Museum Friends Associations: Membership and Fundraising Models in Evolution
This article’s core question is what organizational structures promote functions that are often considered secondary to museums’ scholarly competencies. These operations include revenue generation such as fundraising, meetings and events, museum shops etc. Over the last five decades or so, German friends’ associations have developed organically to fill many of these needs. In the United States, in contrast, museums fulfill these functions themselves, including their membership programs, suggesting an intriguing contrast and lessons to be learned.
Picture: Washington Irving and his Literary Friends at Sunnyside
An organic evolution yields complex structures
Over the last four decades, German museums have increasingly “out-sourced” activities beyond the organization’s core competencies to its friends associations (“Vereine”). Originally established to support museum collections and permanent holdings, friends associations are broadening their reach and adding new types of projects such as exhibition support, funding for scholarly staff, and even educational programming and visitor services. As a result, questions have arisen about whether the association should, in fact, fund or manage aspects of the museum experience that might otherwise be main organization’s responsibility, as they are in the U.S.
Indeed, over time German friends associations have given birth to Tochtergesellschaften (“daughter organizations”) that significantly complicate the organization’s overall structure. For example, the Verein der Freunde der Nationalgalerie (Friends of the National Gallery) has affiliated entities that are responsible for meetings and events and handle project management for temporary exhibitions, as well as an endowed foundation that purchases contemporary art. Similarly, the Freunde der Preußische Schlösser und Gärten (Friends of the Prussian Palaces and Gardens) established a concern that handles the Stiftung Preußische Schlösser und Gärten’s (Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation) museum shops. A separate foundation further guarantees the shops’ public benefit status and manages proceeds from retail sales. This complexity begs the question: are these organic, volunteer-governed structures sustainable or even desirable over the long term?
Philanthropy or audience development?
The essential German “friends association” model is quite consistent in its application. An annual membership includes free museum admission and access to a range of exclusive lectures, tours, and excursions. Dues can range from as little as 25 Euro to 650 Euro, depending on the scale and reach of the organization. Yet, this spectrum also reflects a continuum between underlying principles. On the one hand, associations with high membership dues tend to see themselves as philanthropic in nature. These entities embrace their more “elite” role. For example, the Verein der Freunde der Nationalgalerie, whose membership dues are a hefty 600 Euros, requires an existing member vouch for a new member. Applicants who don’t know a current member must first submit a resume even to be considered.
On the other hand, associations that have lower membership dues are more focused on audience development and engagement. For example, the Freunde der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden (Friends of the State Art Collections Dresden) sees itself as playing an important role in building word of mouth and audiences for smaller exhibitions with less obvious popular appeal. Here annual dues are 120 Euro. In this type of association, the number and variety of members is just as important, if not more so, than the membership gift. Professionals who manage these friends associations often report that their members feel like they are representatives, if not advocates, for the museum visitor.
Friends associations generally report that their members tend to be 60 years old and older. An interviewee suggested, in fact, that the traditional friends association model might be best suited to what Americans call empty nesters: individuals whose careers have peaked, but who still have energy and talent to offer. In search of a younger membership base, friends associations are seeking to diversify their target audiences by providing programming to very specific groups. These include young parents, families, and working professionals.
The Städelsche Museumsverein, for example, offers kunstPAUSE für Mamas (art break for Moms) and a special club for children 6–13, KinderKunstKlub. The Freunde der Staatlichen Kunstsammlungen Dresden is having substantial success offering „after work art“ events to professionals in their stunning facilities. Interestingly, these audience development techniques do leave a gap between young members (children, students, and young professionals) and “classic” members (60 onwards). Friends associations would perhaps benefit from taking a closer, more targeted look at the needs of the 40–60 group. This group would also appreciate some of the creativity, flexibility, and informality being offered to a younger audience.
Marketing membership dues and benefits
In Germany, membership dues are considered tax-deductible, yet this is not consistently emphasized in marketing materials, and in some cases not mentioned at all. This is a simple selling point and could be more consistently stated. Friends associations also tend to offer just a handful of giving options, oriented toward the donor’s circumstances or life-stage: individual, couple, family, under 35 etc. American membership programs, in contrast, offer a significant range of giving levels, from $50 to $25,000 with increasing and more exclusive benefits to match. These are also prominently advertised.
But some argue that the German model is fundamentally different: annual dues allow members to access association benefits, but they are asked and expected to provide gifts above and beyond the basic level. Interviews suggest, however, that donors, with some exceptions, tend not to give beyond their membership dues – and are often not asked to do so. German friends associations may want to consider the American method as a way for donors to come in at a level that suits their wealth and/or interest level.
They might also look to techniques American organizations use to encourage multiple gifts through seasonal fundraising appeals that focus on special needs, outside of the yearly annual dues campaign. This would involve soliciting donors not just once a year, but two to four times. Individuals who are committed to the organization and want to support it will find the additional solicitations neither intrusive nor onerous.
Friends associations and fundraising
Above and beyond raising membership dues, friends associations have also assumed a fundraising role for their museums, because the latter were not in a position, structurally and/or legally, to fulfill this function. Lately, however, museums have been adding professional fundraising staff, who can find themselves in direct competition for funding with the friends, although, ostensibly, both entities have the same goals.
The American membership model assumes that membership is the core vehicle for supporting small, annual gifts. With appropriate stewardship, members with more substantial means and interest are encouraged to increase their level of support and become medium or major donors. Patrons with a meaningful track record of support over years, if not decades, are encouraged to become planned donors through their will or testament. All of these functions are housed within the museum structure, specifically in the development department. The German structure, which separates membership from the museum, means that this movement up “the fundraising pyramid,” as it is often called in the U.S., is fundamentally disrupted.
The Dresden Freunde offers some solutions for this dilemma. Its director advocates for closer collaboration between the association and fundraising staff to identify which donors have the potential to give more. As a kind of quid pro quo, she suggests that the museum and its staff could also do a better job of encouraging visitors to become members. This instance sketches out a possible way forward: the association’s primary role is to market membership and support small contributors, whereas the museum’s professional fundraising staff, in collaboration with the association, becomes responsible for cultivating and stewarding larger and planned gift donors.
Established as recently as 2014, Freundeskreis Schlösserland Sachsen (Circle of Friends Saxony Land of Castles) suggests another worthwhile approach. Though the association remains a separate entity, the main organization, Staatliche Schlösser, Burgen und Gärten Sachsen (State Palaces, Castles and Gardens Saxony), provides administrative staff and support within the marketing department. This key point of contact further sits on the friends association’s board (or “Vorstand”), thereby creating continuity and alignment between the two entities. It has launched two single-issue funding campaigns that have been effectively communicated through the main organization’s marketing platforms, and seen recent successes, despite a small but growing membership pool. The two entities are also exploring a shared database, which is essential to effective cooperation in working with members and donors.
Friends associations as cultural entrepreneurs
One might argue, particularly in the case of government-run or quasi-governmental museums, that the friends association can be more nimble and flexible. In its work to mount, fund, and market special exhibitions, the Verein der Freunde der Nationalgalerie has the willingness and capacity to be entrepreneurial in a way that the main state museum may not. In a further example, the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen (Art Collection Nordrhein-Westfalen) in Düsseldorf has created a separate business (or GmbH), ArtPartner Relations, unrelated to its friends association, which is responsible for fundraising, sponsorship, and meetings and events – largely because it can be more responsive to market conditions.
At the same time, it is inherently difficult to keep both types of organizations aligned and functioning at a co-equal professional level. Should the friends association and its well-meaning volunteers not maintain efficiency and results, the main organization can and will question whether it is not better equipped to handle those functions itself. In fact, as a rule of thumb, it is fair to say that German associations are not currently maximizing their membership’s giving potential. Thus, if museums and their friends wish to maintain their independence over the long term, they must find better structures to communicate and collaborate on what are increasingly seen as shared priorities.
Laura Brower Hagood CFRE conducted this research as a Robert Bosch Fellow at the Prussian Palaces and Gardens Foundation (SPSG) in Potsdam, Germany 2014–2015. Special thanks to the outstanding professionals who agreed to be interviewed for this article, my colleagues at SPSG, and the Robert Bosch Foundation for its generous support.
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