Chances are that as a small museum, you are not trying to compete with funding raised by the local university. However, understanding how these massive grants are acquired holds the potential for success for small museums. The key to the university model is perfecting the relationship with the foundation.
The reason is that donors know how to give to a college not only because of name recognition but because they know someone, and, more importantly, trust someone, at this institution. People give to people, not to organizations. Understanding this helps us realize small museums hold a real advantage in going after donors and foundations due to our smallness since we are normally run by a core group of staff and board members. Getting your museum personnel out of the museum and into contact with these possible donors, large or small, is the next step.
In identifying support for possible grants, begin with sources with whom your museum personnel are acquainted. Even the smallest organization most likely has a network it may not even consider as a helpful start in forming a network. Board members, staff, and volunteers all have friends with similar interests. Almost all these interests or hobbies involve fundraising on some level, be it an American Legion Auxiliary bake sale or chili fundraiser to send the local high school to march in the Rose Bowl parade. In this opening phase of identifying help, do not fear casting your net too wide. Any contact you can harvest in terms of grant writing or fundraising is a source of possible help. As we all know, many individuals involved in volunteer organizations are involved in multiple entities aimed at improving their communities. With this in mind, add any organization or personal contacts to this initial listing of possible supporters in not only targeting grants but also providing advice during the grant process.
The second phase is simply to research possible grant sources. Who in the past, even the very distant past, has given to your organization? To whom have these past supporters given funds recently? Contact small museums similar to your organization in scope, size, and mission for possible success stories. Even these small organizations well outside your immediate area possess information for successfully developing relationships with donors. Look for donors who are funding organizations similar to your small museum. Investigate the possibility of this organization’s funding a grant in your area. Also look for similar foundations or donors in your area that have not previously given to small museums. If they have not, the chances are they are not currently in a relationship with a small museum. Enter you and your organization.
Once this list of individuals, foundations, and agencies is compiled, you need to establish connections and then work at staying connected. As with all relationships, developing relationships with these organizations, individuals, and groups will take time. To begin, their names need to be added to all your forms of outreach, from mailing lists to all the electronic forms you utilize for updating your membership and friends. Over a period of months, this process will demonstrate the impact of your small museum on your community through your sponsored events and other outreach activities. A special event can also be held for these members in demonstrating your past activities, future goals, and ways they can join your team in reaching these goals. All these steps, or some modifications of them, represent aspects of the “total relationship management” that places universities on the top of the heap in gathering large grants. Structuring their tactics to fit your small museum will yield dividends in reaching your long-term goals.
Benjamin Hruska is a PhD candidate in public history at Arizona State University. Before returning to graduate school, Hruska served as director of the Block Island Historical Society on Block Island, Rhode Island, and successfully obtained a building grant from the Rhode Island Historical Preservation & Heritage Commission. In the summer of 2009, he worked as a court historian for the Department of Defense’s U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces in Washington, DC.