If a well-managed museum has robust programming, a large endowment, and a profitable gift shop, should they still rely on contributions and grants? Often regarded as a fundraising burden to reduce or eliminate, instead we might want to consider these revenue sources as one of the best ways to sustain and expand an institution. Sixty-six percent of History-Focused Organizations [Museums (NTEE A50), History Museums (A54), History Organizations (A80), and Historical Societies & Historic Preservation (A82)] depend on contributions and grants for at least half of their annual revenue and nearly forty percent rely on contributions and grants for more than three-quarters of their revenue (see Figure 1 below).
To maximize revenue, museums must navigate fundraising in the present and future. Understanding the donor and engagement pyramids simplifies fundraising and ensures focus. Small history-focused organizations, in particular, must invest their limited bandwidth strategically to achieve success.
Over the past year, Engaging Places has been looking over individual segments of the museum field. While these segments are unique in specific ways, as demonstrated by the data, several of them do share a common theme and mission: an overall goal to promote history. These four segments are History Museums (A54), History Organizations (A80), Historical Societies & Historic Preservation (A82), as well as the broad Museums (A50) category. By combining these segments we can focus on the history-centric portion of the museum field that makes up close to half of its revenue and consists of a whopping 89% of its institutions (see Figure 1). This block of museums is incredibly dominant within the field and a major focus of Engaging Places’ work. For ease of reference, we will be referring to them as History-Focused Organizations.
It is important to remember that as an aggregate these History-Focused Organizations still trend small. Over 90% operate on less than $1 million in revenue annually, with contributions and grants bringing in over half of that vital revenue. For these smaller museums, financial security is a constant and essential priority. While many of these History-Focused Organizations are unable to achieve large pools of investment to stabilize operations, unlike some of their larger counterparts, they can develop practices to move them in this direction.
Of all the organizations in the United States devoted to arts, culture, and humanities, Historical Societies & Historic Preservation (NTEE A82) organizations have an outsized presence. More than a third of all organizations “sponsor activities which celebrate, memorialize and sometimes recreate important events in history such as battles, treaties, speeches, centennials, independence days, catastrophes that had an important impact or other similar occasions.” “Historical society,” “historical association,” “heritage society,” “preservation,” and “restoration” are in the name of nearly 80 percent of institutions in this category. They are also focused on local history—only one in twenty institutions appear to have a geographic scope larger than the county level.
While preserving and interpreting local history is their primary interest, these organizations are the smallest by revenue. More than 90 percent operate with less than $1 million in revenue annually and have a median revenue near $64,000 (yes, the median is $64,000 annually for all A82 organizations for 2011-2017—half of these organizations operate with less than this amount). Only Historical Organizations (A80) produce similar financials, albeit with slightly higher figures.
A financial review of more than 1,300 History Museums in 2017 reveals that nearly 90 percent operate on less than $1 million annually, and nearly half on less than $100,000 (see Figures 1 and 2). History museums are financially fragile, but an annual increase in revenue of $5,000 to $10,000 could have a tremendous impact on their capacity and impact. How might this be achieved? Hints of potential solutions are revealed in the changing revenue patterns of larger museums.
A closer look shows that most History Museums derive about 60-70 percent of their revenue from “unearned” sources (i.e., contributions, grants, investments, fundraising events, membership dues), but the mix changes according to size. Museums with less than $10 million in revenue received 4 to 6 percent of their income from investments, which doubled or tripled in the largest museums to 11 percent. While asking for support from people and foundations (i.e., contributions and grants) remained steady, there seems to be increased attention on making money from money (e.g., interest, dividends, sale of securities, drawing funds from endowments).
George Washington University (GW), where I teach in the Museum Studies Program, recently decided to move all of its courses online this fall. To prepare, I completed an intensive three-day course to create effective online courses, which introduced the latest research on the factors that make online courses effective and wide (and overwhelming) range of teaching tools that are available.
I’m incredibly fortunate that GW is supporting the faculty with lots of resources and training this summer, which required the Libraries and Academic Innovation staff to move quickly to prepare videos, workshops, and materials faster than I ever would for a student course. Many of the ideas that I gathered could easily be adapted by museums and historic sites as they shift their programming, so I wanted to share them with you. Some don’t require any costly software applications or learning management systems, but just some new planning approaches:
This afternoon Ken Turino and I will share the common factors that create a sustainable path forward for our country’s historic places. We’ll be drawing from the dozens of innovative sites described in our newly-published anthology, Reimagining Historic House Museums: New Approaches and Proven Solutions. Topics will include assessing whether an organization’s purpose is meaningful to the public, challenging institutions to think holistically, and ensuring that leadership supports risk and experimentation. We’ll be joined in conversation by Kathy Dwyer Southern, Immediate Past Co-Chair of the International Council of Museums United States. If you’re in the area, we welcome you to join us at 5:30 pm at the George Washington University Museum, 701 21st Street NW (at G Street) in Washington, DC. Several of the contributors to the book will be attending and I suspect we’ll have a rousing discussion over drinks at the nearby Tonic.
Ken and I continue to offer our one-day workshop on reimagining historic house museums around the country through the American Association for State and Local History and we’ve now added this shorter “Observations from the Field” presentation to highlight the big ideas from the book. We first presented it with Lisa Ackerman, Interim CEO of the World Monuments Fund, in New York City in October at the request of the Historic House Trust (video below). It was so well received that we’re bringing it to DC today and to Los Angeles in March (as part of the California Association of Museums meeting). We’ve also presented portions of this talk for the National Society of The Colonial Dames in America and Historic New England. If the workshop or presentation could benefit your organization, contact Ken or me for more details (we can only accommodate a couple of these each year, so we may have to plan far ahead).
I recently visited the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York City and although I didn’t know anyone who died that day, I was incredibly moved by the experience, even feeling uncomfortable taking photos. But I did because I’m always trying to understand how to interpret various events and topics, especially those that are difficult or sensitive.
I was also surprised that there was a need to explain to visitors how to behave at the memorial, the huge open fountains that mark the location of the Twin Towers and record the names of those who were murdered. Some explain what you can do, others what you shouldn’t, and some explain what’s happening. These might inspire you to think about language that might be appropriate around memorials and historic sites in your community.
In the last decade, Americans for the Arts has become a national powerhouse for the value of the arts through their research, advocacy, and programs. Take a look at just a few of the tools and resources they offer (but beware of rabbit holes!):
Arts + Social Impact Explorer (quick summaries on the impact of the arts on dozens of topics such as education, social justice, tourism, and culture and heritage; these straight-forward explanations of the value of arts can be re-used in your presentations or newsletters).
Americans for the Arts provides a possible model for the history field to help us better explain our value to society. You can find similar resources in part at History Relevance, American Association for State and Local History, American Alliance of Museums, National Trust for Historic Preservation, Institute of Museum and Library Services, and other organizations, but there’s no comparable single source like Americans for the Arts. I suspect this will improve as the history field recognizes the need to go beyond the usual “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” and towards a fuller explanation for the value of history (see AASLH’s Framing History project). But don’t wait for others—make it happen in your organization. A house museum or a historical society can research, summarize, and prepare information for their board, staff, and members to make the case for the value of their mission and the history of their community (unless you believe your organization is just a social club and history is a personal hobby). Once developed, it can be reused and easily adjusted in the years that follow. Here are some examples of possibilities taken from the History Relevance Toolkit:
In their year-end fundraising letter, the Tennessee Historical Society emphasized the role of history in providing a “sense of place that builds community” and helps us to “understand the issues we face today.”
Naper Settlement consolidated their research into a colorful illustrated impact report for elected officials and donors.
The Indiana Historical Society produced a video that shares how community leaders perceive the value of history to Indiana.
Earlier this year I facilitated a meeting at the American Alliance of Museums to develop a new education category for the Museum Assessment Program. Their staff and I developed the goals, agenda, and logistics in advance. That’s not unusual, except that goals were incredibly ambitious for a one-day meeting with a dozen leaders in the field:
1. To identify the needs and challenges facing education in museums today.
2. To identify how MAP can best address these needs and challenges throughout the process.
3. To identify how Peer Reviewers can be better prepared and supported in their expanded roles.
I knew that the usual technique of asking questions and going around the table to collect individual responses would quickly become tedious, plus it didn’t take advantage of the sharper thinking that occurs through conversation. Likewise, facilitating a series of topical conversations with a dozen people would discourage full participation.
Break into small groups and each group works on a different issue or topic, writing their comments on a flip chart.
The flip charts are posted on the wall and a different small group reviews the comments. Using a different colored pen, they place a check mark next to each item to indicate agreement. If they disagree, they place an X and add their response using a sticky notes. They can also add items at the bottom of the flip chart.
When finished, the groups rotate to review another flip chart.
When the small groups have rotated back to their own flip chart, they will see multiple check marks in different colors indicating agreement, as well as points of disagreement. They review all the disagreements (that is, the sticky notes) and mark yes or no if agree with the comment.
As a large group, all the issues marked “no” are discussed and the entire group decides whether to accept or reject the comment.
I found the technique was efficient and effective, gathering lots of thoughtful perspectives plus people are more actively involved compared to the traditional reporting-out session (when they usually zone out). The participants enjoyed the process as well because they can have meaningful conversations around a focused topic (see Robert Forloney’s post on the AAM blog for a participant’s perspective). AAM staff was pleased with the richness of the responses and it helped them craft the new Education and Interpretation MAP that recently debuted.
Facilitation is a helpful skill if you’re working with groups (and who isn’t nowadays?) but it can be daunting. It always feels like I’m choreographing a Broadway show where I’ve chosen the music but not the dancers, so I’m not ever quite sure what will happen. Trying a new technique adds to the risk, but I’ve found the clear step-by-step guidance in Wilkinson’s book gives me enormous confidence.