One giant leap for the Smith­so­nian

The Smith­so­nian ex­plored new ter­ri­tory by us­ing Kick­starter to raise money to p

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PEGGY MCGLONE peggy.mcglone@wash­post.com

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 PHOTOS: SMITH­SO­NIAN IN­STI­TU­TION; ABOVE: AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

ERIC LONG/NA­TIONAL AIR AND SPACE MU­SEUM

TOP PHOTOS: NA­TIONAL MU­SEUM OF AMER­I­CAN HIS­TORY; ABOVE: WORLD HIS­TORY AR­CHIVE/ALAMAY

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