Three carved pumpkins for Halloween

In this blog, fundraising guru and School Director Bernard Ross talks fundraising fears in this halloween blog…

At this time of year I see a lot of blogs based around the idea of an arts organisation’s worst nightmare. The nightmare varies from losing NPO status, to a major donor reneging on a gift, to a GDPR gremlin unleashing personal data and bringing down the wrath of the ICO.

But that’s not the real horror. The real horror is one you yourself introduced to the building, whether you’re a museum, a gallery, a theatre or library. It’s that Spawn of Satan: the donation box.

Donation box

Pause while eyes are readjusted. Now I can hear you ask ‘Why are collection boxes the Spawn of Satan? Don’t they give people/visitors a chance to make a gift to support our work?’ Well yes, they can if properly designed, placed and nurtured. But under some kind of evil spell they seem to suffer from five fundamental problems:

  1. They don’t produce very much
  2. They confuse the brain
  3. They’re in the wrong place
  4. They’re badly designed and looked after
  5. They’re transactional not relational

Let’s look at these. And in a second blog, I’ll tell you how to overcome your donation dybbuk.

1. They don’t produce very much

Frankly it’s hard to tell how much cash collection boxes produce. NONE of the five agencies I approached were willing to declare their box income. But I know from other informal research that some boxes in smaller museums and galleries often produce as little as £20 a week. (and can cost up to £500 to buy). OK so these locations may not have much footfall. But when even the mighty Science Museum used donation boxes only 20% of the 4M visitors met the – very modest – suggested donation of £5. Raising the grand total of… £110K a year gross. For 4M visitors!

Below is an example of a very cool and artwork-y Tate Modern donation box. (Since replaced with another.) It doesn’t look very full. According to their last annual report, across their four sites Tate had 8.4M visitors in 2017. Based on the Science Museum result I’d be surprised if they got much more than £200K – less than 2.5p a visitor. Maybe we need to re-define ‘popular’ if that’s the best level of giving such an institution can secure. I’m not singling out Tate. This is a general criticism of major institutions with the footfall to drive large gift levels, but who produce really poor results. Let me also be clear that I think the big problem is not that people are mean- they’re not- but that donation boxes are poorly understood and used. And the Tate one combines everything that’s poor about them.

Tate collection box

Here’s the Tate collection box looking pretty empty. It’s clear not many people give. And the design emphasises that. And the exciting value proposition ‘Doing more’? More of what? And since there’s no suggestion of how much to give why not give 2.5p? This is a triumph of form over function

(In the part two of this blog I’ll tell you how to improve the impact of your donation box if you must have one. And as a bonus I’ll show you how the Science Museum changed its approach and stepped its income up to £1.4M a year.)

2. They confuse the brain

Museums, galleries, theatres, venues tend to divide into two in terms of charging for admission:

  • Those who charge
  • Those who don’t

If you do charge for admission and then request a donation, you’re asking visitors to switch from what Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kanheman calls System Two – asking a rational ‘Is this experience worth it?’ question – to System One – consulting our emotions ‘How do I feel about this agency and its work?’ (For more on System One and System Two see This is confusing.

It’s not just confusing. One of the key things we know from research carried out into these two ways of thinking is that if you stimulate rational System Two in people by asking them to pay for something, and then ask them for a donation the philanthropic System One driver is reduced. This is the problem with asking for a donation immediately after you’ve paid for entry. It’s also the problem with add on fixed donations when ticket buying online.

What the science tells us is that by confusing the potential supporter’s brain with this double whammy we actually reduce the desire to make a gift. Result? You may, at best, get one short-term, low value donation but miss out on the chance for much greater gifts and income from a smaller number.

For those who don’t charge, simply telling people ‘we’re a charity’ and seeking support on a box doesn’t necessarily help either. Many agencies are charities – including Eton, Harrow and most other, if not all, public schools for example – but that doesn’t mean someone wants automatically to give to them. You have to be a cause in people’s minds. And if you’re a cause like Amnesty or Greenpeace, people will give to you regardless of whether you’re a charity or not. Do you know how to express your cause as a Value Proposition on the front of a box? Does “we’re doing more” sound like an engaging cause to you? Does “we don’t get statutory support” make you feel engaged and keen to help?

3. They’re badly placed

One you’ve decided on your Value Proposition deciding where the donation box with that message should go is apparently pretty random. In general it seems that one of two places spring to the mind of your development director or curator. The first is before a visitor/audience member enters the space. The premise is “Hello. We’ve not met, but please make a donation since we need money” – the message of the Tate example above. The second is on exit – whether it’s from an exhibition or a performance. The message here is “If you’ve enjoyed your visit- help us share with others.” Better? These approaches represent different theories about how people are motivated. What’s your guess on what works?

I’ll tell you more in part 2 of this blog, but in the meantime, here’s a compromise idea: try placing mini-boxes in different high touch points where visitors can really engage. We’ve done this with a London museum, suggesting they have boxes at key points with different messages “You could help to preserve this manuscript”, “You could fill this education room with children.” Income went up at these touchpoints. Or ask for money as people leave a powerful performance. Glasgow Tron did this two years ago with great success.

4. They’re badly designed and looked after

Aside from an almost universal use of Perspex the most common design features of a donation box are a hole to put money in and a pre-installed cluster of low value notes. My guess is the see-though approach is a rudimentary piece of psychology designed to ‘normalise’ giving £5 or whatever is the desired donation.

Actually this would be good thing if it was well executed as the science tells us that we do like to do what others do. If we see people putting money in a box, or see that many others have done it before, we will, in general, follow suit. (Think how people line up to join the queue at a crowded restaurant and avoid an empty one.) However, what most boxes signal visually – see below and Tate above – is the unpopularity of giving. Notice how the box below is stuck between other bits of ‘stuff.’ It needs to be looked after.

Unpopular collection box

You can make a box look better and make the appeal more powerful with some simple design work, as in the before and after example from the Horniman Museum. Note too the move to e-giving.


I’ll talk more about “Tap to donate” in blog part 2. It does have some advantages. But notice here that the gift has defaulted to a mere £1. This electronic box is easier to use, but it’s still not


asking for a lot of money… in fact less than the price of a cup of coffee in the café. Maybe we don’t believe enough in our cause.

5. They’re transactional not relational

Horniman collection boxes

My final complaint is the biggest one. Collection boxes go back to a very old school view that the donor is just that… a source of money. And nothing else. You can make a donation… but I don’t care who you are or why you gave. I mostly can’t even be bothered to give you a personal ‘thank you.’ (Even if you could take a sticker or something to show you gave.)

A donation box by itself means that the visitor or event attendee is simply a provider of cash that you need and want. The box is a way to get that cash. And when the attendee has given money the transaction is over. That’s not a relationship. That’s black widow spider-style use-and-dispose thinking.

Some institutions go as far in the relationship as to make the donation tax efficient. To do this they need more information and it’s an opportunity to communicate more since you need to have an envelope near the box.. But sadly even collecting this information for gift aid is mostly deeply transactional.

I love St Martin’s in the Fields in London – both their fantastic classical music and their terrific social work with the homeless in central London. But when they give me an envelope ask me for money to put in a box… there’s nothing about what they might do with the money, or how I’m helping… or even how grateful they are… it’s all about the tax. I picked up the envelope below having been moved and excited by Handel’s Messiah. It was a great time to tap into my positive feelings. I wanted to know I could help. But this is what I was confronted with.

St Martin DM letter St Martin DM envelope

This kind of writing is so antipathetic to everything we say we’re trying to do about creating supporter relationships. If you think about the person filling in the envelope or putting money in a box as a potential long-term supporter then you want to get to know them and to nurture their giving. To do that you need to signal you’re keen to communicate- that you want them to feel important in doing good.

Put simply given a choice of someone’s email address and the chance to carry on communicating or an anonymous on-off £5 donation I’d take the address every time. Because I’m sure over time I could encourage that person to give more AND engage in other ways.

In part 2 I’ll show how to turn your evil Spawn of Satan box into a supporter engagement device. And make it a more efficient and effective way to raise funds.

Follow @bernardrossmc on Twitter to be the first to know when the follow-up blog goes live.

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