September 29, 2020 / News & Blog

How Children’s Museums Can Leverage Relationship-Building for Fundraising Success

By Bob Harvey

NOTE: I recently received a request to comment about fundraising during the COVID-19 experience, specifically around the topics of donor communication and cultivation strategies. I decided to use this request as an opportunity to speak with several of my current and former colleagues and then I created the following summary. (By the way, this group has about 300 years of experience in fundraising circles.)

Relationship building is the very foundation and core of nonprofit development. Both donor communication and cultivation strategies fit nicely under the relationship building umbrella.

The Giving Landscape

First, let me assure you that people, foundations, and corporations are giving. Two of my firm’s clients have received $500,000 contributions in the last two months, one of real estate and one in cash.  A third (a developing children’s science museum) just received notice of a $6.1 million federal grant that was submitted two years ago!

Remember, nearly 70 percent of all giving is from private individuals, not foundations, grants, and corporations. Why are they still giving? First and foremost, “People give to people more than they give to causes.”

The most productive solicitation is, “The right two people, calling on the right prospect with the right story and the right ask.”

You might be tempted to say the economy is so disrupted that people aren’t going to give and if they do, they will give less and be reluctant to make a pledge.

There is no indication that is true. If you look at individual giving, much of the money is in the form of “discretionary funds” that are most often generated by invested wealth. Even today, the stock market continues to reach record highs.

If you consider corporate giving, many U.S. firms have received “bail-out money” in the form of emergency funds. Others are formally committed to 5 percent giving levels. There are also have divisions of national and international corporations. They are giving.

When you consider private foundations, most have a legal and moral obligation to continue with funding deserving projects. They are giving.

The fact is that funders and donors are looking for progress and new programs. They are urgently seeking you.

Developing Your Relationship Building Program

So how do you go about developing a solid “relationship building” program?

First, review and evaluate your existing donor records. This is true no matter what system you are using to develop a list of bona fide prospective donors.

What does your analysis tell you? In relatively recent history, have any of your prospective donors indicated interest in your mission? Have you had meaningful communication lately? If not, why? What are you going to do to make them your friend or renew the relationship?

How accessible are these prospects? Remember the “right person” requirement? That person might not be on your board or immediately available to you. You must contact them, inform them and educate them, and then ask for their assistance in setting up a meeting with the prospective donor. But don’t make that call until you have already solicited your new friend, donor and volunteer.

The fact is that the public, in general, wants to learn more about children’s museums. They want to know what STEAM is all about. After all, it’s relatively new. It’s exciting. It’s science, AND KIDS, for Pete’s sake!

Children’s museums are most often thought of as being in the education industry, but I believe we more correctly belong in what is collectively called the hospitality industry. Why? We are providing goods, services, and experiences to the public. We are competing for the discretionary dollars that are generated when the consumer makes a decision to do “this” rather than “that.” We must provide a positive experience for those who choose us. We are competing with all of the other diversions, appeals, and activities. We are competing for the public’s attention, participation and funding, and we’re only going to be successful if we are better at what we do.

Children’s museums should form relationships with many different networks to remain fresh and fascinating. We are vital components in economic development. We impact tourism and lodging. We should network more closely with the educational systems in our market area. We should also talk frequently with local manufacturing concerns about what we need and ask for their help for in-kind donations. Plus, there is an ongoing need to be on the lookout for new opportunities for sponsorships of programs and exhibits.

Reevaluating Existing Strategies

Relationship-building can lead to some unexpected—but successful—partnerships. Recently, my firm encouraged a developing client to make a presentation to the leadership of a huge military airbase in their market area. Most of the board members said “Why?” The answer was easy. You see, there were several thousand air force personnel on that base and most of them were looking for something new and rewarding to get involved in.

We contacted the base and explained what we were doing. Since there was a huge contingent of technology-based personnel there, we told them we would welcome their participation in brainstorming, designing, and building new exhibits.

The word went out and, guess what? More than 300 people responded “yes, I’ll help.” The base commander said they would be willing to help financially.

There is never an end to relationship building. You can get new people and energy involved simply by asking for their short-term assistance. Sometimes you have a need for a particular skillset for a particular task. Sometime it’s as simple as needing someone who lives in a distant location to help with conducting an outreach program.

In these peculiar times, it is sometimes wise to consider reevaluating your development strategy. One of our clients recently agreed to take their big, relatively clumsy project and break it down into “phases.” These bite-sized phases were more easily understood. Hitting a series of smaller goals demonstrated success and progress. Ultimately, they hit their $2.9 million goal in the same amount of time it would have taken to labor through the larger strategy that required individual giving at a much higher level. Remember, your future requires you to continually seek out the smaller gifts too. It is those gifts that grow up to become major gifts later on in your relationship with the donor.

Leveraging Exhibit Sponsorships

Exhibit sponsorships are related to fundraising—though they are not always considered as such. For those children’s museums working with exhibit or display sponsorships, we are learning that it is not a good idea to give “lifetime” sponsorships. It appears that the right amount of time is about five years for sponsorships, particularly for those of $500,000 or more. Why? Every display has a lifetime. They will eventually need to be renovated or retired. Five years seems to be the right number. Donors don’t seem to consider that five year term to be too short or otherwise inappropriate, particularly if your signage and recognition programs allow for long-term recognition, even after the exhibit is retired.

Learning What Others Think Of You

At some appropriate time in your development curve, it would be wise to conduct three studies:

  1. 1. Community Attitude Survey: What does your audience think of your programs, your people, and your value to the community?
  2. 2. Financial Feasibility Study: You have a good idea, but does it work financially? Is it sustainable?
  3. 3. Fundraising Feasibility Study: Who will support you? Why? How much? What do they need to hear?

In many cases, the Community Attitude and Fundraising Feasibility Studies can be accomplished with a single effort.

For best results, these studies should be conducted in that order, and each should be done by a professional firm. Why? There is no validity to the outcome of any of these studies if it isn’t conducted in such a manner as to ensure honesty, confidentiality, or objectivity. Your community leadership will not speak frankly about your programs, services, and leadership when they are concerned about “who is going to hear what I am saying?” Responses need to be solicited, recorded and reported without compromising confidentiality and that is best accomplished through an “outsider.”

Now, go out and build a new relationship or resurrect an old one.

Bob Harvey is CEO and President of Bob Harvey Associates and vice president and COO of Harvey Nonprofit Development. An industry leader in fundraising since 1974, his string of successful campaigns include clients in healthcare, environmental causes, animal organizations, education, history and arts. He can be reached at