Museums tend to use young benefactor programs as a framework for programming for younger adult audiences. Creating an air of exclusivity by offering special social and educational events, these programs connect young professionals to the museum through leadership and volunteer opportunities, and by using the funds raised through dues and parties to help meet the museum’s financial needs. Museums hope to cultivate lifelong learners and lifelong donors. Yet in the recent economic climate young professionals might not be as ready to make a financial committment to a young benefactor program even though they are interested in the networking and educational opportunities. Museums should still devote resources to engaging this audience through ongoing programming. If there is one thing I learned while working at the telefund at my undergraduate university, it was that alumni were more likely to donate money if they had a positive experience at the university than if they had not. Since museums do not have an alumni network they should try to create new ways to positively influence and connect with young professionals so that when the financial times improve, young professionals will immediately think of their local museums when they want to give back.
These are some recommendations for ways to make young benefactor programs more accessible and to fill a need for young professional programming.
A Different Kind of Model
The Young Professionals Tower Club at the Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga, TN calls itself “fundraising, social and career networking club which supports Creative Discovery Museum” a offers similar leadership and networking opportunities as other young benefactor programs. The difference is that there is no annual fee to join the Young Professionals Tower Club. Members become part of the fundraising team and help plan events to raise money to help children visit the museum free of charge and to support other educational opportunities. Members attend quarterly dinner meetings and take part in fundraisers like annual phon-a-thon parties, mystery dinners and parties. The Young Professionals Tower Club engages young professionals in similar social and leadership opportunities while using their willingness to volunteer as a way to help raise funds for the museum. Perhaps other museums could look at creating fundraising teams of young professionals, while still offering them exclusive educational programming.
Cut or Reduce Membership Funds
In response to the recent economic crisis, my undergraduate university’s alumni club made membership free for the first year, allowing recent grads to experience membership benefits without worrying about the extra cost. Museums could consider a similar opportunity for first time members of their young benefactor programs and either waive or reduce the annual fee. This might be especially appealing to recent college graduates looking to put down roots in a new city.
Create a Volunteer Corps
In addition to offering a young benefactors program, museums could offer a volunteer corps for young professionals. This group could help museums with their volunteer needs and in return, museums could organize happy hours after volunteer events to fulfill the social networking interest. Museums could also provide special educational programs that will help volunteers cultivate the knowledge they need for certain events and exhibits. These educational programs could be very hands on and group work centered to give young professionals a different context for socializing while maintaining the museums mission.
Create a Young Professionals Advisory Board
Another way museums could connect young professionals in an ongoing manner would be to form an advisory board. An advisory board would give young professionals leadership opportunities and a say in some of the museum’s programming. As an example, The University of Michigan Museum of Art’s Student Programming and Advisory Board only requires a monthly time committment and gives students the opportunity to plan programs at the museum. Programs include an annual celebration and student performance nights. Advisory board members also get the opportunity to interview visiting artists for a podcast. This is something more museums could do for a young professional audience to engage them creatively and make them an active part of museums.
Young benefactor programs offer many amazing opportunities but museums need to find ways to engage young professionals who are not able to make that financial committment, in a meaningful way. As these suggestions show, there can be many ways to create sustained programming for this audience that will help them make positive memories of their experience with museums, something that could encourage them to become donors when they are more financially secure.