Ed Lin is one of our content team members who has been giving his professional expertise pro bono to help develop and review some of the course content for Change Lab. He is currently the Major Gift Officer at the Natural History Museums in LA. We interviewed him and got the inside scoop on what the Museums have been doing to stay afloat during the pandemic. (Interviewed by Natalie Andersen)
Q: What have you been doing to raise money during Covid?
A: At the Natural History Museums of L.A. County, our primary focus has been to keep our friends close. Making new friends in this environment is challenging for organizations that are not focused on providing basic, essential needs like food banks and homelessness organizations. We recognize that given the uncertainty in the economy, many donors are reluctant to make large commitments. Our pre-COVID budget included earned revenue from the gift shop, the cafe, special events and special event rentals: all of that has disappeared, and membership (another key revenue source) has decreased because our museums aren’t open. Membership renewals are down, too. As the Major Gifts Officer, I have been focused on maintaining contact with our key donors; our expectations for cultivating new donors from outside Membership have been scaled back significantly. With the museums closed to the public, our usual methods of donor engagement have disappeared: donor cultivation events, exhibition openings, behind-the-scenes tours, lunches and dinners. We have developed virtual events on Zoom where we provide our members with some of the “members-only” access opportunities that provided an incentive to upgrade to our higher-level memberships. I have checked-in regularly with key donors and donor prospects via email and phone. Many of our members understand the financial difficulties we face and have stepped-up their giving. Other supporters are contending with uncertainty in their own situations and finding it difficult to continue their giving at pre-Covid levels.
Q: Did you adjust your goal for this fiscal year and, if so, was it a significant amount downward? And/or did you feel that you would adjust your strategies to pivot what you would normally be doing to raise money and try to meet your original goal with new strategies?
A: Yes, we revised our fundraising goals downward significantly — to approximately 50% of our initial pre-COVID projections. We had to acknowledge the impact on membership and major gift fundraising that closure of the museums would have: providing access behind-the-scenes is a significant driver of our higher level memberships. Our bi-annual gala event, the Dinosaur Ball, cannot be held in-person and many are not interested in attending it as a virtual event. Still, we have no choice but to proceed with it as a virtual event.
Q: What has been working? What hasn’t been working?
A: Appeals to our long time committed donors have been successful: we have renewed memberships despite not being to offer in-person access to the museums. Our Zoom “happy hour with a curator” and other virtual events have let us successfully engage our higher level donors and members. But we are starting to see Zoom fatigue stemming from the fact that
many workplaces are using it in place of in-person business meetings. Also, many of our older supporters are not comfortable with technology.
Q: How have been engaging with donors/ members?
A: By phone and email. We always try to secure a Zoom meeting, but many of our older supporters are not comfortable with Zoom. We have a targeted weekly eblast to members. Recently, we have reopened our outside areas (Butterfly Pavilion and Nature Gardens), and this has enabled us to engage with donors in person (albeit behind face masks and for a very limited time).
Q: Have you been talking to colleagues from other organizations or trying to learn from new best practices that you have learned about? If so, what have you found among the ideas? Were you able to try anything to see if it might also work for the Natural History Museum?
A: Yes, we have consulted with our colleagues at other museums, and have availed ourselves of webinars offered by consultants on best practices in the COVID world. We have found that our instincts have been consistent with emerging best practices: keep your friends close, keep them apprised and engaged, and don’t be shy about asking them for support. Move content online where possible. They have validated our efforts to make our content and collections more accessible online, not just for the duration of the pandemic, but also to finally address the need to increase our reach beyond supporters in L.A. County.
Q: What idea(s) from another organization(s) seems to be a great new idea that you found truly unique?
A: At least one of our fellow museums has committed to a regular schedule of a short video of a curator discussing some behind-the-scenes — the key being commitment to a regular schedule that donors can count on. It’s a lot of work to keep it fresh and delivered on-time.
Q: How have you been keeping yourself focused and replenished mentally and physically during the past couple of months? Any tips to share?
A: Strong, confident leadership committed to transparency is essential. Our President and her exec. staff devised a plan early on and shared the salient parts with all staff. We have received regular updates in townhall meetings. Leadership has focused on equity and providing support for all staff. The person to whom I report, the Chief Advancement Officer, has diligently shared updates on executive decisions pertaining to the pandemic; he has kept us focused on the work
to be done, never minimizing the difficulty of the task at hand, but also acknowledging the difficulties of fundraising in this current, uncertain and always changing environment.