The American Antiquarian Society is onto something

As someone remarked in a comment to an earlier post, one of the hard things about raising money for conservation is the fact that donors want plenty of bang for their bucks.  A new museum wing named after dear old dad gives a donor a real sense of satisfaction.  Artifacts in a locked vault, not so much. 

Donors also need to feel a kind of proprietorship when they give to a worthy cause.  They should be able to point to a specific need they met and say, “This is where my money went.”  A check written to a museum for something vague, like “collections management” or “routine conservation costs,” doesn’t provide that sense of ownership.

This is a real dilemma for those who work in historic preservation.  Many of the most pressing needs are for services that the general public might not notice, but folks with money want to leave their mark on something visible, something with sex appeal.  How, then, do you encourage people to donate to things like collections care?

The Boston 1775 blog mentions a way to do it, in the form of an interesting program at the American Antiquarian Society.  Here’s the deal:

“The Adopt-A-Book Catalog features a variety of items acquired by AAS curators in recent months. All will be offered for ‘adoption.’  That is, you may adopt any item by pledging the stated amount.  In return AAS will permanently record the adopter’s name 1) on a special bookplate attached to each item, and 2) in the AAS online library catalog.”

The genius of this approach is that it visibly ties donors’ contributions to specific items in the collection, giving the donor the same sense of ownership and appreciation as they would get by writing a check for something with more pizzazz.  Old books need TLC; donors want people to see where their money went.  Everybody goes home happy.

In fact, this approach works for many kinds of institutions that have high ongoing costs.  Almost anybody can find an exotic animal they like, even if they’d never think of mailing a check to the local zoo for food and veterinary care.  If people are willing to “adopt” books and zoo animals, then you can find folks who will adopt specific artifacts, manuscripts, and deteriorating monuments.

Those working in preservation, museums, and archives can learn a lesson here.  Don’t solicit money for abstractions; make those abstractions concrete.  Set different levels for the objects under your care, with higher levels of support tied to the most spectacular items.

This isn’t just a fundraising gimmick; it reflects the reality of the situation.  Budget lines aren’t numbers on a page.  They stand for actual, tangible, irreplaceable pieces of history.  When you tell donors that their money ensures the protection of these pieces, you’re telling them the truth.


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Filed under Historic Preservation, Museums and Historic Sites

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