A bequest to a museum usually refers to be a donation of an artwork or object to the collections rather than a financial gift. Rachel Cockett, Director of Development at Birmingham Museums Trust, explains why the museum decided to embrace this approach when developing its first legacy fundraising strategy.
Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery opened in 1885, thanks to the philanthropic support of the city’s leading industrialists. In 1905, a bequest of £50,000 by local philanthropist and collector John Feeney, supported a major expansion of the Museum & Art Gallery and the purchase of important artworks. In 1985, ‘By the Gains of Industry’ (a history celebrating the Museum & Art Gallery’s 100th year) recorded the replacement of private by public funding during the 20th century. But with the waning of public funds in the 21st century, the need to return to our roots in philanthropy were pressing. In 2012, Birmingham Museums Trust was formed to manage the city’s museums with a priority to increase and diversify income.
The typical legator
Since becoming a charity, Birmingham Museums has received occasional financial bequests and naturally want those to increase. Our typical donor has strong connections to the city, leaves financial gifts to a number of local and national charities, and has not talked to us about their intention to leave a gift. However, for bequests of objects, it is common for donors to talk to our curators prior to writing their Will. This culture of discussing bequests means our curators are accustomed to sensitive conversations and that we have potential donors who are open to discussing their Will. So far we have avoided the conditional legacies that some museums receive such as this rather enjoyable one at the Scottish National Gallery.
Developing the strategy
Our new legacy fundraising strategy is informed by past gifts, conversations with pledgers, patrons and our Friends (a charity established in 1931 to support Birmingham Museums). We wanted to:
- increase unrestricted income
- utilise our rich history of (mainly) collection bequests
- ensure our staff and volunteers develop confidence talking about legacy giving.
Helpfully, while our strategy was under development we were approached by a number of donors who were interested in leaving collections and funds in their Wills. This provided opportunities for a curator and fundraiser to meet together with potential donors to understand more about their wishes. The outcomes were that:
- Focusing only on financial gifts might alienate people who were ready to have a legacy conversation
- Donors are likely to be positive about supporting their gift of an object with a financial gift if they understand how it could support their bequest
- Messages about the cost of caring for and displaying collections could be integrated into discussions.
Museums share the contributions of individuals to society as a primary part of their public role, so it was natural to extend story-telling into our legacy strategy. Our communications focused initially on two case studies to highlight these messages. These have the dual purpose of celebrating the donors and providing familiar stories to support our staff and volunteers to feel comfortable talking about legacies.
Birmingham-born Stanley Sellers (1933-2013) supported Birmingham Museums during his lifetime, volunteering for several years, and he left his studio pottery collection for the people of Birmingham to enjoy. During Remember a Charity week, we gave tours exploring objects left to the Museums by supporters in their Wills, and objects left in memory or purchased with money from a Will. The display that celebrates Stanley’s life and legacy was part of the tour, along with famous Pre-Raphaelite artworks and the Feeney Bequest.
Tessa Sidey (1955–2011) was an art curator at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery for 30 years. Tessa’s bequest was used to acquire new artworks and provided a wonderful case study for our legacy-giving print. The many current staff who knew Tessa feel comfortable with this and it ensures conversations with potential donors are sincere.
In addition to our celebration and display of bequests there is wide public recognition of our longevity as institutions. A common thread from many of our supporters is their recollection of visiting one of our Museums as a child, often followed by how they bring their grandchildren to visit now - the perfect story for a legacy strategy!
A big thank you to the Patrons, Friends and pledgers (who have been open and often very frank!) for their invaluable advice and support in developing Birmingham Museums Trust’s legacy giving strategy.
Rachel Cockett FMA is Director of Development at Birmingham Museums Trust and is speaking at the Legacy Strategy Summit on the future challenges of legacy fundraising, held on 14 June 2018 in London. Book your place here.