The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History opened the African Voices Exhibition Hall in December 1999. This exhibition hall, which took more than 10 years to complete, displays the land, people and culture of Africa. Usually, the Smithsonian has no trouble raising money for their exhibits – corporate sponsors and philanthropists flock to help pay for some of the most dramatic art work in the world. But the African Voices project found itself in financial trouble. To ensure that this was a spectacular project, the Smithsonian dipped into its endowment to fund the project, fully expecting that a fundraising drive would pay back the endowment before the exhibition hall even opened. However, that wasn’t the case. When African Voices Hall opened, the museum had raised less than $100,000 of the $4 million needed to repay the endowment. Corporate sponsors, in an uncharacteristic move, were shunning the project. The Museum of Natural History hired Michael K. Frisby and his Public Strategies & Outreach team at Porter Novelli to create a better climate for raising money, to identify African American donors and corporations and to promote the exhibit.
The first step was to let the world at large know about the fundraising problem and how unusual it was for the Smithsonian to be in this position. We secured a story on the cover of the Washington Post Style section that documented the project’s fiscal situation, and questioning the corporate world’s appreciation of African art.
Our broad strategy called for publicizing the new exhibition hall as much as possible to the target audience, so that when Smithsonian fundraisers launched solicitation letters and calls the audience would already know something about the project. Our golden rule is to never have to explain to someone about a project, and ask for money in the same call or letter. We want them to be aware of the project when they hear from fundraisers. To promote the project, we secured stories in hundreds of newspapers targeted to reach African Americans, placed op-eds in newspapers geared to reach African Americans and secured interviews with Smithsonian spokespeople on radio stations with large African American audiences.
We also initiated a partnership program. The Smithsonian did not have funds for an advertising campaign, so we recruited a corporate sponsor for advertising. In exchange for being mentioned in the advertisement, the Shell Oil Company sponsored a series of ads that ran in the Washington Post.
In its previous fundraising efforts, the Smithsonian had not identified prominent African Americans businessmen or philanthropists. We put together an extensive list of more than 1,500 prominent African Americans, which became the master fundraising list for the project. To begin the drive, we arranged a series of lunches between Smithsonian executives and prominent African Americans.
Clearly, the best promotion for the project is the art work itself. We worked with the Smithsonian to design a “road show’’ presentation of the most dramatic artwork in the exhibition hall. This poster show was given to corporations that contributed $250,000 or more to the fundraising drive.
We achieved the goals set out for this project:
- There were more than 1190 story placements in newspapers that reached more than 57 million readers, thus greatly enhancing awareness of the exhibition hall.
- Smithsonian spokespeople appeared on more than 100 radio shows and reached more than 700,000 listeners.
- The museum began soliciting contributions from the master list that we compiled for them. This marked the Smithsonian’s first campaign to solicit contributions from African Americans.
- We produced collateral material, such as the poster show, decorative folders and customized fundraising letters to assist the campaign.
- In January 2002, we completed its task of raising awareness of the exhibition hall and providing a foundation for the fundraising campaign. Using the strategy and materials we put in place, the fundraising campaign is in full swing and meeting with success.