Session 303: Access to Funds Means Access to Archives: How Raising Private Money Works

Session 303: Access to Funds Means Access to Archives: How Raising Private Money Works
Guest author Anita Kinney


Speaker 1: Chris Ward, New York State Archives

Chris from New York State Archives spoke about the New York State Archives Preservation Trust, giving an overview of how this nonprofit supports the activities of the Archives. Chris described her organization as a “quasi-government entity [that’s] like a public authority,” but notes that it’s simultaneously a 501c3. This nonprofit status has been crucial in providing the Archives with a fundraising arm. Chris notes that one of the difficulties state archives face in finding funding is that it’s difficult to persuade donors to cover what the public considers a government function.

This presentation was a useful overview of the kinds of archives projects donors want to fund. Raising an endowment in the current giving climate is difficult. “Funders prefer projects with immediate and visible results.” Because of this shift towards project-based funding, the Trust has morphed into an organization focused on presenting New York state history and showcasing archives throughout the state. Projects focus on preservation and access to records in the archives, and the use of state archives records as an educational resource.

So, how do cash-strapped archives raise money for the day-to-day work of running a repository? “It’s next to impossible to raise money to process records,” Chris says, so “build in” these kinds of back-end tasks into the glitzy projects today’s donors prefer. Chris suggests that routine activities – processing, arrangement, description, development of metadata, finding aids – can be hidden within projects that have showy end products.

Today’s donors are especially interested in discrete digitization and preservation projects and less interested in contributing to endowments. The Archives Preservation Trust’s strategy for raising funds has also changed – “we have less reliance on the altruism of donors – it kind of works with corporate foundations” – focus on building a foundation that supports membership, that makes “members feel good about preserving history.” “It’s in the language that you use – preserving history seems to be a good hook.”

Chris also briefly discussed the use of a traditional membership structure to bolster donor engagement. Donors are making an investment in the archive and they like to get something out of it. The Trust publishes a quarterly magazine, “New York Archives,” where each article is based on archival records. The publication is aimed at an “educated lay audience” and helps members learn new local history. Members also receive discounts with 6 university presses operating in New York State. The organization generates approximately $50,000 through membership activity, so, not enough to cover the costs. Instead, membership programs seem to be an investment in building relationships to solicit larger gifts.

Speaker 2: Benjamin Yousey-Hindes, Yale University

Benjamin’s presentation focused on the nuts and bolts of engaging prospective donors and on how to position archives within the context of a larger institution.

First, Benjamin noted the importance of aligning the mission of an archives or library with the mission of its parent organization. In the case of Yale libraries, Benjamin pointed out that archives should support the library, and that the library, in turn, should support the mission of the university. Although there are individual donors with an “organic interest” in library materials, individual donors won’t get archives a crack at what Benjamin calls “the real money.” Big-ticket donors tend to be closely associated with a university’s president or board chairman. These donors are more focused on the long-term health of the overall organization. The more an archivist can articulate their program’s mission within the framework of the wider institutional mission, the easier it is to get buy-in from mission-driven donors elsewhere. “You cannot raise big gifts without buy-in from institutional leadership,” Benjamin emphasized.

Benjamin also gave an overview of the general communication strategies used by effective fundraisers. He encourages archivists to “craft your message and think strategically about how to reach different groups of people.” Good development is about relationships, and knowing the personal history of donors can help close a gift. (For example, is there a family tie to archival materials?) Outreach must always be personal and strategic. There’s no question that newsletters and magazines raise friends and eventually funds, but to close gifts you need handwritten notes and direct phone calls. Social media isn’t enough – it raises awareness, but not money. Even Kickstarter campaigns can have relatively brief impacts.

Philanthropists want to be sought out, empowered to make a difference, and to feel appreciated for their involvement. Benjamin says that fundraisers should always emphasize the role of philanthropy in advancing their work.

Benjamin’s advice for university archivists:
“Emphasize the strengths you have. This is where the mission of the institituon is made real. This is where students sit at a table with documents and learn how to use them. You have a chance to connect with real human beings. Those people can become your donors. Connect with everyone who walks through your door – you never know who’s going to get an inheritance or become an investment banker.”

Speaker 3: Preston Shimer, ARMA Educational Foundation

Unfortunately, this presentation was not particularly relevant to archivists working in the field. The presentation began with a discussion of whether archives are a profession, then discussed the creation of a nonprofit educational foundation for records managers.

Preston pointed out that in some ways, archivists have job-specific skills that ought to translate well to fundraising. He pointed out that records managers and archivists have a different approach to acquiring materials. While records managers are able to rely on policies and retention schedules, archivists are already engaged in the proactive work of soliticing donations of materials and collections. Archivists can use these same skills in fundraising.

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