How to Start a Nonprofit Museum

A museum is one of the most complex services a nonprofit organization can operate. Museums need a permanent building to operate out of – no less than a storefront, and preferably a standalone building – and the closer your space is to the traditional ideal of a museum with a stand-alone building, the better the response from your patrons. Many nonprofits and collectors have questions about how to start a nonprofit museum because the viewing of a collection by the public can convert it from a personal collection to a community asset. Your museum nonprofit is going to be seen by banks as a dangerous risk. There are many ways for a museum to fail to even so much as open its doors, and banks don’t want to be associated with a significant financial risk. You’ll need to have solid planning to even get through the first stages. So make sure that you understand what you’re getting into when you first decide to open a museum and bring your collection out to members of the public.

A nonprofit museum is a complex undertaking that creates difficulties in many aspects and angles, and they need you to create a business plan and bookkeeping to open, a gallery to display its assets both internally and externally, and a security plan for your gallery space. Even among nonprofits, a museum has specific challenges because of the value and rarity or uniqueness of the artifacts in its collection, so you will need to be able to convince investors and donors that you are a worthwhile custodian of their investment capital and artifacts to even open your doors. Your collection will come under scrutiny for rarity and notability once you get to the point where your business plan has succeeded in securing venture capital. Keeping your space clean and tidy, routine renovations of the gallery, and partnerships with local businesses can also make a nonprofit museum particularly supportive of your organization’s goals. So in this article, we’re going to look at how to start a nonprofit museum and how to make your nonprofit museum into a generator of interest for the organization it’s supporting.

How to Start a Nonprofit Museum

Your nonprofit museum needs a lot of work to make its finances and collection combine. Your first step is going to need to be to learn as much as you can about museums and the museum community. The American Alliance of Museums begins with an extensive library of museum facts, the code of ethics you’re going to be expected to follow as a museum operating group. You will want to know and be able to follow the core field standards of museums, along with your standards and practices that will help you run a successful museum. Your field will have its standards and resources for the professionalism that you will also need for you to be a successful museum.

If you have a museum plan, your plan will need you to have the responsibility to show that your museum fills a needed niche in your community, such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art specializing in the art community in New York. These museums have their niches and they make sure that they are partners in the community, not competitors. Your first organizational goal will need to be to see if your collection’s artifacts can become part of the collection and display space of another local museum. If you are in a position where your intended museum duplicates another nearby institution, often partnership rather than opening another museum will be pursued.

But if you are in a position where your collection has a unique niche, it doesn’t fit neatly into another museum’s area of responsibility, and it can best be supported in its own space, without difficulty or mission competitiveness with another local organization, you will find yourself better-positioned to convince financial supporters that your museum’s mission will succeed.

Create a Business Plan that Connects your Intentions to Your Outcomes

Business plans for museums are always important for a bank to see before approving financing. Nonprofits, but especially museums, are one of the most difficult businesses to keep functioning from the time you file your articles of incorporation to the day you close your doors. A nonprofit has business problems that are unlike most other businesses in that they are designed to run at a zero or loss over the long term. Your bookkeeping service will be essential to the plan to keep your museum running in top shape. You will need to bring onboard development professionals from your earliest planning stages if you plan to keep pace with the needs of your collection.

A nonprofit museum’s business solutions are going to be similar but not identical to those of a for-profit business. Corporate partners like Microsoft, Aplos, or Intuit have excellent discount programs for all nonprofits that will allow you to make the best use of your time and resources by putting powerful financial and business solutions at your fingertips for a fraction of the cost that would be needed from a for-profit business. All of these solutions require you to have a business plan, however, and that’s where you will need to begin.

Development Is the Key To Success

Fundraising in the nonprofit world is called “development.” Your development partners are local businesses, governments, and interested individuals who will be contributing funds to your organization. These people and organizations are crucial to your success. For an average nonprofit, over 60% of your operating revenue comes from public donations, both in block grants such as Minnesota’s McKnight Arts and Culture Grants and in individual donations from patrons. If your business plan doesn’t include a solid development plan, it will be considered incomplete, so start to think now about how you’ll be engaging the public to raise funds and awareness for your programs and your organization.

Revenue raised from program admission and other fees to the end user will be a very small part of your development. Museums and other organizations end up raising less than 2% of their operating revenue from public admission and fees, so make sure that you take that information into account when you start developing your fundraising and public outreach plans.

If you have the funding and capacity to not only complete a plan for how to start a nonprofit museum, but to sustain a museum of your specialty and in your area, you may then be ready to start planning the opening of your museum organization.

Create Your Gallery Window Display

Once your business plan and articles of incorporation are filed, it’s time to start thinking about the fun stuff. When you get to the parts of designing your space, you can get to the part of how to start a nonprofit museum that most people envision when they think of the activity. You’re now no longer in the weeds of starting a nonprofit but into the fun part of designing the collection and how it fills the space. You’ve probably already gotten not just donations of money from your startup investors, but also probably more artifacts in your specialty than you ever dreamed existed. Probably some artifacts that you’ve only seen in online illustrations or even not then. If your collection is specific enough, you might not even have seen half of what you’re being donated before it comes out of private collections for public display.

Office window tinting services will help you with making sure your potential guests will be able to see through your museum’s storefront glass to your gallery window display, but also make sure that your artifacts on display won’t be faded by the sun or embrittled by ultraviolet light. When you’re thinking of how to start a nonprofit museum, you will need to make sure that your gallery and displays meet archival standards, or you might find yourself short of some valuable artifacts in a few years or even months.

Install Security Measures

When you think about how to start a nonprofit museum, you probably realize that you are going to need some level of security protection for your collection. Safes and other security systems, especially alarms and communications devices to local law enforcement, are crucially important weapons in the fight against loss of equipment and artifacts from your museum and its organization and donors.

Renovate Your Gallery Space

A gallery that is poorly maintained or is installed in a space that is visibly not a controlled museum space will not be seen as a professional or serious gallery. Because of this, whatever space you rent or purchase to display your museum and its artifacts will need to be renovated substantially to comply with best practices that are published by the American Alliance of Museums and the Society of American Archivists. Archives that are well-designed and in compliance with best practices and standards are just as important to your mission, if not more so, as the roofing services and exterior painting that will show off the presence of your museum to the public and protect its artifacts from the elements.

Create Merchandise

Your company branded promotional items are a crucial part of how to start a nonprofit museum. They do come later in the process, but you will need to have them available by the time your museum opens, and having them around will help you promote your museum. For an example of how well this works, look at the boost in fundraising experienced by the Science Museum of Minnesota after one of its 1980s-era hooded sweatshirts was featured on the hit TV series “Stranger Things.”

Keep Your Space Clean

Office cleaning services are one of the last things you’ll need to think about when you think about how to start a nonprofit museum. There are a handful of office cleaning services in your area, and just as with any other business, you will want to contract with at least one of them. Especially in situations where your behind-the-scenes office spaces are on the same site as your museum.

Partner With Local Businesses

A nonprofit museum always wants to have services on-site, and partnerships with local businesses can get you there. Finding out how you can get sponsorships and advertising in local businesses, especially family restaurants, where members of the community meet and dine. These basic steps are crucial to making the difference between your museum floundering in its opening weeks or months, or becoming a successful part of the community’s organizational landscape. Private-nonprofit partnerships including museums, local stores and institutions, universities, and other museums, make a vital link in the museum’s lifeline to transforming your vision for a museum into the final reality that your patrons will enter a few months down the road. If your museum is successful enough, you may be able to transition into a closer working relationship with some of your initial partners, including lending important collection artifacts to universities and other local institutions.

If you’re looking at how to start a nonprofit museum, these tips will get you through some of the processes of putting your museum together. What this article is not is a comprehensive guide to nonprofit development, planning, hiring, and maintenance. It doesn’t guide you to the finer points of your institutional management, how to use your software to benefit your organization, or how to go about recruiting locals into knowing about and supporting your institution. Running a museum is an endeavor that many attempt and few succeed; the landscape of recent history is littered with the bones of deceased museums-to-be that never got past the planning stage.

While it won’t get you to the point of turning the locks on your door, having a strong business plan that covers every part of development, building maintenance, business plans, office cleaning services, and branding and promotional merchandise is key to making sure that your museum is taken seriously. You may need further information. Reach out to your partners to begin that conversation.

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