitor attractions of similar size and/or audience can help museums determine how much to charge members. But in some cases the calculation might be more complex.

Birmingham Museums Trust faced the problem of how to incorporate an existing scheme for Thinktank into its new programme, which launches next month. Thinktank charges for entry, but the trust’s other nine museums all offer free admission.

Its solution was to create two levels of membership – gold for families and people visiting Thinktank and silver for “culture vultures” whose main interest is the city’s museum and art gallery or some of the other cultural attractions.

Thinktank has 1,600 members, which the trust hopes it can maintain while adding another 500, predominantly silver, members in the first year.

Annual passes to Thinktank cost £36.75 and the new gold membership will cost £38; people visiting three times while taking in other institutions, where they may enjoy member discounts in shops and cafes, should feel they are saving money.


A core membership offer generally includes:

  • Free admission
  • Special newsletters
  • Advance notification of special events and exhibitions
  • Discounts in the shop and cafe

Additional benefits might include:

  • Private viewings
  • Opportunities to see new acquisitions before they go on display
  • Curator talks

At the high end, corporate and sponsor membership schemes can run into five figures –the Victoria and Albert Museum’s corporate scheme, for example, costs £12,000 – and might include one-to-one sessions with curators; behind-the-scenes tours; an annual dinner with the museum director; or use of the museum’s spaces (there are tax and Gift Aid implications here to be wary of).

Museums should regularly review the benefits they offer and canvass members’ opinions about what they value and what they actually use.

For example, a 2014 online survey for the Ashmolean Museum’s 5,500-strong membership scheme found that they wanted more events in the Oxford museum, rather than the regular trips to neighbouring institutions that had been offered for many years.

In 2009, Tate reviewed its membership scheme to increase retention. One change it brought in was to create more opportunities for members to socialise together.

“We recognised that members wished to meet each other,” says Martin Barden, the Tate’s former head of membership, who now leads Culture Consultants. “Events included forming the Tate Wine Club, to capitalise on Tate’s renowned cellar, and more frequent ones such as special members’ shopping evenings and private tours.”

Tax implications and Gift Aid

All UK museums registered as charities are eligible for Gift Aid, which means that 25p on every £1 donated can be reclaimed, or 40p in the case of higher-rate taxpayers who can decide whether to retrieve the tax for themselves or gift it to the charity.

Every eligible museum should be signed up to Gift Aid; in the early years, it could well make the difference between a membership scheme turning a profit, just covering its costs or running at a loss.

However, too many benefits offered to members may take a scheme out of Gift Aid eligibility. Membership must not, for example, give people personal use of the charity’s facilities or services.

Too generous shop discounts can also lead to trouble; one volunteer-run museum had to repay £5,000 to HM Revenue and Customs because members were saving too much in the shop.

Data protection

Some museums are uncertain about what data they can and can’t collect, and this could be deterring some of them from exploiting Gift Aid.

Under the Data Protection Act, anyone using members’ data has to follow the data protection principles.

These include ensuring the information is:

  • Used for limited, specifically-stated purposes
  • Accurate
  • Kept for no longer than is absolutely necessary
  • Kept safe and secure

The Institute of Fundraising has some basic rules to stay the right side of data protection laws:

  • Ensure you have the necessary permissions to contact supporters
  • Do not retain any information on a supporter or prospect that you would not be comfortable sharing with them
  • Do not use information in a manner that the supporter would not wish
  • Do not share data in a manner that a supporter would not wish

Remember that supporters need to opt in to specifically receive electronic marketing communications, such as text and email messages that promote an organisation’s aims and ideals, and are not just offers or services.

Organisations must also notify website users about its use of cookies.


Museums and tax guide