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Attracting Charitable Giving through Education Programs

Category: Education & Interpretation
A collection of tip jars with the message "Give More Donations" written on one.
With sources of earned income stalled by the pandemic, attracting charitable giving is more important than ever. Here are some ways that education programs can garner donations. Photo credit: alexandra lammerink on Unsplash

In this series of posts, EdCom’s Trends Committee is taking a deeper look at emerging phenomena identified in the 2020 edition of TrendsWatch from the Center for the Future of Museums. In this post, they turn their attention to the all-important topic of charitable income, with case studies from the Edgar Allen Poe House Museum, Fowler Museum at UCLA, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Museum of the Moving Image, and Jacksonville’s Museum of Science and History.


A months-long halt to ticket sales, fundraising events, space rentals, cafe and gift shop sales, and exhibition loans has left many museums hurting financially, with few ways to get back their earned income. This has put them in a precarious position: AAM released a report near the end of July saying that up to a third of the museums it surveyed were either at a significant risk of closing permanently by next fall, or their directors didn’t know if their institutions would survive.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic forcing these closures, many museums would turn to charity to make up for their losses in earned income. TrendsWatch defines charitable income as “support [that] can help bridge the gap between what the public is willing to pay to enjoy what the museum provides and what it costs to operate the museum.” The economic uncertainty surrounding the pandemic has limited the amount of, but not halted, philanthropy, as many donors have continued or increased their levels of giving, and plan to continue to do so in 2021.

Charitable income, then, is especially critical while museums operate under limited capacity or remain closed altogether. With fewer opportunities to pay museums directly for products and services, more people will need to make a conscious decision to support them as causes. How can educators play a meaningful role in spurring this charitable giving? How does building community help incentivize charitable giving? How do you sound the alarm in a time of financial crisis in creative ways? These are the questions we want to answer in this post.

Creating Community Near and Far

Educational programming is one of the few concrete tools for engaging patrons virtually with our institutions. But this does not necessarily help with revenue. Asking your audiences to buy tickets for an experience they’d rather have in person is a hard sell, and the COVID-era world is awash with free content. Instead of creating a barrier to entry with ticket sales for programs, some institutions are finding opportunities to tap into the philanthropic impulse of patrons, and building community along the way.

Pay-What-You-Can Programs

During the pandemic, the Edgar Allan Poe House Museum in Baltimore has started offering virtual tours and programs under a pay-what-you-can model. This extra step in the registration process may not result in massive gifts, but it does compassionately communicate that programs are not free to produce, and links a philanthropic impulse with an immediate reward—the program itself. As a staff person at the museum tells us, “Overall, people seem to appreciate the pay-what-you-can model. At the beginning of the pandemic…we found that most often people chose to pay more than the suggested donation. This tapered after a time. We will also often see people pay for one regular admission and then add a nominal amount for a second or third seat. Any and all are appreciated!”

In some cases, programming like this can provide an outlet for the philanthropic impulses of those who give in relatively small amounts. A Forbes article from 2015 explored the effect pay-what-you-wish programming has on patrons’ payment amount, citing an experiment which found that reinforcing a “communal norm” based on social relationships rather than reciprocal exchanges resulted in a “higher willingness to pay more.” If museums wish to adopt a pay-what-you-can model, then, educators are tasked with demonstrating the overall value of the museum as a community institution that’s worth sustaining, rather than the value of discrete programs.

Members-Only Programs

Membership programs come in all shapes and sizes, but if the goal is ultimately to encourage charitable giving from that member pool, building a strong sense of belonging and community is important. Educational programming can be one method to build that sense of community. At the Fowler Museum at UCLA, for instance, the Textile Council provides exclusive programming (now virtual due to the pandemic) that offers access to curators, collections, and behind-the-scenes glimpses into what the museum knows its audience loves most: textiles of the world.

Besides this exclusive access, the programs also provide opportunities to socialize with people who hold similar interests. The Fowler builds a sense of community by occasionally inviting members of other organizations with overlapping missions to join a program, where they can be educated about the museum and its mission, and be invited to stick around as a long-term council patron.

As TrendsWatch reminds us, “Savvy museums treat engagement as a continuum, focusing on ways to move people from being (transactional) members to being (mission-driven) donors.” A group that is intimately familiar with the museum’s reputation, collections, mission, and even long-term goals can be a museum’s most valuable charitable community, when the time is right. The key is asking! And by thanking, recognizing, and working in good faith to provide meaningful programs for patrons, we can help people feel they’re contributing to the educational mission of the organization.

Community-Crowdsourced Funding

TrendsWatch also highlights crowdfunded projects as an alternative avenue for mission-driven philanthropy. One example of this comes from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, which launched a Kickstarter campaign inviting people to support an important education initiative to “make the diaries of Holocaust victims and survivors available to everyone by helping us catalog, translate, and publish them online.” This type of campaign focuses on a discrete project or program that can create community, even among a distanced group of supporters. They may not have an in-person relationship with your museum as visitors or program participants, but instead identify in a personal way with the project.

In New York, the Museum of the Moving Image is appealing to its community for a crowd-sourced influx of cash so it can reopen after the pandemic forced it to close for several months. Donors to the campaign are enticed by “cool rewards” like an original animation cell from The Simpsons or a custom-made puppet from Jim Henson Company puppet designer James Wotjal, Jr. Carl Goodman, the museum’s Executive Director, says, “These are unusual times and we are grateful to Kickstarter for opening its platform to arts organizations to ‘keep the lights on.’ While many of our members and friends have supported the campaign, we also see this as an opportunity to reach new audiences, especially those who live outside New York, with the new online programs we’ve developed during the pandemic and plan to continue offering even after we reopen the building.”

A Little Help from Your Friends

In some cases, people from outside the museum field have been compelled by the dramatic impact of the pandemic to lead creative grassroots campaigns introducing new people to museums, in an urgent push to communicate what’s at stake for the community if they lose them.

In Jacksonville, Florida, for instance, a popular local band called Skyview performed at a benefit concert to support the city’s Museum of Science and History. Edmund Whisler, the museum’s Vice President of Education Services explains, “Thanks to the generosity of both the band Skyview and the sound technicians, we were able to host this event as a benefit concert with minimal expenses, where MOSH was able to retain all proceeds from ticket sales.” Having a voice of influence outside your institution to advocate for you can generate a feeling of solidarity in a worthy cause and broadcast your need to new audiences. And a well-crafted community partnership—which is often the work of educators—can underscore your museum’s mission at the same time.

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