The Donation Box – Can We Flex It?

The Donation Box – Can We Flex It?


One of my fundraising objectives through my Arts Fundraising Fellowship is to increase low-level giving at mac through a general campaign. Located in Cannon Hill Park, in the past 12 months nearly one million people have visited the building, which does not charge entry and is open 364 days a year. This requires a significant amount of funding, and there are small and large donation boxes placed about the building asking visitors to contribute. A recent count up showed a positive increase of 13% in donations on the year before, but it still isn’t enough.

We also have vinyl signs reinforcing the message. For example, they hang next to the bathroom hand dryer, deliberately targeted at the public who use the facilities but don’t always appreciate how they’re being made available. In fact, recent surveys indicate that many people – including those who consider themselves engaged in the arts - aren’t aware that many of these organisations are charities at all. A 2015 Donor Research Report for The Audience Agency found that 25% of individuals asked, didn’t think that arts organisations need their money and 53% hadn’t even considered the issue. More worryingly, 31% said that organisations shouldn’t be supported by individual donations. Similarly, a YouGov poll revealed that only 9% of the population thought that public funding for the arts went to companies that were charities (ACE, 2014).

So it seems true that charitable arts organisations just aren’t making their reliance on public donations clear and compelling enough, when this level of support is more needed than ever. How can organisations better communicate this need to both engaged and less frequent visitors? How do they convince people to part with their hard-earned cash? In trying to answer these questions, many arts organisations may have to rethink how they present themselves.

Let’s return to the donation box, which is quite a polemical subject. Dismissed by some as inadequate (no data collection!) and largely ignored by its target audience, it is valued by others as an affordable one-off investment that gathers funds with little further work required. Many arts organisations maintain that the boxes are most useful as effective reminders of an organisation’s charitable status. With major establishments such as the Natural History Museum redesigning their donation boxes, and the Association of Independent Museums (AIM) publishing a report on the subject, there must be a school of thought that believes that there’s scope for better returns.

Having researched the subject, starting with a very useful conversation on the Arts Fundraising and Philanthropy LinkedIn Group (thanks Jess Hilton!), here are some suggestions that could make your donation boxes resonate more with visitors and hopefully increase their yield:

Tell them. Not everyone is aware of your charitable status – really. Make sure your ask is loud and clear, and be just as unequivocal about the great things that your organisation is doing. Make sure that your appeal isn’t undermined or confused by other messaging nearby.

Prompt them. Make your donation boxes transparent, so that people can see that others have given. Always leave a float of the sort of coins and notes you would like to receive, to encourage people to give similarly. This follows the rule of Social Proof, which has been discussed in the context of fundraising by Bernard Ross. Also, if your organisation is free admission, the AIM survey indicates that a suggested donation amount can increase your income.

Disrupt them. Your donation boxes should be slightly in the way of the major visitor pathways (keeping accessibility and fire escape routes in mind, of course). They need to literally stand out! The Science Museum mapped its existing visitor movement and designed a ‘beautiful barrier’ of donation boxes and volunteers reinforcing the ask in person, which increased donations by 80%.

Make them smile. These boxes and the messaging about them should be vibrant and appealing. The Sheffield Museums Trust personalises its boxes, for example, by placing an object related to the current exhibition inside. However, the ‘fun’ interactive boxes – your cascades and vortexes, etc. – usually only get small change from parents, who are then less likely to give anything more valuable. These are not going to make a dent in your fundraising target, so let them go. Keep these boxes away from the busiest areas.

Test them. Experiment every few months to refresh your boxes and see if you can get better results: move them around; change the messaging; vary the suggested donation; make something about them reflect the current season/exhibition/play and so on.

Thank them. You may not be able to do this in person (although staff could do so if they do see someone donate), so you should include it on the messaging. Think of this one off, informal contribution as the first step of a potentially long and mutually beneficial giving journey.

Have you reconsidered your donation boxes recently? Or do you think it’s a waste of time? We’d love to hear your views.