Digital fundraising for museums

How to unlock the potential of online giving
Digital Fundraising
Holly Black
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Many museums were familiar with communicating digitally even before the Covid-19 pandemic forced them to close their doors.

Sharing learning resources, online collections and digital exhibitions have been a big focus for many during lockdown, but with no income being generated from shops, cafes or ticket sales, digital fundraising is an increasingly important area of practice to get right.

According to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) 2019 Culture is Digital report, the UK has an online audience of 50.4 million people – 76% of adults have a smartphone and 80% use the internet daily or almost daily.

“Digital technology is transforming the relationship that cultural organisations have with the public,” the report says.  

It is likely that these figures will have increased enormously as a result of the pandemic.

A pre-coronavirus study from the National Philanthropic Trust UK found that the overall figures for online donations compared with other forms of giving remain at under 10% (excluding grants). But online giving “increased 5.5% among UK non-profits in 2018” with the largest gains seen in the arts and culture sector.

That number is expected to continue to grow.

What is digital fundraising?

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When talking about the potential of digital fundraising, many automatically think of email, social media and crowdfunding campaigns.

But Howard Lake, director of Fundraising UK, says: “You would never have a separate mail and phone strategy – they are just channels. So why would you differentiate digital communication?”

Sarah Gee, the managing partner of marketing and fundraising consultancy Indigo, says: “I get worried when I hear about organisations with separate digital strategies, because it is simply part of your overall fundraising strategy. You have methods of communication and collecting donations, and digital is one of those, just the same as sending a letter in the post, or face-to-face.”

The most obvious form of digital fundraising channels is the presence of a donate button prominently displayed on an organisation’s website, as well as the option for donations when purchasing tickets online. According to Gee, some teams are disheartened if the button is not overly used by visitors to their site and often consider removing it. But she explains that it is not just a practical tool, but a communicative one.

“It’s so valuable in terms of the advocacy message,” Gee says. “An online user might not give through that platform, but they might go away and write a cheque.”

Although the Covid-19 pandemic has created many challenges, Gee says it could be the perfect time for museums to reach out to their fundraising base online.  

“Organisations that might have been a bit scared of working digitally have to embrace it now because it’s the only option, and people are being quite forgiving during this time,” she says.

“It is a good moment to give something a go, and if it doesn’t work you can just move on and learn from it. Not enough arts organisations are doing basic things like testing, which you can do with relatively small groups on platforms like Facebook.”

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She points to small-scale experiments such as posting two different styles of comparative social media messaging and seeing what offers more engagement, with the added bonus of statistics being readily available.

Much of the advice in the DCMS’s 2012 Digital Giving in the Arts report remains valid, despite the technological advances the sector has seen since it was published.

Its author, Matthew Bowcock, writes that effective online fundraising is most likely to succeed not only when an institution is “digitally mature” with a strong presence online, but when every part of the organisation is involved, including curators, promoters, fundraisers, senior management and trustees.

“Technology can be used to engage wider audiences than traditional major donor campaigns, which tend to target a small number of high net-worth benefactors,” Bowcock says. “It can ‘democratise philanthropy’ by embracing larger numbers of supporters from all demographic groups, giving them a sense of ownership and responsibility for the art and culture that they value.”

Unlocking the potential

Harnessing the power of digital communication can also have wide-reaching impact on international giving, which extend far beyond the remit of a bricks-and-mortar building.

Patton Hindle, the head of arts at crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, recalls a very successful 2015 campaign by the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

“It managed to reach a donor in the US through Kickstarter, who now gives around $20,000 per project, because he was so excited by what they were doing,” Hindle says.

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Though major donations are rare, the potential for unlocking small-level giving, and engaging new audiences in the process, is one of the most obvious benefits of digital fundraising.

A prime example comes from the National Videogame Museum in Sheffield, which launched a campaign to save the newly established institution as lockdown took hold. The appeal, which is hosted on JustGiving, garnered widespread support from a specialist and general audience.

“We had the first push, which was supported by a small number of games companies and influential individuals in the sector,” says the museum’s chief executive officer, Rick Gibson. “The rest, around 30%, has come from members of the public.”

The current total runs at over 300% of the original goal, showing just how significant a concise, time-sensitive, digital-first appeal can be.

Gibson says that although he is working with an extremely small team, acting quickly and responsively and partnering with a major third-party platform has allowed them to achieve enormous success.

Access to skills, budgets and time might pose problems for many museums, but Fundraising UK’s Howard Lake says: “Good fundraising tools on Facebook, Instagram and the like are being used and seen by millions of users every day. They aren’t perfect, but we know that the Facebook birthday fundraiser, for example, is the most-used tool of them all.

“It is worth it just to be registered, because there’s the potential for a huge audience.”

Although these relatively simple tools aren’t a substitute for traditional fundraising, Lake says they are a great addition. In these unusual times, he also recommends reaching out to experts via social media as a great way to get help and support on how to fundraise online.

“There are plenty of very friendly experts who will be glad to help,” he says. “Particularly as many might be furloughed right now and looking to volunteer their services.”

Holly Black is a freelance journalist

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