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Monday, January 22, 2018

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Why would a tourist become a donor?
Tom Ahern

February, 2009

The Museum of the North has a peculiar problem: its largest pool of prospective donors sails away, never to return. Sort of like charity golfers.

The Museum of the North is (1) smart, (2) entertaining, and (3) drop-dead gorgeous. When its sky-white sides swoop into view, commanding a ridge at the entrance to the University of Alaska campus in Fairbanks, Alaska, it's breathtaking. "What is that?!?"

Julie Estey races dog sleds competitively. And she's the director of membership and development at the museum.

The bulk of the museum's visitors, she reports, now come in via the packaged tours of Alaska sold by cruise lines. That's great for attendance. When cruise guests arrive in Fairbanks, they get to choose between pretend gold-mining; a paddle-wheel river excursion to a replica village; and (since its architectural face lift and expansion) the Museum of the North.

Those who choose the museum visit for an hour or two and are (likely) never seen again.

The Museum of the North is definitely donor-worthy. It is the world's best research museum for Arctic and sub-Arctic native peoples; for transformational events like the Alaskan gold rush; and for Alaska's extraordinary fauna, flora, and geology. There's a quiet room where you can listen to live, piped-in sounds of the Alaskan earth and its skies. Richly detailed special exhibits burst from the museum's deep vaults. The gift store sells first-quality indigenous art and Alaska specialties such as necklaces made from fossilized mammoth ivory, an abundant natural resource. (And guilt-free: you simply cannot be held responsible for a mammoth's extinction.)

Here's the question that vexes Julie: How do you -- can you even -- persuade those who are just visiting to join your mission, to become members and donors and bequest-makers?

Heck, why not?

We all give to charities that do their work overseas. Why not give to an Alaskan charity, Alaska being about as "overseas" as it gets on the North American continent? And a magical landscape; think Siberia, its neighbor, without the unfortunate gulag history.

From the communications side of things, I have some hunches.

I think you can tap the donor potential latent in tourists. And I think players in charity golf tourneys have similar potential.

Like tourists, golfers are casually affiliated with your cause. I.e., they've been exposed to your existence; but are not yet committed to anything other than their own entertainment. Yet they can be awakened, I believe. Not all of them, of course; a virtuous few.

From the first moment tourists (golfers) encounter your museum (charity), they need to understand that your mission and vision are donor-dependent. Make it clear: you can't do wonderful things without donor support. Put the responsibility squarely (and obviously) on the donors' shoulders. Knowing that you're donor-dependent puts everything that tourists see into a new context: "Ah, gifts helped pay for that."

Your website is your store front. It's where you make a great impression and sell yourself. And it's where you first establish your donor-dependency.

The Museum of the North's clean and efficient home page says merely Support Us. It doesn't say anything like "The unique work of the Museum of the North is in large part due to donor support. Please give."

Click through to the Support page and a headline says, Help us tell Alaska's stories, an intriguing invitation. The text points out: "Less than 30% of our operating expenses come from state sources." Which is to say that philanthropy or other means count for more than 70% of the mission cost (a better, more donor-dependent, way to say it).

Also helpful:

  • Make it easy for visitors to sign up on the spot for a free and informative emailed newsletter. "Keep your Alaska experience alive. Sign up while you're here for our free, emailed newsletter featuring museum news."
  • Find out more about the visitors' experience -- what they loved, what amazed them -- with a survey they can finish at the end of their tour. Also use the survey to capture names and addresses.
  • Induct tourists who do become donors into a special team with its very own name, the "Society of the Lower 48" or something.
  • Communicate specially to them. Four times a year sit down for a day and write society members a personal letter catching them up on things. Talk about the weather. Talk about the season, the changes, the land, the traditional people. Talk about the preservation and conservation victories. Talk about why a museum in Fairbanks, AK depends heavily on well-wishers thousands of miles away. Include a remittance envelope but don't make an outright ask; leave that for your appeals.

Takeaway: Fundraising can be a search for people who will love some piece of your organization: your vision, your mission, your promise, your goal, your spirit, your certain je ne sais quoi.

Some of prospects are fish in a barrel: alumni (higher education),  grateful patients (health care), the culturati (the arts), the locals (for nearby social services).

Some are not. Visitors hauled into a museum by the hundred-fold while on a cruise are definitely not fish in a barrel. But that doesn't mean they're unattainable. Create a tribe and add them to it.


Tom Ahern is recognized as one of North America’s top authorities on nonprofit and donor communications. His "Love Thy Reader" workshops win rave reviews at fundraising conferences across the U.S. and Canada.Tom's workshops have trained thousands of nonprofit staff and board in the revenue-building secrets of psychology, marketing, writing, and graphic design.

In 2005 he joined other world-class experts as a faculty member for the IFC's weeklong conference in the Netherlands, attended by fundraisers from 80 countries.He is the author of The Mercifully Brief, Real World Guide to Raising More Money with Newsletters Than You Ever Thought Possible, released in October 2005 by Emerson & Church.

A second book titled How to Write Fundraising Materials That Raise More Money. John Wiley & Sons, the premier publisher of books for the nonprofit industry, in January 2006 contracted with Tom (and his wife, consultant Simone Joyaux) to produce a new book with the working title, Nonprofit Fundraising Communications: A Practical and Profitable Approach. Tom is also an award-winning magazine journalist, for articles on health, women's rights and other social justice issues. Visit



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