Small Pond, Big Fish: Inside Fundraising at a Top Regional Art Museum

Worcester is a city of less than 185,000 people about 60 miles west of Boston in Central Massachusetts, yet it is home to a jewel of a museum, the Worcester Art Museum, WAM. It is home to more than 35,000 works of art spanning centuries, including pieces by El Greco, Goya, Turner, Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Braque and Kandinsky. It was the first American art museum to acquire paintings by Monet and Gauguin. According to WAM’s director of philanthropy, Nora Maroulis, Worcester took “the same kind of path as Boston and New York in terms of industrial success resulting in a wonderful philanthropic gift back to the city by the founding fathers and mothers.” WAM was founded in 1896, “by a conscientious and philanthropic small group of donors and has grown over time.”

And clearly, donors are still dedicated by WAM, judging by a $4 million gift to the museum that we reported on just recently. 

But besides its impressive collective, what is it that excites donors about WAM? And how does a museum well off the beaten path of today's wealthy elite succeed in raising money? Maroulis laid it all out for us in a recent conversation. 

“The size of the museum is such that you can wrap your arms around it: You can do it in a day," Maroulis told Inside Philanthropy. "The collections are stellar; the presentation and accessibility of the collections are terrific. It has a great reputation in the field of art history and has positioned itself well to capitalize on future growth and success.” 

Foundation support for WAM has come from several institutions, including New England foundations like the Boston Foundation, the Brigham Hill Foundation, and the R. S. Paine Charities Trust, but also from out-of-state organizations like the Bank of America Foundation and the Sherman Fairchild MD Foundation. The national funders are especially valuable, said Maroulis. “If a certain national foundation deems you worthy of this support, that tells other funders, both individuals and organizations, that you’re worthy, and instills confidence in other funders.”

That said, Maroulis made it clear that hunting such big game isn't the top priority for WAM's development operation. Although large gifts are wonderful, “It’s really about garnering the constancy of individual support, either through annual giving plus campaign giving” that matters, she said. “We have a traditional development operation in that we have membership, which is kind of the first rung after visitorship. Hopefully, if we do our jobs right, you move up the membership ladder to upper membership levels, you get more involved in annual giving, particularly giving to the annual fund. It is about building relationships and building a sense of community that people want to be a part of and want to support.”

In this regard, Maroulis has simplified the membership process, which was formerly based on an individualized renewal calendar, resulting in the inefficiency of development officers trying to chase down hundreds of membership renewals at different times of the year. “Last year, we rolled out a new schedule so all stakeholders between September and December get the same solicitation package. They’re asked to respond so that they let us know what the intention is, so we can book that pledge and follow up on the pledge, as opposed to chasing down the gift itself.”

Meanwhile, events are another part of WAM's fundraising strategy, as is often the case for museums. Recently, it launched an annual event called the Corporators Ball, which includes a cocktail reception, dinner, auction and dance party that gives Central New England’s movers and shakers a chance to see and be seen. “We understand that there are lots of other things that are competing for people’s time and philanthropic dollars, but if we can give them a really memorable evening reminding them of the great work the museum does in the community, then people will want to come every year.”

Maroulis emphasized that cultivating donors is a long-term effort, and can span decades. It was this patient cultivation of stakeholder involvement that led to the recent gift of $4 million to endow the C. Jean and Myles McDonough Directorship of the Worcester Art Museum. “It’s a classic story of good stewardship and of a philanthropist who knows how impactful her role could be. [C. Jean] was someone who became involved with the museum over 40 years ago, now, first as a member, then as a docent, and then quickly into the leadership realm as a corporator and board member,” Maroulis said. 

While immediate cash gifts are always best, planned giving is also a form of support that looms large for WAM. Maroulis explained:

There are a lot of folks for whom leaving a legacy is important. They believe that everything should be taken care of in the here and now, so that their planned gift through a will or estate is the way to go. They are covering what needs to happen now, while they are still here, so that the institutions and causes they love are served after they’re gone. We’ve had a legacy society for a long time in which we’ve asked people if they included us in their estate plans, and if they have, inviting them to be recognized through our legacy society. We’re doing more and more to build a community within that group. 

WAM is now working on a plan called Vision 2020, which was articulated four years ago when Director Matthias Waschek arrived after stints at the Louvre and Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. The key to the plan is to raise museum attendance to 200,000 a year, which, according to Maroulis, creates “a domino effect, because if you’re attracting more visitors you’re acquiring more members. You’re moving more members to upper levels of membership and giving. You’re feeding your leadership pool and you’re building your position in the community locally, regionally and nationally. You’re also driving revenue to the café and shop.”

Maroulis said the museum was on track to reach its 2020 goal.