One giant leap for the Smithsonian
The Smithsonian explored new territory by using Kickstarter to raise money to p
Funds raised on Kickstarter helped save Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit. The project cost a lot to produce, though, so was the method worth using?
It seemed a smart gamble. The Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum complex, would pass a virtual hat around the world, asking for money to conserve a few of its most beloved objects. The bet paid off. With the help of Kickstarter, the crowdfunding space devoted to creative projects, the Smithsonian first asked the public for $500,000 for work on the spacesuit Neil Armstrong wore in 1969 when he walked on the moon. The National Air and Space Museum campaign hit its goal in only five days, so a $200,000 “stretch goal” was added for the suit worn by Alan Shepard, the first American in space. The response to the 2015 campaign was tremendous — $719,779 from 9,477 backers, more than enough to get the suits back on view in time for the 50th anniversary in July 2019 of the Apollo 11 lunar landing.
Next came the 78-year-old ruby slippers and the scarecrow costume from “The Wizard of Oz.” The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History bet on the popularity of the 1939 MGM film — because who wouldn’t want to help preserve those iconic shoes? — and asked for $300,000 to study and conserve Judy Garland’s size 5 footwear and $85,000 for the outfit worn by Ray Bolger as he and Garland danced down the Yellow Brick Road.
The artifacts delivered on their magical reputation, attracting $349,036 from 6,451 backers — not the full $385,000 but enough to allow officials to click their heels and boast that there’s no place like the Smithsonian.
Social media buzzed and the media noticed as pledges poured in from across the country and around the world. The institution has readied a third campaign, though a spokeswoman declined to identify the artifact or the museum that owns it. The project is likely to launch later this year.
“We’re not only trying to fund the projects, we are reaching audiences that we might not reach through other channels,” said Scott Tennent, the Smithsonian’s director of advancement communications, noting that threefourths of the Kickstarter backers are new to the Smithsonian. “We can raise awareness that the Smithsonian relies on public support. That’s something people don’t always realize.”
A first test
Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing model means that organizations don’t get a penny if they can’t meet their goals. Most Kickstarter projects seek $10,000 or less, and about two-thirds fail, according to the crowdfunding platform. Only 3 percent of projects with budgets greater than $100,000 succeed.
The Smithsonian’s projects beat the odds, but they cost a lot to produce, and those expenses were built into the campaigns. “Reboot the Suit” sought $700,000 from the public, significantly more than its $540,000 budget. Although a Smithsonian fundraiser originally said the costs were about 8 to 10 percent, they ended up topping 17 percent.
“Keep Them Ruby” was even more expensive. Records show for every $100 donation, the Smithsonian spent $38 on the costs of the Kickstarter project, including the video, rewards and Kickstarter’s fees, leaving $62 for Dorothy’s slippers.
“A lot of organizations get excited because they think it’s cheap and easy. Cross that out. It’s neither cheap nor easy,” said Lucy Bernholz, director of the Digital Civil Society Lab at Stanford University, of crowdfunding projects.
In general, fundraising costs vary, from 20 cents on a dollar to renew a current donor through direct mail, to half the gross revenue for special events like a gala or a golf outing. The Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance fundraising standard calls for organizations to spend less than 35 percent of all contributions on fundraising, including donations, legacies and grants.
Kickstarter’s staff guided the Smithsonian from the start, including identifying the artifact that would launch the series of campaigns. “[The Smithsonian] didn’t think the spacesuit was the winner. My colleague was like, ‘What? That definitely should be the first project,’ ” recalled Victoria Rogers, Kickstarter’s director of arts.
Both projects followed Kickstarter’s recipe: Start with a memorable social media hashtag, add splashy videos and cool rewards — including space ice cream, exclusive T-shirts, behind the scenes tours — and finish with the promise of insider information about the work as it unfolds. The Smithsonian has 2.6 million Twitter followers and about 530,000 Facebook followers, a robust number to promote an online campaign.
There are no guarantees. Kickstarter launched in 2009, and in its first eight years such cultural organizations as the Jewish Museum in New York, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles and NPR have used it to support a range of projects. But there is little data to show whether crowdfunding will join galas and direct mail as a reliable method of cultural fundraising, experts say.
“The research is poor and for good reason. There hasn’t been a lot of it done,” Bernholz said. “In most cases they are one-off donors. Whether there is any loyalty to the Smithsonian is mostly an open question.”
The Smithsonian reported that 461 of the spacesuit backers contributed to the “Wizard of Oz” project the following year, and 261 renewed magazine subscriptions or made contributions that totaled $24,000, accounting for 7 percent. The average donor retention rate in 2015 was 46 percent.
Experts in philanthropy say online efforts — including giving days that use social media to drive donations — have raised significant funds by capturing the attention of younger donors. Still, their effectiveness is unknown.
“They are time limited, online and driven by social media,” said Sarah Nathan, a professor at Indiana University’s Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. “They are still new to the fundraising landscape and to understand their return on investment will take time.”
The cost of restoration
As Smithsonian fundraisers study donor patterns and analyze costs, museum curators and conservators have been spending the Kickstarter funds on their projects.
Both begin with research. Scientists and conservators at the two museums will study the synthetic materials used in the spacesuits and the ruby slippers to learn how the materials interact and how to slow their deterioration. The sequins on the ruby slippers, for example, have cracked, and their vibrant red has faded.
It is slow, painstaking work, said Cathy Lewis, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, which has the largest collection of spacesuits in the world. As such modern materials as plastic and synthetic rubber deteriorate, they give off gasses that may contribute to deterioration. Scientists say they need to understand these processes to protect the items and prolong their lives.
Each item has different needs. For example, Armstrong’s spacesuit is more complex than Shepard’s, which didn’t have to withstand a lunar environment. Armstrong’s suit weighs 80 pounds and has an internal ventilation system, and yet it is one of the most fragile objects in the museum’s collection, Lewis said. She wants to create a display case that will mimic the climate-controlled conditions of storage.
“We are going to have to invent some of this technology,” Lewis said.
Museum officials are planning to make a three-dimensional scan of Armstrong’s suit that will allow the public to explore its 21 layers and components.
Similar research is going on at the American History Museum, where the ruby slippers have been on display for 30 years. Garland’s shoes are the first pop-culture object to get this standard of treatment, said Richard Barden, the museum’s manager of preservation services.
Given to the museum by an anonymous donor in 1979, the shoes are among several pairs made for the film, though museum officials think that the felt on the soles of these two mean that Garland wore them for dancing. Commercially made, the shoes are constructed with at least 12 materials, including the The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History aimed to raise $300,000 to preserve the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz,” as well as $85,000 for Ray Bolger’s scarecrow costume. The project ended up attracting $349,036 from 6,451 backers. netting of sequins added by the movie’s costume shop. They are two sizes: The left is marked 5C and the right 5BC.
“Technology has advanced [since 1979] so more answers may be within reach,” Barden said.
Moving into cyberspace
Philanthropy experts say that organizations — even sprawling, quasi-governmental ones like the Smithsonian — must make online giving a priority. A Pew Research Center report from 2015 found that crowdfunding was more popular with younger people, college graduates and those with relatively high household incomes and rarely used by people older than 65. If cultural organizations want to attract the next generation of supporters, they must go digital.
But they also must weigh the costs against the results. “They can weigh the costs of their various fundraising programs, and consider the other benefits, like media attention, like 10,000 new donors who they can now go back to. Those might be worth the costs,” Nathan said.
Total expense must account for staff time, experts say, a category the Smithsonian did not include.
“We don’t do billable hours, so we cannot say how many hours in a workday” employees devoted to the project, said spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas. For “Reboot the Suit,” staff included two public affairs officers, an Air and Space development officer, the Smithsonian central development officer, a conservator, a curator and a videographer.
Even if the Smithsonian deems these projects successful, Bernholz worries about their dark side: selling donors on splashy projects at the expense of such boring expenses as overhead and staff costs. For every pair of ruby slippers, she said, there are thousands of fossilized rocks, important books and other everyday objects needing support.
“We train [donors] to focus on the biggest, sexiest thing, and that reinforces . . . that overhead is bad, and administration costs are bad,” Bernholz said. “The job of the Smithsonian isn’t just to raise money for the sexy objects. Someone has to fundraise for the rocks.”
TOP: A spacesuit worn by Alan Shepard and gloves used by Neil Armstrong. BOTTOM: Armstrong, front, walks with the Apollo 11 crew on the day of the launch in July 1969.