Our “4 x 4” interview blog format aims to incorporate multiple perspectives on current topics in our field by inviting four thought leaders to answer four questions related to a chosen theme. This playful approach seeks to navigate pressing topics with the personal touch of a conversation. Read interviews on our first theme of “self-care” as seen through the lenses of nature, parenthood, networking, and equity work.
For our next 4×4 series, we have chosen to look into the theme of “strategy”, beginning with strategic foresight. Our current focus is on strategies for fundraising for/in an educational nonprofit organization, and invited Marie Beam, Chief Development Officer at Discovery Museum, a children’s museum in Acton, Massachusetts, to share her insights about the challenges and (surprising) advantages of raising resources during the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. In museums, sometimes, development activities are perceived to be far-removed from the educational goals of the organization. How have you approached ways of keeping the fundraising program tightly connected to the Discovery Museum’s mission?
There are three primary ways, really: First, the Museum’s culture. With a small senior leadership team that meets regularly and communicates well, it’s easy to stay in the loop on new initiatives, cool ideas, and daily concerns and celebrations of my colleagues across the organization. This also allows me real insight into our financial position and lets me and my team be nimble and opportunistic in matching both present needs and those on the horizon with the interests of our donors. Close connection with my Marketing colleagues gives our Development team a set of brainstorming partners who are able to see the merits of our messages from our audience’s point of view. They both inform and extend the impact of the ways we in Development talk about the Museum and its work.
Second is having the partnership of a CEO who is, himself, a talented fundraiser. He is a great sounding board and collaborator on both program and prospect strategy, and that synchronicity comes through in our joint work with prospects and donors.
Third, I think, is a natural offshoot of my personal affection for the Museum, belief in its mission, and respect for its role in our region. Being part of this organization has made me a better parent, more connected to my community, and a more powerful advocate for the needs of kids and families. It’s given me a platform from which to make a difference in the ways that matter to me. Because of this, I just enjoy talking with, and learning from, my colleagues across the Museum, and I’m naturally excited about their work. It’s a pleasure to brag about them and advocate for the advancement of their ideas.
2. Has your strategic approach to fundraising for the Discovery Museum had to change since March 2020?
You know, our approach has not so much changed as it has been reinforced. We have always been a place that fundraises for future ambitions, not the present, and invests a lot of time into the relationships we have with our donors. At the very start of our COVID closure, when all of our communities were reeling and trying to sort out how to feel and how to respond, we made the rapid decision to shut down all of our active fundraising for the Museum, focusing only on messages of solidarity and service. From a practical point of view, we felt it was important to leave space – airtime, so to speak – for the fundraising appeals of organizations that were addressing urgent needs like health care access and food insecurity. During this time, we developed a careful plan to make sure that those who wanted to invest in the Museum could do so (through passive approaches like increasing the visibility of the “Support Us” button on our website) and focused on communicating with those supporters closest to the Museum, without asking for anything. We were able to immediately share our commitment to reopening and getting families back in the door and discuss how especially critical the Museum’s role felt in the absence of school and community. Those conversations with donors and friends nourished the organization in non-financial ways. We received incredible, positive feedback about the Museum’s work that we were able to push to the staff members most affected by our closure. And for me and our CEO, who were working in isolation from each other and our colleagues, the ability to check in on the wellbeing of the Museum’s good friends and advocates was incredibly reassuring. When it came time to ask those same donors for the financial support we needed to move toward that future we’d already been describing, the case was made easily. As I reflect now, it is clear that conversation, consultation, and articulating a shared vision for the Museum made a huge difference at a very difficult time.
3. The Discovery Museum reopened to the public in mid-2020 with a month of free admission. After multiple months of not having any revenue, why did you take this tack and was it successful?
Raising money to support an organization that was closed and limited in its ability to serve, at a time when there was acute suffering both in our own communities and in the world at large, just didn’t feel right. And raising money just to sustain the organization – vitally important, sure – but it wasn’t consistent with the highly impact-oriented approach our donors had come to appreciate us for. Because everything we do is rooted in response to the needs of kids and families, we conceived of the idea of what we called Free To Play – a month of free admission for families, launching with our reopening. We began talking about this very early in the pandemic, after our fundraising hiatus, and it refocused solicitation conversations away from the misery and heartache every person, nonprofit, and funder was experiencing in their own way, and toward an important moment in what we called families’ “COVID journey”: the time when families might consider joining with the Discovery Museum – a trusted entity – for their first public visitation step in months. Eliminating the cost of admission meant that families could test the water, visiting just our outdoor experiences, or coming indoors without having to worry about leaving if it didn’t feel right. We reminded our prospective sponsors that the Discovery Museum could provide children with a sign of normalcy, and families a chance to step briefly away from the stress and strain of the pandemic. And with so many families dealing with unemployment and heightened financial insecurity, waiving admission was a small way we could relieve a real burden. This, partnered with the incredible online programming and resources our staff was producing at an amazing pace, meant the Museum could truly offer something to suit every family. Visitor feedback during that time was a source of incredible joy for all of us at the Museum and a way to show our sponsors what a difference they were making. The story of Free To Play became part of how we introduced ourselves to new funders, and so also helped us develop an expanded donor pool for 2021 and beyond.
4. Getting through “year 1” of the pandemic environment was a complex hurdle every museum faced. What is your strategic approach to fundraising in 2021 and what, if any, changes are you seeing in funder behavior?
Interestingly, our supporters have largely stayed with us—and I think this is for a couple reasons. First, our message about service and the value of Discovery Museum experiences at this unique time has remained consistent, and as long as life is not fully “back to normal” it remains meaningful and compelling. Second, beginning late last year, we started to talk about the strategic initiatives that the Museum had to put on pause because of COVID, our plan to revitalize them, and the specific outcomes that they’d make possible. This has enabled us to keep talking to donors about the future while fundraising for the present; further our donors’ ability to reflect on the first year of the pandemic, and the fact that we’ve communicated often about how the Museum is doing, has added a lot of richness to our solicitation conversations and depth to those donor relationships.
Marie Beam is Chief Development Officer at Discovery Museum in Acton, Massachusetts. She has been at the Museum since 2013, after more than fifteen years in major gifts, campaigns, and program leadership in independent and higher education.
Brindha Muniappan serves on the Board of Directors for the Museum Education Roundtable and is Senior Director of the Museum Experience at Discovery Museum.