How do you celebrate the program and not the check?

I often think about how goals are, or should be, powerful guides in museum work, in particular in program design and refinement. But lately I have been thinking differently about goals, and about how the wrong goals can corrupt the work we do. In particular, I am thinking about this in the context of jobs where it is easy to see one’s goal as raising money.

As Director of the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum, my goals include engaging audiences with the museum, and supporting open-ended play, innovation, and an appreciation of diversity. But my day-to-day job as a director is not to create mission-focused programs (that is the job of other staff members); instead, it is to raise money to support this vision. And I am noticing how easy it is to get lost in the smallness of this task.

If you were to visit me in my office on any given day, you might find me talking to funders or potential funders, writing thank you notes for donations, working on grant proposals, combing through data to better understand the sources of the museum’s earned income, or working with a committee to plan a fundraising event. Of course there are other things I do that are not related to fundraising, but I would guess that close to 70% of my energy is directed to fundraising or friend-raising, all with the ultimate goal of making sure the museum is financially viable.

I enjoy it more than I thought I would, in particular meeting and talking with new people, getting people excited about the PlayHouse, and hearing different ideas and opinions. But I have learned that during these conversations it is important to keep your goal in mind, and that goal is usually, ultimately, a request for money.

And when the money does come in, and someone hands you a large check, it is hard not to celebrate. But the reason for celebration is not – or should not be – the money. It is the opportunities this money affords for the museum to continue or grow programs. And while intellectually I know this, and I remain passionately committed to a larger vision, it is a constant struggle to remember that the money is the tool and not the goal, and that I have not done a good job unless that money is well spent. It is, frankly, hard not to do a little jig when someone hands you a check for $10,000.

I am worried about how this effects one’s priorities. What happens to my ability to care about quality and mission when day-to-day success depends on dollars? How do I keep my focus on the quality of the visitor experience instead of the number of visitors through the door?

I am writing this post because I find it difficult to keep that focus, which offers me a whole new perspective on the soul-sucking corporatization of so many large museums, and the ways in which museums appear to celebrate large donations over fantastic programs and important exhibitions. I understand this viscerally now.

How you understand your job, and what you feel rewarded for, determine focus, energy, and action. If I understand my job, and my goals, to be only about fundraising, then I spend less time meeting with educators to make sure we offer vibrant programs that exemplify our mission, or walking around the galleries talking to visitors. But it is these things that remind me of why we exist, and the ways in which we are valuable to our community. If a museum does not offer something of true value, than why bother to keep it open at all?

quote dietrich

Museum directors are not the only museum staff members who focus on money. Development and finance staff do as well. In fact, anyone in a high enough position in an organization will be asked to think about money in some way. In these positions, how do you remember always that the money is NOT the goal? That without offering something of meaning to visitors, your doors might as well close? How do you celebrate the program and not the check?



2 thoughts on “How do you celebrate the program and not the check?

  1. Hi Rebecca: The issue you raised infers some underlying influence about the taboo of money and I urge you not to dwell there too long. This doesn’t have to be an either-or situation. You can celebrate both the contribution and the program it makes possible. And you should celebrate all the gifts you receive, large and small, because it means you’re connecting with your donors in meaningful ways, and you’re allowing them to make a difference so your organization can make a difference.

    You might think about reframing your perspective of fundraising as “community building” and tap into the well being it engenders when people contribute to something larger than themselves.

    • I like this way of thinking about it, Anne, but I still think there is something important about the relationship between money and larger goals that needs to be considered. I love friend-raising / community building, but no museum sends press releases to celebrate its new friends – only when those new friends write a large check.

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