"Recession does not mean everything is on hold"

Jonathan Rennison, newly appointed head of development at the Science Museum, talks to Kaye Wiggins about corporate fundraising in tough times

Jonathan Rennison, head of development, the Science Museum
Jonathan Rennison, head of development, the Science Museum

The Science Museum shares a fundraising problem with a lot of well known national institutions: most people just don't think it's a charity. But that isn't stopping Jonathan Rennison, its newly appointed head of development, from trying to raise £1m through a centenary appeal to the public.

His strategy includes seeking donations online, asking individual members of the museum for donations and making donation boxes in the museum more prominent.

"Some people think that because we're government-funded we don't need any more money," says Rennison. "But although the Government gives us 60 per cent of our income and keeps us up and running, we need extra funds to develop the museum."

The centenary appeal is only a small part of the museum's fundraising efforts. Earlier this month it announced plans for a revamp that would cost about £100m in all, including new galleries and a new facade.

Bringing in money for the museum is a world away from Rennison's previous role as head of grants fundraising at learning disability charity Mencap. Persuading donors of the importance of his new cause is a big challenge.

"Our social impact isn't immediately obvious in the same way as the activities of charities such as Mencap," Rennison explains. "Engaging people about heritage, making science fun and acting as a custodian of our collections are all worthy social objectives, but we have to work hard to explain this."

The museum was set up through Victorian philanthropy. It targets corporate sponsors for most of its non-government funding, and also receives cash from trusts and foundations, with very little cash from individual donors at present.

This approach can be lucrative. "Funding the Science Museum is an attractive prospect for many businesses because it's a long-standing national institution and a high-profile brand," Rennison explains. "The glamour of the museum and its collections can tempt them to make big donations. And we can offer them rewards, such as the use of our space for events."

But the recession has hit this source of income hard. "A lot of companies are tightening their belts, and staff faced with redundancy are unlikely to be impressed with their firm giving donations to a museum," he says. "We have to adjust our parameters in response and look at new ways of raising money. We're considering new models, such as a fundraising consortium approach."

So is now a good time for a redevelopment? "We're playing to the strengths of our fundraising strategy," says Rennison. "Charities that raise funds through street fundraising, direct mail and door-to-door can generally spend the cash as they see fit. But corporate donors expect something tangible they can be proud of. We struggle to gain funding for our everyday work, but we're optimistic about getting money for the revamp.

"And we shouldn't let the recession put everything on hold. Being 100 is a cause for celebration, and we need to invest in our future. It won't be easy to raise funds in the next few years, but I'm confident we'll get there."

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