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On Monday, the Smithsonian announced a new fundraising initiative for the National Air and Space Museum. The institution, which receives funding from the federal government, seeks to raise $500,000 for the conservation and display of Neil Armstrong’s moon-landing spacesuit using Kickstarter. It’s the first of several Kickstarter projects the Smithsonian will launch over the next year. A few days into the museum’s month-long campaign, nearly 5,200 contributors had already donated more than $400,000 to the cause.
What’s a public museum with a FY2014 budget of $26.7 million doing asking for money on a platform used to fund grassroots public-interest websites and punk documentaries? The concept sat funny with some interested tweeters:
Yesterday, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton chimed in to the same effect. In a bill introduced to reorganize the Smithsonian’s governance structure, Norton identified the Air and Space museum’s campaign as a symptom of its financial instability. “America’s finest cultural institution should not have to rely on targeted online crowdfunding campaigns to display its world-class artifacts,” the press release read.
Other Smithsonian museums have tried this strategy on a smaller, far less successful scale before. The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery crowdfunded a yoga exhibition in 2013, and the Hirshhorn attempted the same for a 2012 Ai Weiwei show, for which 14 people donated just $555.
The Air and Space Museum’s case bears some resemblance to Amanda Palmer‘s 2012 Kickstarter, which netted nearly $1.2 million for her Theatre is Evil album and tour and caused much hullaballoo around the idea that a commercially successful musician would come begging her fans for cash. (It didn’t help Palmer’s case that she then asked local musicians in each tour city to play with her for free.) The Smithsonian’s museums are free to the public, a benefit we pay for in our taxes. The institution shouldn’t threaten to hold a precious piece of American history hostage, tucked away in a storage unit, until we pay more.
Palmer essentially used Kickstarter to give her fans incentive to buy her music way, way in advance—backers who donated as little as $1 were promised a digital download of the full album when it was complete. She got the benefit of a cash advance without the strictures of a major label, and donors got a great deal on legally purchased music. The Smithsonian’s Kickstarter perks are the sort that anyone who’s signed up for an email list or visited an open-house booth might have gotten anyway: decals, project updates, digital posters. Its perk descriptions don’t even ascribe a market value to the gifts until a donation tops $100.
“Federal appropriations provide the foundation of the Smithsonian’s operating budget and support core functions, such as building operations and maintenance, research, and safeguarding the collections,” the Kickstarter page reads. “Projects like Reboot the Suit aren’t covered by our federal appropriations, which means we can only undertake them if we can fund them some other way. In other words, we won’t be able to do this project without the participation of Kickstarter backers.” There’s little doubt now that the museum will reach its goal, but what if it didn’t? By putting contingencies on its conservation of the spacesuit and placing financial responsibilities on the public, the Smithsonian implies that this project is low on its list of priorities, ready to be abandoned if donors don’t pony up. Instead of securing a sustainable grant or soliciting a large private gift, the museum has given itself a month to see if the public cares enough.
On the other hand, the Smithsonian may have hit on a genius solution to every nonprofit’s never-ending challenge: cultivating small-time donors that could grow—or age—into major funders. A backer that throws a couple of dollars to be a part of Armstrong’s suit restoration will now have a relationship with the Air and Space Museum, a vested interest in keeping in touch. Big gifts that get names on exhibition wings are sexy; a $5 or $10 donation without a specific target is harder to sell. A Kickstarter lends donations some degree of transparency (they’re going to a well-documented, well-planned project) on a frictionless platform familiar to young people.
The Smithsonian’s Kickstarter is actually pretty similar to traditional mass solicitations. The update emails, early access to information, and cheap swag promised to lower backers are exactly what nonprofits usually send to their donor lists, whether they signed up for them or not. The fancier stuff high-level Kickstarter backers will get (gala invites, private tours) are standard issue for VIP donors at most other organizations, too. A quid pro quo as candid as an itemized Kickstarter perk list isn’t as common, but maybe it should be—it’s an easy way to engender trust in potential donors.
In a perfect system, the Smithsonian would have enough federal funding and major philanthropic relationships to appropriately preserve and display everything its historians, scientists, and curators deem significant. Perhaps Norton’s proposal will bring that dream world to life. Until then, the museum’s new fundraising strategy is an effective stopgap that brings traditional donor solicitation into the transparent online economy of the 21st century.