Building Out Your Mid-Level Donor Base


Jonathan Peterson, Director of Development, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Janet Harris, Chief Development Officer, California Academy of Sciences
Gretchen Dietrich, Executive Director, Utah Museums of Fine Arts
James Pepper Henry, Director and CEO, Heard Museum


Suzanne Hilser-Wiles, Vice President, Grenzebach Glier and Associates


  • Business

Museums often focus their fundraising efforts on two key groups—the board of trustees for major gifts and members for lower-dollar annual support. But what about those donors who fall in between? A sustainable fundraising plan for converting and upgrading mid-level donors to major donors is essential for creating ongoing support and providing a pipeline for a major-giving program. This session provides real-world examples of how organizations of all sizes and scope can grow their overall fundraising program.


Post Annual Meeting Wrap-Up

By Suzanne Hilser-Wiles

Judging from the audience members who had to sit on the floor in the back of the room because the chairs were filled, “Building Out Your Mid-Level Donor Base,” is a topic on a lot of people’s minds! Our excellent panelists (Gretchen Dietrich of the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, Janet Harris of the California Academy of Sciences, James Pepper Henry of the Heard Museum, and Jonathan Peterson of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) offered different perspectives relative to the unique mission and the size of their institutions and the scope of their current fundraising programs. However, there were some common themes that emerged, which may be used to develop strategy, no matter the size of your fundraising staff.

  1. Messaging is critical. If you are concerned that these donors are more focused on what you will do for them (benefits and perks) than on what their gift will do for your museum, take a look at your communications pieces and the language you use with donors. Are you regularly communicating with them about the importance of philanthropy to your institution and the impact of their gift? If not, you may be adding to a “culture of transactions” rather than one of philanthropy with your members and donors.
  2. You need to engage all partners. We heard stories involving trustees, museum directors, curators and education staff, as well as guards and front desk volunteers. The takeaway for us is that everyone has a role in building philanthropic support by being enthusiastic, well-informed and engaged evangelists for your institution!
  3. Getting the right staff people focused on the right activities is key. We need to assess the skills and abilities necessary to affect these programs, including excellent customer service, a focus on some key performance metrics, and the creative problem solving skills to assess where the opportunity lies within each of our own organizations and to figure out a way to take build on that opportunity.
  4. Stewardship is a critical, but often overlooked, tool in engaging mid-level donors. We tend to focus on our biggest gifts when we develop stewardship plans, but there are lots of ways to show these donors that we notice their gifts and they are important to our institution. What are some special thank yous we might implement or how might we include them in some of our already planned activities (a special invitation or a small gift that can fall into the category of “surprise and delight”) to show that their participation matters to us?

Thanks to our fantastic panelists and to our engaged audience members, who shared both their questions and their own experiences! We look forward to more opportunities to share ideas from the field.

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