Admission Fees for Small Museums?

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    Small museums face challenges attracting resources. Admission fees can discourage attendance and reduce gift shop sales. What to do? The following summarizes a discussion in the npEnterprise Forum, the 10,000-circulation online forum for all things social enterprise.

    Museum image

    The particular question posted by Jean Hardy Robinson was about a small history museum in a thriving tourist community that has never charged admission, operates a small gift shop, and maintains a robust membership program. However, the comments below could apply to any small museum.

    Start Low

    There was strong concurrence that collecting something from visitors is a good idea. “Start low,” recommends Tom Aageson, from Creative Startups, who has extensive museum experience. “You can always go up slowly…hard to start high and come down. Be a bargain compared to other entertainment options in town…build up the experience so the value is seen as very high..the experience must always be changing, unique and mission focused…there may additional earned income opportunities.”

    Dennis Berry, who was the board chair for a local history museum for several years, also recommends charging a “modest admission fee, free to members.” He notes: “I don’t think a small fee will drive away visitors, so you may as well do it. That said, the fee isn’t going to save the budget, either. What’s needed is a combination of things — including gift shop, local government support, grants, and rigorous control of expenses — to make it all work.”

    Suggested donation

    Suggestion Donation Box

    Several other subscribers recommended a “suggested” donation rather than an admission fee. Susan Ruderman, who has a credential in museum studies, recommends “starting with a ‘Suggested Donation of $XX’ rather than a firm charge.” She further suggests: “Monitor it for a year and evaluate effects on both attendance and bottom line dollars as well as conversions to membership and then decide from there whether to continue as is, or institute a firm admission price, or go back to free for all.”
    Finally, Ken Avallon, from the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, agrees with that approach. “Pay What You Wish programs have been used as a friendly way to generate admissions fees. The idea is give attendees options and flexibility.” He indicates wording is important, and offers the following:

    Donation Schedule Suggestion

    “Recommended Contribution (or “Donation”, “Gift”, etc…whatever is appropriate-and legal for your particular organization)
    Adults: $5-$20
    Children: $0-$10
    Family: $10-$50
    Seniors: $0-$20
    More often than not we get the middle to very high end of the “suggestion” and often receive amounts higher than that. An interesting dynamic is that we often we have people paying additional “admission” on their way out.”
    We hope that’s useful.
    Rolfe Larson is a Denver-based consultant with 30+ years experience helping organizations achieve greater impact and financial sustainability. Recently Rolfe and Janine Vanderburg, from Joining Vision and Action (formerly JVA Consulting) launched a new suite of affordable SE consulting products called the Social Enterprise Navigator Series. They recently wrote the State of Social Enterprise 2016 report.