I love museums and recently was saddened to hear about the closure of a local museum. I became interested in learning more about how museums operate and how they are funded.
Today museums are an important part of many people’s travel experiences. They have become some of the most popular and most visited places in the world’s leading cities. Big museums like the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London, The Met in New York City, and the Uffizi in Rome receive millions of visitors a year.
Museums are cultural institutions that preserve and promote culture through their collections, foster learning and research, and provide educational opportunities. Museums are also economic drivers (e.g., job creation, increasing tourism, taxes) and visiting them may even promote wellness and help us live longer!
Museums, especially those that accept public money, are expected to make their collections as publically accessible to as many people as possible, to attract a diverse set of visitors, and to engage and play a positive role in the local community.
But in addition to the charitable and noble aspirations and goals of museums, they must also be businesses that make money. Although some museums are fully publically funded, most museums also rely on private support by donors as well as earned income through trading activities.
In the United States, most museums rely heavily on private support as most receive low levels of public funding. Museums in the United Kingdom, as a whole, receive more government funding than American museums, but even so, most are also often dependent on private funding and earned income to keep their doors open.
So I wanted to investigate more about how museums are funded and where that funding comes from for British and American museums.
I became particularly interested in museums that allow for free entry. How do they afford to stay open without admission costs? How important are visitor donations to these museums? Do people actually put money in museum donation boxes?
How can people help support the museums they love? Do donations make a difference? Are there ways other than leaving donations to help support one’s favorite museum?
First, let me start with that this is by no means a comprehensive exploration of museum expenses, museum funding, or museum donations. It is meant to give broad strokes of knowledge about museums in general, and particularly museums in the United States and the United Kingdom.
For those with further interest in the subject, I do try to provide links throughout the article to more in-depth references for those who are keen to do further research.
How Much Does it Cost to run a Museum?
Ever wonder what the costs are to run a museum? Or how much it costs to run a museum per visitor? Let’s find out!
What are the costs of operating a museum?
There are, not surprisingly, a lot of costs associated with running a museum and keeping it open to the public. The cost to maintain some sites, especially large historical buildings such as a historical home or a cathedral, can be astronomical.
A 2018 survey by the Association of Art Museums Directors of 210 art museums in North America (primarily the U.S.), found that 39% had operating budgets under 5 million dollars, 21% between 5 and 10 million, 21% between 10 to 20 million, 12% from 20 to 45 million, and 8% had operating budgets over 45 million dollars.
Of course, it should be noted that the above survey focuses only on art museums. Many museums, such as small local and regional museums, have relatively small operating budgets and depend primarily on volunteers.
However, the types of costs facing art museums and other types of museums, both big and small, are generally the same sorts of things.
Here are some of the main costs typical for such a museum or attraction:
- Staff wages & training
- Lighting, heating, humidity control, water, telecommunication, and fuel costs
- Lease / rent of premises
- Building repairs, maintenance, and restoration work
- Acquisition of new objects
- Curatorial duties, conservation, and research
- Display & storage of the collection
- Maintenance of outdoor stairs, footpaths, access ramps, gardens, and car parks
- Marketing, signage, and brochures
- Website, online accounts, and digital collections maintenance
- Public outreach and educational programs
- Fundraising activities
- Accounting fees, legal fees, taxes, insurance, and consultancy fees
The main costs for most museums are related to managing their collections. This includes curatorial duties, acquisition, management, display, security, conservation, storage, and education. The highest costs are generally related to paying staff wages and benefits to perform these duties.
The 2018 Art Museums by the Numbers report found that 31% of operating budgets went towards arts-focused activities (exhibitions, curation, collection management, education, conservation), 23% to revenue-generating activities (store, membership, benefits, restaurant, marketing, fundraising), 20% to infrastructure (building maintenance, security, utilities), 15% to administration, and 10% to other costs.
In 1989, The Cost of Collecting report commissioned by the Museums & Galleries Commission in the UK, showed that the types of costs and allocations of budgets in UK museums is generally very similar to those in the United States. They found that, on average, over 60% of museums’ expenditures were being used to either directly or indirectly manage their collections.
What is the cost per visitor to a museum?
Museums vary a lot in terms of their size, collections, budgets, visitor numbers, and funding sources. One way to think about a particular museum’s operating costs is to break it down to how much does it cost to keep the museum running per visitor.
For fiscal year 2017, the Art by the Numbers report found that the average cost per visitor to an American art museum is approximately $55. The average revenue per visitor (from admission/exhibition fees, cafe purchases, gift shop sales, etc.) was about $8.
The survey found that the museums with the largest operating budgets spend an average of $63 per visitor, while receiving $13 in revenue. The museums with the smallest operating budgets spent about $51 per visitor, while receiving only about $2 per visitor in revenue.
The above numbers tell us a couple of things. First, that it is indeed expensive to operate a museum. Secondly, that the amount of earned income per visitor represents only a small percentage (2% to 20% using above figures) of the operating costs per visitor.
For free entry museums, the amount earned per visitor is generally much lower than for those museums that charge admission fees. So the gap between earned visitor income and operating cost is often greater.
So we know from the above number that about 2% to 20% of the funding is coming directly from the visitor, at least in the case of American art museums. So the museum needs to figure out how to cover the other 80% to 98% of the costs.
Now that we know that visitor income alone is not nearly enough to pay for most museums, let’s explore how museums are funded and how they use different types of funding to cover their operating costs.
How are Museums Funded?
Museums are funded in a lot of different ways. These might include public government funding (federal or more local), grants, university support, private funding (individuals, corporations, trusts), and donations. Most also receive earned income through investments (including endowments) and through museum activities like admission fees, gift shop sales, and membership fees.
Some may be entirely publically funded whereas others are entirely privately funded. Museum funding differs a lot by country. But most museums, particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom, rely on several types of funding sources.
Many people assume that museums are funded almost entirely by the government, but this is often not the case. In the United States, the majority of funding for most museums comes from private individuals, membership fees, and donations.
Essentially the three main sources of funding for most museums are public funding, donations and endowments, and earned income.
The 2018 Art Museums by the Numbers report found that for the art museums in North America, only about 15% of the funding was from government sources in 2017. Of this, about 6% was federal funding, 2% state funding, 3% county, 4% city, and 0.5% other government sources.
About 33% of the rest of the annual funding for art museums came from private support, 27% from earned income (retail, trading, admission fees, etc.), 22% from endowment income, and 3% from college and university support.
Again, the above is representative of art museums in the United States. Although many other museums in the United States have similar breakdowns, there are exceptions.
For example, The Smithsonian (a large group of national museums, libraries, research centers, and a zoo), which is administered by the federal government, receives a large amount of its funding from the government. In fiscal year 2018, about 63% of its funding came from the federal government. The rest of the money (37%) came from private sources and earned income.
UK museums tend to receive more government funding than American institutions, but considerably less government support compared to many other European nations. I could not find average national numbers but a look at the financial sheets of some of the national museums in the UK, show that often 25% to 65% of funding is from government sources for the UK’s largest museums.
In fiscal year 2018-2019, the percentage of government funding received by the Tate (four art galleries in London) was 26%, the British Museum was 49%, the National Museums of Scotland was 69%, and the V&A Museum was 39%. It is clear that government funding is a vital part of the funding for UK museums, but the amount of funding can vary significantly across museums, regions, and years.
For example, in fiscal year 2018-2019, the British Museum received grant-in-aid of £52.5 million out of a total gross income of £105.7 million. This means that over 49% of its income came from government grant funding. Other sources of income came from donations and legacies (17%), charitable activities (20%), trading activities (12.3%), and investments (< 1%).
However, it should be noted that the amount of government funding can fluctuate a lot for a museum. For example, in 2016-2017, government funding only accounted for about 38% of the British Museum’s total funding versus 49% in 2018-2019.
What is clear is that American cultural institutions depend heavily on private support. And although UK museums may depend less heavily on private donations, donations are still very important to most of them.
The best policy for most museums is to have a diverse business model and to pursue many types of funding. This can help them face challenges such as a cut in public funding, decreased visitor numbers, or a poor year of fundraising.
Although diversification is best, it can’t always protect museums completely as many of the sources of funding are closely related. For instance, during the 2008 Great Recession, many museums faced not only cuts in public funding, but increased competition for grants, dwindling endowments, lower return on investments, poorer fundraising efforts, and decreases in visitor income.
In 2020, museums are being hit hard by COVID-19 closures and travel bans. Museums around the world are closed and many are likely to have to close to the public for months. The Met in NYC has reported that it expects to lose about $100 million dollars during its closure, and many smaller museums are worried they won’t have the finances to reopen at all. There is no doubt that the coronavirus will have a significant negative impact on museums and cultural attractions worldwide in 2020.
We’ll now go into a more in-depth examination of the three main types of funding for museums which are public funding, earned income, and donations.
We’ll also include a brief discussion of the controversial practice of museum’s selling art or cultural objects, often referred to as deaccessioning, and why this is generally not a way that museums can generate income.
Public funding comes from the government and is often funded via taxes. The more public funding a museum can get, the less it needs to raise itself.
Many people believe that if a museum is primarily funded by the public, then it will then be more able to concentrate its efforts on serving the public and focusing on its cultural goals. Polls in both the United States and the United Kingdom show that the majority of the public supports the public funding of museums.
As we saw earlier, public funding often amounts to less than 20% of the total annual funding for an American museum and can range widely for UK museums (often in the 25% to 65% range).
Obviously, for American museums, the main challenge regarding public funding is that many of them receive relatively low levels of public funding. However, it should be noted that American museums (as well as libraries, universities, etc.) have a long tradition of being privately funded and most museums owe their existence to private funding and private collections. So this is nothing new.
Whereas in Europe, more museums were begun with government support and many inherited royal or imperial collections. European museums tend to receive much more public support than American museums, although more state control can have its drawbacks. Large cuts in funding can often have a larger impact on these museums.
Although vital to many museums, public funding is often volatile. The funding available is closely associated with the economic, political, and social climate in many countries. The 2008 to 2012 global recession, in particular, negatively affected many museums worldwide, leading to lots of cuts in services and the need to find income in other ways.
For example, according to this 2017 report, the state art agency funding appropriations in the United States declined by 26 percent during the Great Recession between 2008 and 2012. When accounting for inflation, total public funding for the arts in the United States decreased by 12.8 percent between 1998 and 2017. Whereas federal funding has remained fairly steady over that period, the amount of state and local funding has declined.
The UK “Why Collect?” report had the following to say about public funding: “the most measured verdict that can be given on the years from 1979 to 2017 is that museums and galleries, both national and local, have been on something of a rollercoaster ride: of financial stringency, then abundance, then stringency again…”
The uncertainty around government funding can make it very difficult for museums to engage in long-term planning if they are not sure of their budget a year or two in the future.
However, public funding is not always as good as it seems. For instance, accepting public funding often comes with conditions. These may include allowing free admission to visitors, which in turn may reduce earned income potential. So a museum may need to weigh the pros and cons of accepting certain types of funding.
Also, the money provided by many government grants is often restricted in its use. For instance, the funding may be given to be used for a specific project or purpose. Some museums have reported that despite receiving a large public grant to fund a certain program, they still struggle to pay for the necessary essentials such as staff wages, building maintenance, equipment, storage, and utilities.
Accepting government funding also means some sort of government oversight and accountability. It can also mean political influence over the museum. Although generally not that concerning in countries like the U.S. and the UK, this is much more of a concern of museums in countries with more authoritative governments. This can definitely be problematic if the public funding allows the government to have influence over the content and programming of a museum.
But generally speaking, most museums will tell you that the more public funding they receive the better. It means less time and funds that need to be devoted to trying to get money from visitors and donors, and more time and funding that can be allocated to other goals.
Of course, as much as I love visiting museums, public funding is a finite resource. Each year, it must be divided up to serve a lot of needs which also include vital things like education, health care, defense, infrastructure, pensions, social services, environmental programs, etc.
So when funding decisions are being made, the funding given to cultural institutions has to be balanced with its relative need and importance. Then decisions have to be made about how that funding must be divided and allocated to the thousands of arts programs, museums, and cultural attractions.
It is clear that national museums and larger museums generally benefit the most from government funding. For example, local authority and regional museums in the UK, which had been previously largely supported by local councils, have shown dramatic decreases in public funding over the past decade.
For example, the UK Museums Association 2018 report shows that while over 30% of all museums received decreased public funding over the past year, this was particularly true for local authority and independent museums formerly run by local authorities where over 50% reported decreased public funding. Many of these museums are struggling to fill in the gap.
Earned income is the income that a museum generates by business, programming, and trading activities. Common sources of earned income are admission fees, book shop and gift shop sales, exhibition fees, audioguides, membership fees, cafeteria sales, and educational programs. So basically anything a visitor may spend money on or purchase at the museum or on its website.
Many museums also rent out space for events and provide catering services, such as for weddings and corporate events to earn extra income. Museums may also loan out pieces to other museums and may earn income on this. Licensing and image copyright fees are also a source of income for many museums, especially museums with widely known art or cultural pieces.
Corporate sponsorship, where a corporation helps pay for an exhibition, gallery, or educational program, is another way some museums help pay the bills. Not all museums allow corporate sponsorship, but many of the larger museums do try to attract corporate sponsors. However, there are ethical issues with taking corporate money and there are concerns about museums accepting money from sources such as big oil corporations (e.g., BP is a big sponsor of the arts in the UK) and families with tarnished reputations (Sackler family who own Purdue Pharma).
The proportion of a museum’s budget covered by earned income varies a lot, but often it makes up between 10% and 40% of funding for museums in the UK and the USA. It generally accounts for a higher proportion of the budget to American museums than UK museums.
A museum has to decide what it wants to offer, what is free to visitors, and what will have a cost associated with it. This is where the need to generate income must vie with the cultural, educational, and accessibility goals of the museum.
One of the most significant (and somewhat controversial) issues a museum must consider is whether or not to charge an admission fee to visitors. The main benefit is a guaranteed source of income and at very little additional cost to the museum, as it is simply charging for access to its greatest asset, its collection.
Some of the likely drawbacks of charging an admission fee is a decrease in visitor numbers, less accessibility of the collection to the public, and less diversity among visitors. Admission fees may be a significant barrier to lower income audiences. The public may also harbor negative feelings towards a cultural institution that receives charitable status and/or public funding, but then charges the public admission.
I won’t go much into the research on free admission, but generally, and not surprisingly, free admission attracts more visitors. For example, in the UK, there was a 62% rise in visitors in the 7 months following the reinstatement of free entry to the national museums and galleries in England.
However, in terms of eliminating barriers for those who don’t traditionally go to museums, research suggests that eliminating admission fees may make little difference. Data generally suggest that free admission generally attracts those who would pay to enter the museum and encourages more revisiting by those who already go to museums. It likely takes more than just offering free admission to encourage new groups to visit a museum.
While, I think most people will agree that having free admission is ideal, sometimes a museum does not have the financial infrastructure to be able to allow for free entry. Even in countries where museums are primarily supported by public funding, such as France and Italy, most charge admission fees.
The UK is fairly unique and wonderful in that all of its many national museums currently allow free entry, although many do charge for special exhibitions. However, an estimated 52% of UK museums charge an admission fee so there is about a 50/50 chance that a museum will charge you admission in the UK.
In the United States, the national museums (The Smithsonian) are also free to enter. In the U.S., data suggests that about 37% of museums allow free entry with most museums charging an entrance fee. However, among those that charge admission, over 90% offer free admission days or occasions.
Other admission models include “pay as you wish policies” and entry (or exit) by donation. Some may offer free admission for local residents but a pay structure for non-local visitors. Many free admission museums allow free entry to the general museum collection but charge for entry to special exhibitions and encourage donations and/or memberships.
Among museums that charge an admission fee and/or fees for special exhibitions, these fees often form a significant portion of their total earned income. For example, admission fees, charged by 61% of the American art museums in 2017, accounted for 27% of total earned income. However, this was still only about 7% of the total funding for the museums.
Many museums report that some services, such as cafes, often don’t earn much income but are expected visitor services. The money earned often just covers the costs of running them for many museums. Museum shops for smaller museums also generally don’t earn a lot of income, but they can be very profitable for more well-known museums that sell licensed merchandise.
A great advantage of earned income is that it is the one that the museum has the most direct control over. In the UK, this is a relatively new way to earn income for many museums, especially smaller ones, and 46% of UK museums in fiscal year 2017 say they increased their earned income over the past year.
It should be noted that for each area of the museum devoted to trying to generate income or encourage donations (e.g., gift shops, donation booths), is an area not being used for the museum’s main purposes. So money-making opportunities much be balanced against the museum’s other goals and the effect on the visitor experience.
Donations, Endowments, & Investments
Fundraising is a serious business for museums, especially in the United States. Private and corporate support in the form of donations, bequests, and endowments are a significant source of income for many museums.
The type of donation that museums like best is an unrestricted gift that can be used (with board approval) for any purpose, including operating costs (e.g., heating, staff, infrastructure) which are often the largest costs for a museum. Donors can also give restricted gifts that can only be used towards a certain project or purpose.
Endowments are where the principal amount of the donation is invested and the museum can then use the investment income (but not the principal which is permanently restricted). Endowments may be unrestricted or restricted in terms of what they may be used to fund.
In addition to money, some museums may accept other types of donations such as real estate, stocks, securities, etc.
In the United States, for many museums, over 50% of a museum’s revenue comes from donations and endowments. As noted, private philanthropy has been integral in funding many religious, health care, arts, and educational institutions since the 19th century. Since 1917, there have also been tax incentives to encourage charitable giving.
In the UK, the percentage of revenue that comes from private support for most museums is much lower, often accounting for less than 20% of total revenue. Although the UK has a strong charitable sector, the long history of greater state support of museums and lower level of tax incentives, has likely lead to the lower levels of private giving compared to the USA.
However, more museums in the UK (and other parts of Europe like Italy) are increasingly turning more and more to private support after cuts in public funding. Many believe that an increased focus on building endowments, which is much more typical of American museums, is a good way to provide more of a safety net in times of austerity.
Private support allows museums to flourish even in places where state support is weak. Individuals can decide what causes and organizations they want to support. It also encourages museums to provide services that are appealing to visitors and that encourage private support.
However, there are also a number of potential downsides to private support of museums. These include issues with accepting “dirty” money from controversial individuals or corporations, tax abuses, and dependence on the wealthy. Wealthy donors generally enjoy a disproportionate amount of influence over the governance of the museums receiving their donations which may encourage elitism and pandering to these wealthy donors and corporations.
Also, the allocation of museum resources to fundraising takes away resources from other purposes, and it is always a concern that museum directors and boards may be more focused on fundraising than curatorship and education.
Private funding, like public funding, can also fluctuate from year to year although it does appear to be more robust to economic downturns than public funding. Although funding levels at an individual museum may be heavily affected by a large one-time gift or a successful campaign. At a national level, private funding for museums may be influenced by economic conditions, the political climate, and tax policy changes.
Although American art museums have shown fairy steady private support since 2008, UK museums seem to have more fluctuations in private support. For example, in the 2017/2018 fiscal year, the national museums in England report showed a decrease of 15.6% in fundraising income across the 15 museums compared to 2016/2017, the lowest level of fundraising since 2014.
On a more practical level, fundraising is a money and time-consuming activity. Many museums do not have the resources to devote much time or energy to encouraging fundraising or planning fundraising activities. It is also much more difficult for smaller and lesser-known museums to compete with the larger and more well-known museums for donations.
Wondering where the majority of donations come from for museums? A rule of thumb used in fundraising, at least for larger American museums, is the 80/20 rule where it is estimated that about 80% of donations come from 20% of donors. So museums often focus their efforts largely on attracting and retaining these large donors.
Clearly, private support is very important to museums. Although it has its downsides, it is a necessity, especially for most museums in the U.S. which heavily depend on it for survival.
Deaccessioning Art & Cultural Objects
Another potential way that a museum could theoretically earn income is by selling some pieces in its collection. If a museum is having financial troubles, why doesn’t it just sell an object or two to pay its debts?
Museums, after all, are cultural treasure houses holding items often valued at millions of dollars. How can a museum with a billion dollars worth of objects have a financial deficit?
The issue is that there are strict procedural guidelines (at least in the UK and USA) for a museum to remove (whether by sale, transfer, donation, or destruction) an object from its collection. This procedure is known as deaccessioning.
If a museum is allowed to sell an object, those funds are generally only allowed to be used for new acquisitions. So a sale of an object may be able to be used to fund the purchase of a new painting, but it won’t be able to be used to pay for staff wages or fund a new roof.
The selling of art and cultural objects by museums is often very controversial, even when done to fund new art such as this 2018 sale by the Baltimore Museum of Art. The main arguments against deaccessioning are that the museum is seen by many to hold its objects in trust for the public in perpetuity.
Other reasons include that selling donated objects goes against donor intentions, that museums should not financially benefit from such sales, that a museum may sell a piece it will later regret not having, and that sales may remove the art from public access (at least locally).
If you are interested, you can read about a number of high-profile examples where museums sold objects to cover non-acquisitions costs, such as the sales by the Northampton Museum & Art Gallery in England, Rose Art Museum and Berkshire Museum in Massachusetts, the National Academy Museum in New York, and the Delaware Art Institute.
However, not everyone thinks that selling art or cultural objects by museums should be so restricted and some think that museum association guidelines are too strict, especially when museums are facing severe financial crises.
Also given that most of the world’s art is actually kept in storage and storage costs are high, that thoughtful and strategic sales (e.g., selling from a larger museum to a smaller one in the same region rather than through an auction) could actually make some art more accessible to the public. Some have also argued that modern digital imaging has made keeping all objects permanently less important.
Michael O’Hare, a professor of public policy in California, suggests that art should be valued as an asset and placed on a museum’s balance sheet with its other assets. He calculated that if the Art Institute of Chicago would sell less than 1% of its collection to set up an endowment fund, those funds would allow it to remove its high admission fee and offer free access in perpetuity. Financially, this is a very logical business argument and it can help the museum achieve positive goals; however, such sales would be unethical according to museum association guidelines.
But generally, selling objects from its collection to pay for operating costs is not really an option for most museums in the USA and UK. It generally only happens when museums are facing bankruptcy and closure as sales can lead to a loss of confidence by the public and donors, sanctions by museum associations, and even have legal consequences.
Museums are usually limited in their ability to sell their non-liquid assets as these are generally set up as restricted assets. So this is why a museum can have millions of dollars of assets (e.g., endowments, real estate, investments) and a billion-dollar art collection, but still be running at a deficit. The fact is that most museums have limited liquid assets.
Visitor Donations to Museums
Now, we know that donations are important to museums and in this section we’re going to focus on finding out more about visitor donations.
First, we’ll talk about the average visitor donations at museums. We’re specifically going to focus primarily on visitor donations that are left during a visitor’s visit to the museum. So this is the cash being thrown into donation boxes, credit card taps on electronic donation booths, and money stuck in Gift Aid envelopes.
Next, we’ll go over some case examples of several museums and attractions in the USA and UK and see how the funding, cost per visitor, and visitor donations break down.
Then we’ll talk about some of the benefits of donations to museums and potential benefits to visitors and museumgoers. This includes both visitor donations as well as gifts from larger donors.
How Much do Visitors Donate to Museums with Free Entry?
Have you ever wondered how much the average person leaves in a donation box at a museum?
Well, If you have ever sat and observed visitors walk past a donation box (as we have) at a museum, church, or art gallery, it doesn’t take long to feel a bit disheartened. Most visitors give nothing so it is not surprising that the average donation is very low for most attractions.
While this is to be expected at museums that people paid an admissions fee to enter, visitors largely behave the same at free entry attractions which do not charge an admissions fee.
Some of the data gathered in the UK show a startlingly low level of giving to museums and attractions in both England and Scotland.
In Scotland, a 2014 survey report of 104 museums and galleries, found that the average donation per visit was £0.23 (£0.22 for free entry museum and £0.30 for paid admission museums).
A 2016/2017 report for museums in southwestern England found that the average donation amount of 57 free admission museums was £0.80. Among 78 paid museums, the average donation per visitor was £1.10. Yes, again for some reason, people donated more to paid attractions than free ones!
This article reported that the average donation across 10 museums in northeast England in 2016 was only £0.07 per visitor. However, this was a significant increase in giving over 2015, where the average donation was £0.04 per visitor!
Durham Cathedral in England, which suggests a £3 donation per visitor, only averages about a £0.20 donation per visitor according to this 2017 news article.
We were not able to find much data for the United States, but from looking at donation amounts across some individual museums it suggests that although the average visitor donation is low, it may be higher on average than in UK museums. For example, The Met, when it had a universal “pay as you wish” entry policy, reported that in 2017 it received $9.00 per visitor (the suggested amount was $25).
Many museums are trying to use technology (credit card swipe or phone tap kiosks), interactive donations boxes, marketing techniques, and staff training to increase donations. Some of these have been effective in increasing visitor donations, for example, the Natural History Museum in London saw a 64% rise in visitor donations after setting up contactless donation booths throughout the museum.
However, overall, despite some increases brought about with the use of technology, the average donation amount per visitor is low for most museums.
Why are Museum Visitor Donations so Low?
We know that visitor donations are pretty low and it is clear that the majority of people are not donating anything to the museums they visit. So perhaps those that visit museums in the USA and UK are simply uncharitable people?
However, we know this is not true and data show that the majority of people in the USA and UK give money to charity each year, and about 1/4 of people also donate time to volunteer work each year.
In fact, Americans give more to charity per capita than any other nation and have the most active charity sector in the world. According to Giving USA, Americans donated an estimated $427.71 billion to U.S. charities in 2018, about 2% of the national GDP. This level of giving has been relatively steady for decades.
Numerous studies show that Americans annually give, per capita, about twice as much as Canadians (the next most charitable nation), about 2.6 times as much as the British, and 7 times as much as continental Europeans.
Some reasons that Americans give more to charity is likely due to several reasons, the high level of religiosity (religiosity is one of the most important predictors of giving), a long tradition of private philanthropy (and less reliance on state funding & welfare), the long history of privately funded institutions, and more tax incentives for charitable donations.
That said, the British are by no means uncharitable and give more than any other nation in Europe. You can see some of the UK charitable stats here. So we know that Americans and the British are pretty charitable people, but why is giving to museums so low?
There is no “correct” answer as there exists little research of this issue, but we’ll explore some of our hypotheses below.
Visitors are Not Aware of the Need for Museum Support
The perception of the average person is that museums are well funded. Many believe that they are fully supported by the government and therefore do not need any private support.
It is, of course, true that some museums are very wealthy indeed, at least in terms of assets. Most large museums have assets valued at millions (or even billions) of dollars or pounds. The problem is that even with a large amount of assets, there is often very little liquidity of these assets (e.g., building, equipment, endowments) and cash flow is often the issue.
Some museums do receive a lot of government funding such as several of the national museums in the UK and the Smithsonian in the USA. However, as we’ve learned few, if any, museums are 100% publically funded. Almost all rely to some degree on private support and most American museums receive the majority of their funding through donations.
The average regional and town museum rarely has the high value assets of the larger museums, and are also much more likely to attract government grants or private support. These less flashy museums, in particular, depend a lot on volunteers and private support to stay afloat.
Belief that Other People Will Donate
People may believe that they do not need to give because other people are giving. In a crowded museum that gets thousands of visitors each day, it is easy to believe that “others” are donating and that one’s particular contribution is not really necessary. This may fit into the social psychological principle of the diffusion of responsibility.
A visitor might also assume that there are much more wealthy benefactors and foundations who are helping the museum and that their small contribution will not really make much difference. What will an extra dollar really matter?
It is indeed easy to believe when reading the news about the large amounts spent by celebrities and huge foundations that they are contributing plenty for all of us. But actually, the vast majority of charitable contributions (over 70%), at least in the U.S., are by the millions of individual donors.
The wealthiest American donors actually appear to donate less to the arts as a percentage than the national average.
Museums Must Compete for Charitable Dollars
Museums must also compete with all the other worthwhile causes for charity dollars (and pounds). Out of the huge amount given each year in charitable contributions in the U.S. and UK, only a small percentage of that is given to arts-related charities.
In the U.S., the causes that receive the most money are religious charities, education, human services, health care, and overseas causes. Only about 6% of charitable donations are given to arts-related charities.
In the UK, the causes that receive the largest amounts are religious charities, overseas aid, medical research, animal welfare, hospital and hospice related charities, and children & young people causes. Only about 2% of charitable donations in 2018 were given to arts-related causes.
It should be pointed out that most religious institutions and charities are not eligible for public funding, and are almost entirely supported via private support. So donations are their primary way to receive funding and it is therefore not too surprising that they receive such a large proportion.
Is it wrong that the arts receive such a low percentage of charitable donations? Maybe, but maybe not. Most people probably believe that health care, medical research, education, environmental issues, and a dozen other things are more important than art and cultural institutions.
Bill Gates, for instance, in a Financial Times interview using an argument from moral philosopher Peter Singer, said he was not sure why a person, for example, would donate to a museum that wants to build a new wing when they could spend that money on fighting an illness that leads to blindness. He goes on to say: “The moral equivalent is, we’re going to take 1 percent of the people who visit this [museum] and blind them…”
I think the argument is taken too far, but you can see his point. That said, Bill Gates, doesn’t always follow his own philosophy and clearly he believes some museums are worth supporting. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave $15 million to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA in 2005. Gates said he gave such a donation to the museum for this reason:
“the impact on our society of the computing revolution is simply breathtaking – it has changed the way we work, play, learn, and communicate. … it’s our responsibility to collect the artifacts and stories today that will explain this incredible change to future generations.”
Money is finite and most of us can only give a limited amount, and we, therefore, must each decide which charities are most important to us. That said, donors can donate to multiple charities and don’t have to choose only one cause over another, but we all (even Bill Gates) have to prioritize where to allocate our donations.
It is clear that to win over the public’s charitable dollars, museums must be more than buildings that display art and cultural objects. They must emphasize their relevance and importance to visitors, local communities, and society.
Free Entry = FREE
Having a free admissions policy or donation only entry policy is a good thing. However, from an economic standpoint, as we’ve seen from some examples, it can be a difficult thing for a museum as the lost revenue from admission must be gained elsewhere. We know that visitor income and donations generally don’t cover that cost, but why?
First, it is likely that many visitors choose free attractions because they are free, and therefore arrive with the intention of not spending any money. So it may be hard for museums to get people out of that “free mode” mindset and encourage them to donate or spend money.
Of course, free entry is to allow access to the museum collections and services to everyone as not everyone can afford to pay. Also regular local visitors would not be expected to donate on every visit. But what if no one donates?
A related factor seems to be the belief that something which has no price has no value and that something that is free is not as good as something which costs money. Most people place more value on things that cost more and undervalue things that are free and easy to obtain.
Perhaps this is the same with museums. People may place more value on museum where they have to get in line and purchase a ticket rather than those they can simply walk into without paying.
One survey in the UK found that 47% of visitors said they would be more likely to spend money (e.g., paid exhibitions, donations, gift shop purchases, audioguides) in a museum that changed its admission policy from paid to free admission. However, this means that 53% were not willing to spend any money at the museum and so will likely contribute less to the museum than they did when it was paid entry.
Indeed, several museum reports in the UK suggest that visitor donations amounts are higher in museums that charge admission than those that do not! This seems to support the hypothesis that people undervalue free experiences.
Museums are Not Doing Enough to Encourage Donations
Of course, the reason for low donations is not all about museum visitors. Museums must also do their part in creating places people enjoy visiting, encouraging donations, and making it as easy as possible to make those donations.
Based on our experiences, it seems that many of the big museums that offer free admission are definitely doing well here. The National History Museum in London and the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh are two good examples of places we have visited recently. They both have been working hard the past few years to increase their on-site visitor donations.
But I think many of the small museums really struggle, and obviously they don’t have the staff or money that the big museums have. So they have to be creative with fewer resources.
But museum surveys tell us that there is a lot of variation in the average donation at museums, even among similar museums within the same region, suggesting that some are not taking full potential in encouraging visitor donations. We believe that most museums have areas of improvement in this department.
If museums want to increase visitor donations, they must make an effort and be proactive. But the good news is that we’ve read about lots of examples of museums and attractions, both big and small, that have made significant increases in their average visitor donation rates. There are also resources and support out there for museums such as this helpful guide to donation boxes.
And of course, museums also have to make sure they are giving visitors the best experience they can as people are going to be more likely to give if they have enjoyed their visit.
Importance of Donations to Specific Attractions: Case Examples
So let’s take a look into some specific examples of various attractions within the United Kingdom and the United States to better understand the types of costs they incur, how they earn their income, and the importance of donations to them.
We’ve focused primarily on free entry museums and attractions as these sites often depend more heavily on donations from visitors than those that charge an admission fee. But we’ve also included the example of The Met and its recent change from having a “pay as you wish” admission policy to charging a set admission.
Inverness Botanic Gardens in Scotland
Inverness Botanic Gardens is a botanic garden and nursery located in Inverness, Scotland which has outdoor seasonal gardens as well as glasshouses, including a Tropical House full of exotic plants from around the world. Laurence and I have been here a couple of times and it is a lovely place to stop for a stroll and to have a nice cup of tea in the on-site cafe. It is run by the Scottish charity High Life Highland.
The main revenue sources for the museum are visitor donations and plant sales. Its major operating costs are staff wages and garden and horticultural supplies.
In 2018, the operating costs were approximately £196,114, it received approximately 105,000 visitors, and received £25,308 in donations. Overall, the average donation amount was £0.24 per visitor.
It costs approximately £2.60 per visitor to operate the museum. This amount is clearly stated on the donation box that stands near the entry and exit to the botanical gardens.
The Inverness Botanic Gardens previously charged an entry fee but changed their policy to free entry, and since then have seen the number of visitors grow each year, from 14,000 in fiscal year 2010-11 to 105,000 in fiscal year 2018-19!
The growth in visitors is impressive and many attractions have seen this when they change from an entry-fee admission model to a donation-only model. But if one does the math on entry fee versus free admission, the gardens could earn more charging £2.60 per visitor with only 14,000 visitors than asking for donations from 105,000 people (£36,400 versus £25,308)!
This is a good example of some of the challenges that attractions can have in selecting an admissions policy. A donations-only or pay-as-you-wish model normally translates to more visitors, but often results in less income. Additional income must then be generated from other sources.
Highland Folk Museum in Scotland
The Highland Folk Museum, another attraction run by the High Life Highland charity, is a large outdoor folk museum located in Newtonmore, Scotland within the Cairngorms National Park.
The large attraction includes over 30 historical buildings and artifacts from the Scottish Highlands that date between the 1700s to the 1950s. The attraction offers regular staff demonstrations of traditional farming methods, crafts, sports, cooking, etc. A definite cultural highlight of the region!
The 2017/2018 fiscal year gross operating cost of the folk museum was £716,000. The largest operating cost for the museum is staff wages.
In 2018, the museum received approximately 77,236 visitors and received £213,143 in donations. Overall, the average donation amount was £2.76 per visitor. This donation amount is significantly higher than the average donation received by a free entry museum or attraction in the UK.
It costs approximately £11 per visitor to operate the museum. This amount is clearly stated on a sign near the entrance to the museum that tells visitors that the museum offers free entry but appreciates visitor donations.
Donations are the most significant source of income for the Highland Folk Museum. Although it generates more gross income from other activities (retail sales, catering services), donations are currently its largest source of actual profit.
This helps illustrate an important point, and one we hadn’t necessarily considered before. Obviously purchasing something you want at the museum gift shop is a win-win as you get something you want and the museum receives a bit of profit from the sale. But if you are just purchasing something that you don’t really want from a museum to show your support, you can help the museum more by just dropping some cash in the donation box.
The Highland Folk Museum has been trying to increase visitor donations over the past several years through a range of proactive strategies. In 2015, they increased their total donation amount by 62% over the previous year, by 52% in 2016, by 25% in 2017, and by 21% in 2018. They are a wonderful example of how an attraction can indeed significantly increase both the percentage of visitors who donate and the amount of the average visitor donation.
California Route 66 Museum in the USA
The California Route 66 Museum is a museum in Victorville, California dedicated to Route 66 with a special focus on Route 66 in California. In addition to lots of information and historical objects, there are also interactive exhibits and lots of fun photo props here.
The main revenue sources for the museum are gift shop revenue (largest source) and visitor donations. The museum operators have not had good luck getting grants. Its major operating costs are staff wages, gift shop inventory, and funding upgrades to the museum.
In 2018, the operating costs were approximately $77,000, it received approximately 15,500 visitors, and received $11,600 in donations. Overall, the average donation amount was $0.75 per visitor. Most are in-person donations, but they also have a way to donate on their website as well.
It costs approximately $5.00 per visitor to operate the museum.
The museum has 3 paid staff members and also relies on dedicated local volunteers. Although donations are very important, they don’t generate enough in donations to stay open, and gift shop sales are their largest source of income. The museum also hosts events such as car shows to earn a bit of extra income.
Dingwall Museum in Scotland
The Dingwall Museum is a local history museum in Dingwall, Scotland located in the Scottish Highlands along the popular North Coast 500 driving route. The small town museum is located in a historical building of the former Town Council and presents historical artifacts across several rooms. The museum is free to enter but accepts donations.
The museum relies on council grants, donations, and volunteers to operate. Its major operating costs are insurance and security. Due to decreased grant funding in recent years, it has to depend on volunteers to operate the museum as there is not enough funding to pay staff. It is only open seasonally.
In 2018, the operating costs were approximately £8,000, it received approximately 5,000 visitors, and received £2,500 in donations. Donations represent about 30% of the total income for the museum with each visitor leaving an average of £0.50.
It currently costs approximately £1.50 per visitor to operate the museum using staff volunteers. The cost to run the museum would obviously be greater if they were to pay staff rather than to depend entirely on volunteers.
Durham Cathedral in England
Durham Cathedral is an Anglican cathedral located in the city of Durham in northeast England. The cathedral dates back to the 11th century and is an important English cathedral. It contains the Shrine of St. Cuthbert, is considered one of the best examples of Norman architecture in the world, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has long been a popular site for pilgrims, architectural lovers, and tourists.
Entry to the cathedral is free although donations are strongly encouraged. It is recommended that each visitor donate £3 to support the cathedral and there are signs at the entrance, donations boxes, and a staffed visitor area. The cathedral does charge for visitors who want to visit the special exhibition area and those wanting to climb the church tower.
The total expenditure in 2017-2018 was £9.94m although this is significantly higher than most years as a large amount was spent on major one-time repairs. The largest costs for the cathedral are conservation and repair costs and staff costs.
According to a Telegraph article in 2017, Durham Cathedral receives approximately £150,000 in donations from around 750,000 visitors. This averages to just £0.20 per visitor!
We visited Durham Cathedral a few months ago and it is pretty hard to believe that the donation amount could possibly be that low! We felt the requested £3 is very reasonable and there are many places and ways to donate at the cathedral.
This is clearly not nearly enough to support a cathedral that costs approximately £10,000 per day to keep open and operate. The running and maintenance of the cathedral also depend on a large army of volunteers (currently over 750!).
Durham Cathedral depends on heritage funding and grants, but as the amount of this funding has decreased over the years, it depends more and more on donations, legacies, and investments. The cathedral is currently trying to develop a £10 million endowment fund to help support maintenance and repair work in the future.
An entry fee has been considered as the cathedrals that charge an entry fee often do better financially than those that ask for donations. However, those who charge a fee often see a decrease in visitor numbers. Durham Cathedral has decided not to do this as it wants to be open to everyone, including those who cannot afford to pay.
Recent reports suggest that about half of the Anglican cathedrals in England face serious funding issues. Unlike museums and other cultural attractions, cathedrals are not normally eligible for government funding but it is forecasted that several of these cathedrals may need government funding in the future to stay open.
The Met in New York City, USA
The Met, officially the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City is an interesting case example in relation to admission charges, funding, and visitor donations.
The Met was founded in 1870 and has grown to become one of the largest and most prestigious art museums in the world. It is also the most visited tourist attraction in New York City! It has 3 locations and attracts about 7 million visitors a year.
Since its inception, the Met has had various admissions policies, but it has always had free public admission days. From 1970 to March 2018, the Met had a “pay as you wish” policy for all visitors with a suggested amount. In recent years, that suggested amount for adults was between $20 to $25; however, visitors could donate as low as $0.01 to gain entry.
However, the museum found that despite a huge increase of visitors (visitor numbers increased about 40% between 2010 and 2017), the number of visitors agreeing to pay the full suggested amount went from 63% to 17% between 2004 and 2017. The average donation amount among visitors fell to $9.00 in 2017.
Despite being the third most visited art museum in the entire world, according to a 2017 article in The New York Times, the Met was struggling to get enough funding and had a budget deficit of around $40 million. So in March 2018, the Met changed its admission policy and began charging admission to most non-New York residents (residents still given donation-only entry).
There was outrage by many, especially from New Yorkers, at the change in the admission policy at The Met when it was announced. The main argument made is that since the museum receives city funding, non-profit status, and free rent (in one of the most expensive areas in the world) that is should be open free to the public.
It should be pointed out that the museum has not changed its “pay as you wish” policy for NY residents or tri-state students who can still enter The Met for only $0.01 per visit. In fact, the policy is expected to only affect around 31% of its visitors since most of their visitors quality for free entry already (residents, tri-state students, members, young children, tourists with discount passes, etc.).
The Met has often been criticized for being a pretentious institution where minorities and those of lower economic status may not feel welcome or comfortable in the museum. Some believe that the new admissions policy will further dissuade those who are already less likely to visit an art museum. Families (at least those not from NY) may also find the new costs prohibitive for a day out and choose to spend their vacation time elsewhere. These are valid concerns that will hopefully be empirically evaluated in the near future.
I think there is also the belief among many people that The Met is so rich with its investments, millionaire supporters, and the fancy Met Gala that is doesn’t need to charge visitors. Indeed, in terms of actual assets, The Met is indeed rich. In the 2017-2018 fiscal year, the Met reported $4.3 billion in total assets, including $3.7 billion in its investment portfolio.
Many also argue that the admission fee is not going to cover the operating costs for the museums and represents only a small portion of its total revenue. This is definitely true and it is estimated that admission fees will only cover about 17% of the museum’s annual operating costs. However, even though they represent only a few extra percentage points, the museum notes that this has already helped spark financial growth for the museum.
The average cost per visitor to run The Met is an estimated $40 per person, so even with $25 admission fee for those living outside of NY, it still depends heavily on other funding sources.
The Met has a huge annual budget of about $305,000,000 to cover each year and receives only about 10% from the city. Its most significant expenses are curatorial, operations, and guardianship activities.
Its biggest source of funding, accounting for 62% of its total funding in the 2017-2018 fiscal year, is from private and corporate donations, gifts, legacies, and endowments. Another 10% comes from selling memberships. Without its donors and fundraising, the museum would likely need to start selling off its assets to keep afloat.
Like most larger American museums, it is dependent on donations and endowments for not only a large portion of its operating costs, but also for new art acquisitions. So museums like The Met have to pander to wealthy donors not only for financial donations, but also in the hopes of acquiring museum-quality art.
The Met’s faces the same challenge as thousands of other museums, but on a larger scale. How do you keep a huge and expensive museum open to as many people as possible, but also keep it running in the black? How do you keep it relevant and approachable to the average visitor but still please wealthy donors? If you charge admission, how much should you charge?
No matter your opinion on The Met’s admission policy and financial status, I think the question that museum president Daniel Weiss poses in a 2018 interview about the admission changes is a good one and one that is certainly not unique to The Met:
“The practical question is ‘Who’s supposed to pay?’ If the public doesn’t wish to pay, who should pay?”
There is no simple answer and as we can see with The Met, many museums are still struggling to figure this out.
How Do Donations Help Museums?
Recent reductions in public funding and increased competition for grants have made it more and more important that museums maximize their efforts to earn income and raise donations.
As we’ve seen, donations of any size can be very helpful to a museum or attraction, especially for those that do not charge an admissions fee.
Here are some ways that donations can help support and benefit museums and attractions. Most of these things also benefit donors and future visitors to the museum.
Keeps Free Entry Attractions Free
Free attractions tend to attract more visitors, but an increase in visitors often doesn’t relate to an increase in income. Sometimes drops in public funding can lead to changes in admission policies, and free museums may need to begin charging an entry fee.
For example, about half of the national museums in the UK adopted admission fees in the 1980s and 1990s due to a decrease in government funding. Free entry to all the permanent collections was reintroduced in 2001 with government support and funding to make up (at least partially) for the lost income from selling tickets.
A decrease in visitor donations can also lead to a museum changing its policy from free to paid entry. For example, as we saw earlier, The Met partially attributed its change in admission policy from a pay-what-you-wish policy to a standard admission fee to a large drop in the average donation per visitor.
In the UK, more museums are charging admission fees to try to meet their operating costs as levels of public funding have dropped. In 2018, 4% of surveyed museums by the Museums Association in the UK added new admission charges in the past year and over half of the museums now charge an admission fee.
Not everyone can afford an admission fee to visit a museum, and this can be particularly problematic for low-income families. If visitors who can afford to donate do so, it can help keep the museum free for those who cannot.
Shows Visitor Support
Almost all visitor attractions, especially non-profit ones, depend on donations (to some extent) to operate. For most American museums and galleries, their largest source of support is private donations.
By giving a donation, a visitor is showing their support of the museum. Visitors are using their money to say that that this museum or attraction and its collection is something they value.
Supports the Staff
Most museums and attractions, especially free entry ones, depend a lot on volunteers and trainees who are an integral part of most museums. However, cuts in funding can make museums overly reliant on volunteers and cause the replacement of paid trained staff with volunteers.
Cutting paid staff and replacing them with volunteers can have a number of negative effects. Within the museum, it often means a decline in curatorial and conservation expertise, a cutting of museum services, lower staff morale, and decreased diversity amongst the staff. This also makes it more difficult for trained staff to find jobs if competing with interns and volunteers.
Keeps them Open
Some museums and attractions are probably “too big to fail” but it doesn’t mean that cuts in funding or reduced income won’t hurt them. Less income means museums have to cut services, reduce opening hours, pass on new acquisitions, reduce educational programs, reduce staff, abandon expansion plans, and find other methods to bridge funding gaps.
For example, the UK Museums Association 2018 report shows that over 50% of museums surveyed had received decreased public funding in the past year. This is a consistent trend since the museums were first surveyed in 2010. Over the last 10 years, a significant number of museums in the UK have had to reduce opening hours, cut the number of paid staff, and introduced admission fees.
At least 64 museums closed in the UK between 2010 and 2017 according to the Museums Association, most due to reduced public funding. However, another analysis, which tracked many more museums and used a looser definition for a museum, found that about 200 museums closed between 2010 and 2017.
Of course, some museums open and close each year, and not all museums can stay open indefinitely. Some museums may lose their relevance or importance over time. But it is important for visitors to show support for those museums that they want to see endure.
Supports New Acquisitions & Museum Collections Evolution
New acquisitions and exhibitions help maintain and increase visitor numbers for many museums, particularly art museums. Increased funding can help ensure museums can bring in new temporary exhibitions and acquire new pieces for their permanent collection.
Although particularly important for newer museums, well-established museums with large collections also often need to evolve to continue to attract visitors, especially repeat visitors. For example, a current trend among art museums, especially in the USA, is a desire to increase the number of modern and contemporary art holdings and to increase the amount of art from minority artists.
However, most art museums can’t compete in the increasingly expensive art market, and so are largely depend on acquiring new art from donors. The majority of new acquisitions to museums are from donors and bequests who donate (or lend) art from their own private collections. For example, among American art museums, in 2017-2018, 74% of new art acquisitions were donated, 5% were received from bequests, and only 22% were purchased.
The increasingly inflated prices of art at auction combined with museums’ low acquisition budgets mean that many museums are doing little active or strategic collecting. This is highlighted in the Why Collect? report by the Art Fund.
They note that in 2010, 50% of museums surveyed in the UK were not able to allocate any income whatsoever to collecting or new art acquisitions. Among the half that did have acquisition budgets, many were still unable to purchase sought after art because of high prices and/or lack of sufficient funding. About 60% of new acquisitions across the museums and galleries were through donations or bequests.
Although accepting items from donors is an important way in which museums acquire new pieces, this can also be a double-edged sword. Instead of growing its collection in an active and critical way based on curatorial goals and gaps in its collection, a museum may passively accept art because it is free rather than it is the best fit. This strategy can actually end up costing museums due to high costs of storage and conservation of ill-fitting donations.
Many new acquisitions are also made possible by donor funding. As a donor, you may be able to specifically designate that your money is used for new acquisitions. Although wealthy individual and corporate donors account for a large amount of funding, large pools of small donations can also help a museum acquire a desired piece of art or object.
For example, in 2018, the Louvre wanted to acquire the Book of Hours of King François I, a beautiful 16th century illuminated manuscript set in gold with encrusted jewels. But the book cost approximately 10 million euros, about twice the annual new acquisitions budget for the Louvre that year. A large corporate donor, the LVMH, agreed to contribute 7.9 million euros. The rest, about 1.4 million euros, was raised by over 8,500 individual donors, many of them first-time donors to the museum!
However, while major museums wish lists may be full of million-dollar objects, smaller museums like a local history museum may be able to acquire items on their wish list with the help of just a couple of generous donors. For example, even a glimpse of objects on the recent V&A collections development list includes items like a 1959 Mattel Barbie (my mom owns one of these) and classic American board games.
Helps The Museum Weather Future Budget Cuts
As noted, one difficulty for museums is that public funding is volatile and an economic downturn can mean a reduction in several important income sources. So even if the museum you love is doing fine today, donations can help it weather leaner financial times and be prepared for unanticipated large expenses (e.g., leaking roof, storm or fire damage).
For example, donor funds are often put into an endowment fund, and the money in the fund is invested (e.g., bonds, stocks, real estate) to grow the principal while the interest earned on that principal amount is used to fund future investments and expenditures. The investment and use of that money is usually governed by a strict set of guidelines and a board of trustees.
For American museums, endowment funds have long been important sources of income for many as they have not benefited as much from public funding as European museums.
UK museums are increasingly becoming aware of the importance of fundraising and endowment funds in the wake of reduced public funding. Many museums, such as the Bowes Museum, have found that with reduced public funding, they are not able to maintain their services with visitor funding alone.
Donors can also seek to fund a specific aspect of service of the museum by leaving a charitable donation with restrictions on its use. For example, if they have a weekend children’s reading program that a donor wants to ensure continues, he or she can specify that the donation can only be used to support that program.
Benefits of Donating to Donors & Members
Charitable donations not only benefit the museum, but they can also mean perks for donors as well. This is especially the case for members of the museums and large donors.
Most museums, especially larger ones, often have membership programs as well as special perks and events for large donors. For example, this might be free entry passes, special access to exhibitions, invites to museum cocktail parties or dinners, discounts on gift shop items, private viewings, etc.
Donors may also get special recognition by the museum, such as their name on a plaque, website page, brick, or newsletter. Huge donors may get recognition by getting a room or even a wing named after them.
And of course, in many countries, donors to not-for-profit organizations and charities, are often able to claim tax benefits for charitable donations. Just note that tax deductions are normally only possible for donations to charities registered within your own country.
Have a Say in the Museum’s Future
In addition to the potential member and donor perks mentioned above, members and donors of a museum often also have the ability to get more involved with the operation of the museum and to have influence over the future of the museum. This may be through getting directly involved in projects, meeting museum staff at organized lunches or conferences, being able to state your opinions in meetings, etc.
You can also do it by placing your donations directly into a fund where the money is designated for a specific purpose. So instead of giving unrestricted funds, you can donate specifically to fund an educational outreach initiative or a restoration project that is important to you
Even if you don’t have money to donate, you may also be able to have an influence on the future directions of a museum, especially in smaller museums, by joining and participating in the volunteer program.
Perhaps the most rewarding reason to give a donation is the satisfaction of helping support a place you love! Indeed, research has shown that prosocial and charitable giving (of any kind or cause) can make us happier and more satisfied.
How you Can Support Museums via Donations & Other Means
For those who are interested in supporting a museum, we’ll talk about deciding on how much to donate, how to donate, and ways to support museums beyond monetary donations. We’ll talk about ways you can get involved with supporting museums through volunteerism, your online presence, and even political action.
How Much of a Donation Should I Leave?
If you are visiting a museum or attraction and want to leave a donation, but are not sure what amount to give, we recommend looking for any “suggested donation amount” information at the site and to also consider “what is this experience worth to me?”.
First, when visiting a place, I would see if there is any information provided about a suggested donation amount. For example, Durham Cathedral in England, which we recently visited, suggests a £3 donation per visitor and this information is provided to you once inside the cathedral. We thought this was a very reasonable suggestion for such an important cathedral and UNESCO site.
Unfortunately, suggested donations amounts are not as common as they should be at places. You can also try asking a staff member if there is a staff desk, although we’ve found that front desk staff and volunteers often don’t really know too much about the financial aspects of the places they work.
For example, in New York City, we recently asked a museum that does entrance by donations about their operating costs and suggested donation per visitor after being asked if we would like to donate. The staff working the front desk had no idea.
Now, the suggested donations amounts are usually quite reasonable, but not always. If you feel the donation ask is too high, just give what you think is fair. We were recently walking by a small city parish church in Scotland (not a particularly notable tourist attraction) that had a sign asking for £7 per visitor. This seemed very high and likely put off people from visiting (and donating) at all.
If there is no suggested donation amount, I would just leave what you think is a fair donation. A good question to ask yourself is “How much would you pay to enter if there were an entrance fee?”
If you think you’d pay $5 to enter a particular attraction, then that may be a reasonable donation amount to give.
Many people visit free attractions because they are free to enter so may not have much money to donate for a visit. If you are on a tight budget, we’d recommend trying to give at least the equivalent of USD $1.00, GPB £1, or 1 euro per person.
But any donation amount helps, so I would leave what you can afford and feel comfortable with donating. It is better to leave the spare coins in your pocket than to leave nothing.
Other Ways to Support Museums During your Visit
There are often other ways to support an attraction beyond just dropping some money in the donation box. At larger sites, there are often lots of ways to support them while also getting something back in return.
These can through small purchases like a postcard or a cup of coffee. Many free entry sites have paid exhibitions (e.g., special temporary art exhibition) or special activities (climb to the top of a church tower for a view over city) you can do for a small fee.
Here are some ideas on how you might be able to support an attraction:
- Purchase a brochure, guidebook, or audioguide to help guide your visit
- Do one of the “extra” activities that include a fee (e.g., guided tour, flight simulator, special exhibition, IMAX film, tower climb, craft workshop, etc.)
- Pay for a “photography permit” to be able to take personal photos
- Buy something from the gift shop or book shop
- Buy a coffee, tea, or soda from the attraction’s café
- Have a meal at the attraction’s restaurant
- Purchase a membership pass (if you plan to return or visit other included sites)
For example, Laurence and I purchased National Trust memberships once we moved to the UK. Not only does this support the National Trust, but it saves us money each year and gives us unlimited access to so many visitor attractions. A definite win-win.
Other ways we try to support sites beyond just a donation, is to make purchases from the gift shops (we collect magnets from our travels, so we buy lots of those!) and to pay for additional activities of interest (Laurence climbs to the top of any attraction we visit!). If we really are interested in a site, we might purchase an optional audioguide or guidebook.
We also often choose to have our coffee break or meal at attractions we visit as this provides support to the site. These are also often a good value.
More Ways to Support Your Favorite Museums & Attractions
If you are wanting to support your favorite museums and attractions, you can also help them outside of your visits. It is also not all about money, many ways you can support a museum require just your time. Here are a variety of ways you may be able to help.
- Donate money. The best way to support a museum or attraction is to donate money. Unrestricted general donations can then be put to best use by the museum. However, if you want your money to be used in a particular way (e.g., for a new acquisition, staff benefits, or a school education program), then you can donate to a specific fund for that. Just remember that the major running costs for most museums are the more mundane things like staff wages and building maintenance.
- Donate in the way that gives the most back. For instance in the UK, the Gift Aid scheme means that if you’re a UK taxpayer and you give money to charity, the charity can claim back the tax you’ve paid on this money, boosting the charity amount without costing you anything extra. So, for every £1 you give to charity, the charity can claim an extra 25p. For example, Durham Cathedral received an extra £50,000 in support during the fiscal year 2017-2018 based on donors choosing to do donations through Gift Aid.
- Join the museum as a member. Not only is the recurring income from membership fees a major source of support for many museums, but memberships also come with perks (e.g., free admission, special invites, exclusive events, discounts, etc.).
- Volunteer your time, expertise, and skills. Almost all museums have volunteers, and some depend almost entirely on a volunteer workforce to stay open. If you have relevant professional skills (e.g., accounting, landscaping, object conservation, website design), you might see if you can offer some needed services pro bono.
- Recommend the museum to others. Know of a new exhibition that is opening soon or fun fundraising event, tell your friends and family and share the event on social media. The more people who are aware of it and value the museum, the more people who can support it. When I wrote a guide to my small rural hometown of Caldwell Ohio, many local people surprisingly told me they were not even aware of some of these places.
- Donate art or objects to your local museums. Lots of town and regional museums depend almost entirely on local donations. Most of us don’t have a Jackson Pollock to donate to a major museum, but you may have a family heirloom that a local history museum would love. Maybe you have a beautiful tea set from a local porcelain factory, a sculpture by a well-known local artist, a neon sign from a former local diner, or your great-grandfather’s well-preserved military uniform. Contact the museum and see what they are hoping to add to their collection. Just make sure that the museum actually wants what you want to donate, as storing an unused object can be a significant cost for a museum.
- Donate supplies. Although rather unsexy, many museums may also need practical things like display cases, computers, office equipment, building supplies, crafting supplies, etc. You or your business may be able to help by donating or helping to fund some of these items.
- Help host a local fundraising event. Perhaps you find out that your local museum needs to raise $10,000 to repair its roof. Getting together with like-minded others can help raise money for the cause. You should consider what kind of charity events work well where you live, so you might consider things like coffee mornings, bake or craft sales, charity dinners, bingo evenings, charity auctions, food stands, and fundraising walks and runs.
- Support local art councils, museum associations, and art funds, such as the Art Fund in the UK. For those in the UK, you can help by just buying lottery tickets; The National Lottery Heritage Fund is currently the largest dedicated funder of heritage projects in the UK!
- Leave a bequest. Whether it is money, stocks, or a valuable object, you can bequeath it to your favorite museum through your will or trust. You can keep supporting your favorite museum after your death, and it may also have tax and financial benefits for you and/or your loved ones.
- You can also support culture and arts funding by voting for candidates, both locally and federally, who support public funding for the arts. You can also contact your current candidate’s to express your views or sign relevant petitions. Examples of publicly funded arts programs include the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities in the USA, the Canada Council for the Arts in Canada, and the Arts Council in England. Check for more local funding bodies as well.
Practical Tips for Supporting Free Attractions When Traveling
Although we often can have the most significant impact on museums and attractions closer to home, you can still support the museums and attractions you visit while traveling.
- Keep small bills or coins in the local currency on you when traveling. Although a number of larger attractions have set up methods to accept donations by debit or credit card, many can only accept cash donations.
- Keep a look out for suggested donation amounts, running costs, and fundraising goals. This can help guide you decision about how much to donate.
- See what other options there are for supporting an attraction beyond monetary donations (e.g., guidebooks, audioguides, gift shop, cafe).
- Sign the guest book. If there is a visitor book, staff appreciate you taking a minute to sign it and leave a comment. Many small free entry sites use these to track the number of visitors, visitor demographics, and to find out what visitors thought of the site. Sometimes the visitor numbers and comments are used towards funding decisions.
- Leave a review online, post about it on social media, and recommend it to friends by word of mouth. This is particularly important for smaller museums as positive reviews and free publicity can help attract more visitors.
Well, that is all we have to say about museum funding and the importance of visitor donations to museums. Hopefully, by reading this article, you’ve learned a bit more about museum funding and visitor donations. Probably way more than you wanted to know!
If you didn’t have time to read this all or want to come back to it later, you can PIN this post on Pinterest so you can find it again to read later:
So what do you think about museum funding and visitor donations? Did anything surprise you?
What do you think about support museums through donations? Do you have other ideas on how to support free attractions? Just let us know below!