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Corporate Giving

Canoe museum and other small charities paddle harder for donations

'We may enlist volunteers in a different way in typical fundraising than other organizations'

An artist’s rendering shows the design for the new Canadian Canoe Museum building in Peterborough, Ont.

The Canadian Canoe Museum has found that, in the art of corporate fundraising, a personal touch has been the way to go.

The museum in Peterborough, Ont., with its collection of canoes from the earliest handcrafted treasures to modern-day racers, will be relocating to a new home a short distance away, alongside the Lift Lock on the Trent Canal.

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The opening of the new museum is expected in 2021, with $35-million of the $65-million cost budgeted to come from corporations and individuals (the rest from different levels of government). The Lift Lock is already a regional attraction. The plan is make it even more so, when the canoe museum relocates to where the visitors' centre currently sits.

The museum’s Coppermine Canoe display.

It would seem a simple sell to corporate donors. Yet, no matter how imbued the canoe is with Canadian symbolism, the canoe museum is not on the same attention-grabbing scale as some of Canada's biggest museums and culture hubs. Its annual attendance is currently under 30,000. With the relocation and expansion, that is expected to double (although that could change as word of the new museum spreads).

So, the museum, celebrating its twentieth year, has had to tell a unique story to grab the interest of corporations.

For one thing, not everyone who visits the museum is a typical museum-goer. Some are outdoor enthusiasts. Some are history buffs. Some are canoeists, inevitably, although this can include everyone from canoe builders to those who simply enjoy the sight and pedigree of craftsmanship.

So the message to donors inevitably needs to touch this range of interests. For some donors, the attraction might be about health and the outdoors. For others, arts philanthropy. The trick is to keep that multifarious message concise – while counting on enthusiastic business people to get the word out.

Children at a March Break activity at the museum.

"I would say that we have actively switched our focus toward philanthropy in the last three years," says Carolyn Hyslop, the museum's general manager.

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The museum has been membership based. In the case of corporations, that meant that they could support the museum by buying corporate memberships. But the museum will now be focusing more attention on also developing corporate donation programs and partnerships, as other museums do.

"We are moving into a much more typical arrangement," she says. And that's where individuals from the business community play a key role.

"Many of the individuals who are friends of the museum work for corporations and want to introduce us to their organizations for opportunities to create relationships," says Shirlanne Pawley-Boyd, director of philanthropy, who was hired to help expand corporate donation programs.

An artist’s rendering shows the design for the interior of the museum, with its collection of canoes from the earliest handcrafted treasures to modern-day racers.

One strategy has been to cultivate these personal connections and partnerships by holding receptions at law firms across the country.

"We invite individuals who may have an interest in the museum, or who are already friends of the museum, to come and learn about what's going on. Many of those people who attend would be corporate business leaders," Ms. Pawley-Boyd says.

These are examples of how smaller cultural institutions and museums must target individuals more directly and more creatively. They must tailor their message a little more selectively. They must also rely on the enthusiasm of a few volunteers more heavily.

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"We may enlist volunteers in a different way in typical fundraising than other organizations," Ms. Pawley-Boyd says. Volunteers help establish personal connections as a way to approach corporations. They also spread the word to businesses to host events.

An artist’s rendering shows the design for the lower level of the museum.

"Our Beaver Club Gala each year has a number of corporate sponsors. Volunteers go out and secure all of that sponsorship on our behalf," Ms. Pawley-Boyd says. The latest Beaver Club Gala raised $120,000, of which about $25,000 was through sponsorships.

But other strategies are needed, too. The message to corporations not only needs to be well tailored; corporations will also want to see results.

For instance, the Manitoba Eco-Network, an organization engaged in various environmental initiatives, notes that corporations ask for more than the kind of information found on a website. They want a specific return on investment.

"There was a day, maybe 20 years ago, when corporations might just write you a cheque, just out of basic philanthropic principle," says Duncan Stokes, Manitoba Eco-Network's executive director.

The museum’s Artisan Gallery displays handcrafted goods.

That has changed. A donation may come with a specific goal, such as, for example, a donation of $5,000 being put toward cleaning 20 kilometres of shoreline. "We quantify what those amounts are doing, because then the decision makers in the corporate world are going to say, okay, these are some of the things our $5,000 can buy," Mr. Stokes says.

Corporations, in this regard, think a lot like the general public. Many also like to give closer to home. Smaller corporate donors may be particularly interested in donating to causes more immediately aligned with their businesses.

Corporations big or small "really do want to be involved in their own community. And if you're a smaller charity, maybe you're better off to focus on smaller businesses and smaller organizations that are looking to support their local communities," says Nicole Nakoneshny, senior vice-president at the philanthropy consulting firm KCI Ketchum Canada in Toronto.

Ms. Nakoneshny also notes that corporations are looking to encourage employees to engage in charities, increasing the amount of opportunity for charities. But it also requires a different approach, which comes back to initiating person-to-person relationships.

The museum’s North Canoe display.

The trick is to expand that into larger charity-to-donor partnerships. For instance, some corporate donors may be targeting demographics similar to the kinds of people who tend to visit the canoe museum. The tour company Adventure Canada is one example, Ms. Pawley-Boyd notes.

"We understand that the corporate membership needs to be much more around relationships and what's mutually beneficial, not just for the museum, but for the corporations," she adds.

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