AMMC Conference Teaches This Old Dog New Tricks

Five Take-aways to Raise More Money and Get More Members

250 museum membership professionals gathered in St. Louis the week of October 20th with one goal: to give us some great ideas on how to raise more money and get more members. Okay, that may not have been everyone’s goal when they came together for the American Museum Membership Conference, but that’s sure how it felt to me!

After 20 years of working on membership programs for museums and other nonprofit organizations, I will admit I sometimes run out of ideas. Well, now I’m revitalized and ready to go — and I owe a lot of it to the conference.

Today, I want to share 5 things that I’m going to do right away to raise more money and get more members for the organizations with whom I’m lucky enough to work.

  1. In stewardship and cultivation pieces, I’m going to parse the information I’m sending to members about the institutions they support into smaller “chunks.”

Elizabeth Merritt (Founding Director, Center for the Future of Museums) gave an inspiring keynote “A Glimpse of Museum Future(s).” Ms. Merritt challenged us to think about how museums are presenting content in the face of how visitors want to (and are open to) receiving it. Her prescient observations (visitors want participatory, personalized, multi-sensory content for example) particularly resonated for me when she said how people are taking in content in “chunks” right now. She indicated that people view an average of 22 hours of video content a month, but they do so in small quantities of 1-minute internet videos. I was inspired.

We use e-newsletters as well as printed material to give members a view of how the members’ investment is being used and to transmit information about upcoming events and other benefits of membership. I want to try splitting up those longer monthly (or sometimes quarterly) contacts into short online and social chunks. I bet a member will be more open to watching a 30-second video on how he or she can enjoy an opening reception to an exhibition rather than digging through a newsletter to pull out that information. Thank you, Ms. Merritt, for the inspiration!

  1. I’m going to start having “Quarterly Accomplishment Meetings” to provide a forum to celebrate “wins” in an easy-to-understand way. This will help when we need an investment made in membership in order to raise more money.

Thank you so much, Kristen Shepherd, (Associate Vice President, Audience Strategy and Services, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)) and Jack Ludden (Assistant Director, Web and New Media Development, The J. Paul Getty Trust), for providing such a critical reminder that reporting is only as good as it is understood. It’s essential to make sure that people see the value of the membership program when we are asking for a greater investment to help recruit more members or raise more money.

Ms. Shepherd has a quarterly meeting at which each division gets a chance to present their key successes from the last few months. This data is presented in easy-to-follow graphs that highlight the essential data points. What a great way to make people see the one or two data points that matter most! I think about all the dashboards, reports, and frequent feedback we provide on what is happening on a day-to-day basis, but we very rarely take a step back and say, “Okay, over the last 3 months, what have we really done?”

It’s a great chance to let each part of the program (prospect cultivation, acquisition, retention, stewardship, upgrades, planned giving) have a moment in the sun. Plus, for large complex organizations, it provides a meeting to which the senior leadership should come. And, it provides the perfect opportunity to present ways to raise more money and get more new members — and explain how the cost will pay off!

  1. I’m going to look at membership levels and benefits to make sure they make sense — to the member — and not be concerned about the few complaints that may be made if things change.

Two sessions drove this point home for me: one from a generous gang from Chicago (Pablo Anaya, Membership and Individual Giving Coordinator, Adler Planetarium; Kristall Laursen, Manager of Member and Donor Relations, John G. Shedd Aquarium; Shannon Sudberry, Manager of Membership and Annual Fund, Adler Planetarium; and Angela Perillo, Membership Benefits Manager, Field Museum of Natural History) and one from a great group from LACMA (Ellen Castruccio, Director, Membership Marketing; Doug Leonhardt, Manager, On-site Member Services; and Meghan McCauley, New Members Manager).

What both sessions had in common was a theme of “be logical, be clear, and be member-focused” with membership levels and benefits. What often happens with large, mature membership programs is we keep adding “one more benefit” or “one more level” and never take a minute to step back and look at the whole. The Field Museum of Natural History realized they had a gem: a large institution at which parts of the collection were not on display. Making the full collection available to members on special nights became a great benefit. And, LACMA changed benefits (even — gasp — removed benefits) and increased pricing with a clear goal of increasing net revenue, and it worked. Thank you, everyone from Chicago (go Cubs!) and LA, for all your insights.

  1. I’m going to help develop benefits that allow members to have a social experience.

The 2014 Culture Track study (a periodic national survey of culturally engaged Americans) revealed eye-opening facts. What I found the most inspiring was a clear pattern emerging from Generation X and Millennial respondents. These groups indicated barriers to attending cultural events (fully half of Millennials won’t go if it means going alone!) as well as incentives (“invited by friends” was a key reason) that led me to think of new low-cost benefits that may increase visitation: give people ways to be social.

With data presented by Dirk Rinker (President, Campbell Rinker) and reflected on by an expert panel of Lisa Krassner (Chief Membership Officer, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), Ruth White (Director of Membership, Thanksgiving Point Institute), Carl G. Hamm (Deputy Director Development & External Affairs, Saint Louis Art Museum), and Lori Bockstanz (Director of Visitor Services, Lady Bird Johnson Museum) the survey clearly showed there were some disturbing trends regarding the decline in the number of culturally engaged Americans who were active members of visual arts museums. But the right approach to membership was reversing this trend. Several panelists reported increasing membership numbers. What did they have in common? They gave members a personal, social experience. Thank you panel!

  1. I’m going to strive to be half the sophisticated, multi-channel fundraising genius that conceptual artist Mel Chin is!

The best part of every conference is getting to spend time with people who have the same vocation and passions that I do. At AMMC, the social experiences were taken to a new level because they occurred in the exhilarating cultural sites of St. Louis. I don’t know if conference organizers realized it when then were planning, but the event at the Contemporary Art Museum (CAM) St. Louis also included an inspirational fundraising lesson.

The artist Mel Chin works in a variety of media and calculates meaning in modern life. The retrospective presented at CAM included his Fundred Dollar Bill Project. In 2006, on a trip to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, Chin was dismayed by the high lead contamination in the soil of New Orleans and the negative effect of that lead on children. Instead of merely being outraged — Chin was spurred to action.

He created an interactive art piece that had children at schools across America creating “Fundred Dollar Bills” which were then stacked and presented to Congress to propose an exchange of real dollars to get lead out of the soil. The campaign included PSAs, outreach and an army of thousands of kids.

Imagine what we could do as membership professionals and fundraisers if we took Chin’s example and went coast to coast with an interactive, multi-channel strategy to get people engaged. It reminded me of everything Elizabeth Merritt spoke of in her keynote about what people wanted from their experiences, and it truly inspired me.

Thank you AMMC for a revolutionary conference. Thank you, St. Louis, for being a stunning host city. Thank you to all the speakers for being so generous with your thoughts. I’m a better professional for having gone.



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