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Membership Schemes & Corporate Giving

10 December 14 -- jsuess
Jessica Suess, Digital Partnership Manager, Oxford University Museums

On Monday 24 September 40 delegates from around the country came to Oxford for an ASPIRE knowledge exchange event exploring Friends and Patrons programmes as well as Corporate relationships.

Friends and Patrons at the Ashmolean

The day kicked off with a presentation from Natasha O’Farrell on the Friends and Patrons scheme at the Ashmolean. She explained that both schemes are independent Trusts run primarily by volunteer Friends and Patrons, with 2 key members of paid staff within the Museum working part-time  – including Natasha. As Trusts, at certain times of the year the Friends and Patrons give the Ashmolean grants to support their work.

The current Friends of the Ashmolean membership fee is £38 (individual) per year, and the scheme has over 5,000 members. Benefits of being a Friend include free entry to all the Ashmolean’s paying exhibitions, a varied programme of activities including private views, lectures by Ashmolean experts, and organised visits to other important collections around the UK, free copies of the Museum’s magazines and 10% discount in the Ashmolean café, Dining room and shop. 

The Tradescant Patrons’ Group and the Elias Ashmole Group membership fess start from £150 per person and include many more additional benefits, including an invitation to join the Director on an Annual Spring Trip to a European city.

Natasha said that despite being separate volunteer led organisation, organising events for and communicating with the Friends and Patrons is a significant time commitment, but one which the Ashmolean finds extremely beneficial. In addition to financial income, the schemes provide a mechanism for including supporters in the Museum’s community, further nurturing personal relationship, and creates advocates for the Museum, who can help the Museum build further relationships with potential benefactors.

Recruiting New Friends

Natasha was followed by Catherine House, Membership Manager for the Ashmolean – the only other paid members of the Ashmolean’s Friends’ and Patrons’ team. Catherine gave a case study on how the Friends managed to grow their membership from a static 3,000 to just over 5,000 members within the space of a year.

In 2013 the Friends realised that they were an ‘escalator organisation’ – although they were recruiting around 40-50 members a month, they were losing a similar number. Taking on this challenge, the Friends’ management team first looked at the issue of increasing recruitment by reviewing the membership joining process from discovery to final processing. Not only did they find that the Friends membership was not well advertised around the museum – which can be difficult to achieve while maintaining the museum’s design and ambience – but they also discovered that it was difficult to pay for a Friend’s membership whilst at the museum; interested persons were often given information to take home and join later. Consequently there were significant barriers to both discovery and fulfilling the call to action.

The Friends redesigned their materials to make it bolder, and placed them in slick holders at an increased number of locations in the museum.  They placed advertising at the museum’s main point of sale for exhibition tickets, and ticket price signage now includes the clear message that entry is free to Friends. Most importantly they have introduced the facility to purchase Friends membership as part of their shop sales, so that those interested can purchase on the spot. They also introduced online sales – as many wish to purchase before coming to attend an exhibition – after a period of experimentation, a third of membership sales are now happening online.

As a result of these changes new memberships have risen from around 50 per month to around 150 a month. The next challenge to the Friends is retention and ensuring that existing Friends renew their membership and remain associated with the museum.

Friends and the Oxfordshire County Museums Service

Next Carol Anderson, Director of The Oxfordshire Museum, and Lisa Craig, Secretary to the Friends of The Oxfordshire Museum, shared their experience of the relationship between Friends and a Local Authority Museum.

The Friends group was established in the early 1990s when the museum was threatened with closure. Individuals in the local community lobbied to keep the museum open, and this group eventually formed a Friends organisation.

Like at the Ashmolean, the Friends is a separate organisation. While for the Ashmolean this arrangement is historic, for Oxfordshire this was key as it enables the Friends to do things that the museum can’t as part of the Local Authority. This includes applying to certain funding streams and to trusts; encouraging donations from individuals who are dubious about making a donation direct to the Local Authority; and advocating on behalf of the museum in ways that might be difficult for the museums as part of the Local Authority.

Like with many Friends organisations, the average age of the membership is 60+, but Friends Secretary Lisa is a young mum. Delegates were keen to hear why Lisa got involved. Lisa explained that she visits the museum regularly with her family and appreciates it as a resource for engaging her children. She attended a Friends event with a family member, and was quickly approached by a proactive existing Friend looking to engage younger people. Lisa herself has plans to diversify the Friends group, perhaps introducing a young friends or families membership, and ensuring that visitors to the museum know some of the services that the Friends support – including family activities – and therefore encouraging those audiences to get involved.

But is membership the answer?

The final speaker in the Friends section of the meeting was Judy Niner, Director of Development Partners and chairman of the Board of Trustees at Cogges Manor Farm.

Judy’s recent experience with Cogges, and consulting with other small museums, has led her to question the default assumption that a museum should have and will benefit from membership schemes. While this is undoubtedly true of museums like the Ashmolean that attract a large number of members and for whom a membership scheme (in the Ashmolean’s case, a Friends organisation) is a useful way of managing those relationships, this is less true of smaller organisations where the number of members is small, and the expense of and time (and focus) involved in managing the programme can outweigh the benefits.

Judy suggested that the three key aims of a membership scheme is to produce revenue, build relationships and communicate. Having already addressed the question of revenue within smaller museums, membership schemes may also not offer the best method of communications: in the age of online communications, museums have a much bigger pool of email contacts, and can maintain communications through facilities like social media.

Finally on the case of building relationships, in general the assumption is that as the museum builds its relationship with its members, some can be taken on the journey from low level member  to  a higher level donor. However, this is rarely the case.  While a membership scheme can be a valuable way to achieve this within larger organisations that have the resources to conduct excellent stewardship and a development team equipped to take certain members on that journey, in small museums, the rigidity of membership schemes makes it less likely to succeed. Membership schemes also encourage organisations to forget about those that do not want to join, even though there is plenty of evidence that many people who are strong supporters of organisations do not want to become members of prescribed schemes. Judy argues that smaller museums are better off taking a more bespoke and flexible approach than struggling to develop and maintain a membership scheme.

Corporate Giving

In the afternoon we turned our attention towards corporate giving, with Paul Mainds, Trustee at the Langley Academy, and Alice Gosling, Head of Development at Compton Verney, revealing their top tips for the dark art.

Corporates in the Thames Valley

Paul kicked off, sharing his experiences both from working within corporate organisations, and successfully engaging corporates while Director of the River and Rowing Museum.

His clear message was that an organisation’s offer needs to align with their partner organisations’ corporate priorities, whether that be marketing, advocacy or their community support agenda. Also, many successful relationships are established through personal connections, so look to your colleagues and trustees for their contacts, and invite senior people within possible partner corporates to events and the like to build those relationships.

Paul Mainds’ top tips:

  • Who do you know? Find connections through your staff, trustees and the local community
  • Have systems and stewardship mechanisms in place to manage relationships
  • Think widely about what you can offer and consider ‘stakeholder mapping’ for both local and national companies.
  • Make sure your standards, especially branding and image, match the quality of your target companies.
  • Be aware of what you want. In addition to money, what other kinds of benefits could be useful?
  • Talk to people – and know who you are talking to, be ready
  • Drink coffee, make invitations, engage, involve.

Compton Verney Case

Alice Gosling shared her experience both from working at Compton Verney, and previous experience from the US higher education sector. Compton Verney, while they have more than quadrupled their income since 2011, still only raises 1% of their income from corporate membership and sponsorship. Alice shared that Compton Verney have had significantly more success leveraging sporadic support from corporates by asking them to sponsor an activity or private view.

Alice emphasised the need to be aware of your organisation’s unique offer such as:

  • Brand enhancing images and projects>
  • Visibility with your patrons
  • Research and intellectual property
  • Spaces in which to entertain/promote
  • Health and wellness programme for staff
  • Professional and personal development speakers and activities
  • Team building venue
  • PR opportunities

Again, also bear in mind what a corporate partner can offer beyond simple financial support:

  • Expertise and best practice
  • Hire income
  • Networking contacts
  • Access to new audiences or donors<
  • External perspectives on the organisation
  • Brand enhancement

Alice’s top tips are:

  • Work closely with colleagues to identify new opportunities
  • Bounce ideas off your current corporate contacts to see how appealing they might be to others
  • Get to know your prospects and their goals
  • Present yourself as flexible and willing
  • Design members benefits to facilitate relationship growth
  • Make sure what you are doing is worth the time invested.

Feedback on the day from delegates we extremely positive, with the opportunity to network and share experiences with all present identified as one of the most valuable aspects. We look forward to the next event.

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