Your Museum Fundraisers Should Be Donor-Led. Here’s Why.

Museum Resources
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Museum Resources November 20, 2022 Your Museum Fundraisers Should Be Donor-Led. Here’s Why.

Does your museum struggle with fundraisers and other donor cultivation events? Do you find these nights long, tiresome and, worst, not that successful?

If so, this post is for you! We recently sat down with Jonathan Hicken from the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History to learn all about how to create amazing, enjoyable events… that also bring in the $$$.

Keep reading to find out more!

Let’s Back Up. Who is Jonathan and What is the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History?

Jonathan Hicken is the Director of Development & Partnerships at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH). Under the leadership of Executive Director Nina Simon, the MAH is an amazing resource in Santa Cruz, California, that brings art, history, and incredible events to its community.

Simon and the team at the MAH don’t just see their institution as a museum. They see it as a place to facilitate shared experiences and uncommon connections. According to Simon, the MAH’s role isn’t just to preserve history. It’s to build a stronger, more connected community by fostering the space to bring people and culture together and have meaningful conversations.

Events are a big cornerstone of the MAH’s mission. Under Hicken, the MAH hosts dozens of events each year, from their huge annual Red Ball to public events to highly curated donor-led cultivation experiences.

These events are extremely successful for the MAH in terms of generating donations and building community interest in their programming due to one secret ingredient.

The MAH’s Secret Ingredient: Donor Input

The MAH has a unique process for their curated donor-led events: they ask the donors what they want.

And not just in a generic survey… Hicken and his staff at the MAH ask their donors to come up with the concept and then the MAH brings that concept to life.

Says Hicken: “We’re there to say ‘yes’ and create boundaries when we need to, but we let people come up with the concepts and run with them.”

That means that donors themselves are responsible for coming up with themes, activities, food, drinks, and more. It falls to Hicken and the rest of the MAH staff to make that vision come true.

Here’s how that works in practice:

When it comes time for an event, Hicken and the team reach out to the board at the MAH. Depending on the goal of their event, they might talk with different board members. For instance, if they want to do an event for people over 50, they might work with board members in that demographic.

The board members develop the concept, deciding on everything from activities to the menu. Once the plan is finalized, Hicken and his staff execute.

Why Donor-Led Events Are Better

Why have these donor-led events been so successful?

Simple, Hicken says.

Because they’re what the donors actually want.

Hicken is not necessarily the MAH’s target museum donor. So, while he may come up with an amazing concept that he would want to attend, it’s not really about him! It’s about attracting donors… and who knows what the donors want better than the donors themselves?

Since his team cedes concept control to the donors, Hicken says, it’s basically guaranteed that the donors will have an amazing time at the event. After all, it’s a party that they’ve designed and are putting on on the MAH’s dime.

Hicken says that these events have been incredibly successful for the MAH. Not only have they resulted in meeting fundraising goals, but the events have also helped attract new donors, because the donors go and brag to all of their friends (who are also in the target demographic) about how fun the party was.


How Your Museum Can Implement Donor-Led Events

The first step in crafting donor-led events is to figure out what your donors want and need. What better way than to ask them?

Consider facilitating deep conversations with a few donors, rather than sending out surveys to all of them. Work with your board to figure out who is interested and excited about these events.

If you need help on the execution, Museum Hack can help. We’ve worked with dozens of museums to create amazing custom events that are guaranteed to wow your audience.

Learn more here.

written with 💖 by Hayley Milliman

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