News and analysis
August 11, 2014

New Tack Helps Gifts to Popular Museum Jump 90%

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York has always been popular, drawing up to 1,000 daily visitors. Its guided tours of Orchard Street apartments that recreate early immigrant life are so popular that thousands of people are turned away every year.

One thing the museum wasn’t doing very well was raising money, but that changed dramatically starting in 2011. Two deeply engaged board members, Paul Massey and Merryl Zegar, led an effort that has resulted in a 90-percent increase from individuals by the end of the group’s in donations most-recent fiscal year, on June 30.

The museum took a multipronged approach that involved motivating board members and museum attendees to give more, as well as boosting attendance.

First, Mr. Massey and Ms. Zegar issued challenge grants that have motivated fellow trustees to make additional gifts. Last year, trustees donated and raised $900,000 for the museum’s annual fund, an increase of 65 percent since 2011, when they gave less than $550,000. Not only did all board members give; many of them also secured additional donations from foundations, corporations, and personal friends.

The board also hired Stephanie Hill Wilchfort to be its lead fundraiser. She has led a new membership drive since 2012. One new practice is asking all visitors to make a donation at the end of their tours, when they fill out a survey assessing their experience.

Ms. Wilchfort also oversees a series of small events designed to give donors satisfying experiences, like monthly luncheons where they meet museum leaders. The museum also has family days with children’s activities such as making pickles—a food common among American immigrants from many parts of the world. Other events are held in schools, where donors’ children may engage in activities such as creating paper replicas of a tenement apartment and making tough choices about what objects they would choose to own if they had to live in such a cramped space.

"We get them to think about what it would be like to live in a 325-square-foot apartment with as many as 10 other people," Ms. Wilchfort says. "It is interesting to see kids think creatively about what they would do with such a small space."

The immigrant experience, Ms. Wilchfort says, "is one of America’s most important stories. Donors want their children to understand what defined their families and this country. They want children to have a sense of what their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents experienced, the opportunities and hardships they faced."

To increase donations, the museum also invested in software that improves its ability to track the donations and ticket sales of constituents. "This helps us follow up better with ticket buyers," says Ms. Wilchfort. Twice each year, she says, the museum asks ticket buyers for a gift. They also receive a weekly online newsletter sent to their email addresses that contains a "donate now" feature.

That’s one reason why revenue from membership has increased by nearly 60 percent since 2012, from $217,000 that year to $345,000 this fiscal year.

Even with such impressive fundraising returns, Ms. Wilchfort says, "we have not yet reached our full potential." The museum, she explains, has been systematically pursuing new donors for only two years; it will continue working to find new donors and to deepen its relationship with existing supporters.

"We tell stories that are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago about our national identity," she says. "We will continue to see an upward trajectory."

Send an e-mail to Holly Hall.