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Museums trip out over loyal donors: Cultural organizations are offering travel opportunities to generous patrons to inform them, gain more support

September 11, 2006

With a new director in place and a $74 million renovation and expansion complete, the next step for the Indianapolis Museum of Art is courting donors to financially back the enlarged operations.

Those who pledge at least $2,500 to the IMA are invited to accompany, at their own expense, IMA Director Maxwell Anderson and his wife on a cruise in the fall of 2007 to Spain, France and Italy. The excursion coincides with the opening next year of the museum's Roman Art from the Louvre exhibit. The IMA has offered trips to members before. But the idea of limiting the excursions to generous patrons is new. By doing so, the museum wants to provide donors an up-close glimpse of its mission in hopes they will be more charitable with their pocketbooks. "We are moving toward a model where travel is a benefit for only our most generous annual donors," said Leann Standish, the museum's director of development and communications. "We're making it more of an incentive to upgrade the support of the museum's operations." To be sure, the IMA is hardly the first not-for-profit to connect contributing with cruises and the like. In fact, cultural organizations nationwide have been offering National Geographictype adventures for some time, and those in Indianapolis are no different. But as entities seek to increase major donor involvement, and as donors become more interested in the impact of their dollars, the journeys are becoming more common. As part of its 2006 Educational Travel Conference in February, Montana-based Travel Learning Connections Inc. hosted a seminar focusing on travel as a development tool. The session addressed why institutions invest in donor travel, where the relationship between giving and travelers intersects, and how travel is used to increase the involvement of key supporters.

New York City-based Academic Arrangements Abroad, which participated in the forum, has coordinated trips for art museums for nearly 30 years. The company is managing the IMA's cruise.

The concentration on fund raising has become more apparent in the past 15 years, said Academic Arrangements Abroad President Jim Friedlander. Within the past three months alone, he is aware of two clients that each received seven-figure checks as a result of trips.

"Every development person will tell you that the more contact points they have, the more likely it is that people will give," Friedlander said. "When you're traveling with [donors], you're with them for weeks, not just for one meeting."

Connecting to the mission

Indianapolis Zoo Director Michael Crowther left with five supporters Sept. 1 for a two-week expedition to Madagascar. The crew will participate in what is known as Project Lemur, a multiyear study of the flora found in the intestinal tract of both captive and wild lemurs. The aim of the research is to improve captive care and could help when reintroducing the primates to their native home.

Zoo members next year will travel to Rwanda to view the plight of the great apes, whose habitat is being destroyed; to Galapagos to study the birds; and to Mexico to witness the migration of the monarch butterfly.

After participating in such excursions, people will become more aware of the zoo's mission and might be more apt to support it, said Karen Burns, the zoo's vice president of external communications, who organizes the trips.

"Do I hope that they believe the zoo is accomplishing something important and they should support it? Yes," she said. "If we can really connect people to our mission and our passion, we really feel they'll have a better understanding of it."

The trip to Madagascar is just one of several that Polly Hix, a longtime zoo director and donor, has taken. Her passion for animals in general is the reason she participates.

"It's hands on," she said. "It's an excellent way to get involved in the mission."

Museums struggling

The Children's Museum of Indianapolis has 25,000 members, most of whom are families with young children that don't have a lot of disposable income, President and CEO Jeff Patchen said. The challenge is converting them into supporters.

"There are so many museums that are struggling to hold onto old donors and to cultivate new ones," Patchen said. "We talk about this a lot here."

The popular "Dinosphere: Now You're in Their World" exhibit presented an unusual opportunity to rouse the museum's donor base.

By the time the project was announced in October 2001, officials had lined up $15 million from Lilly Endowment Inc.-including $5 million for the exhibit's endowment-$3 million from the Scott A. Jones Foundation, and $3 million from the museum's Enid Goodrich Educational Initiatives Fund.

Jones, a high-tech entrepreneur and museum board member, became hooked after making a trip to a dig site in South Dakota with his three sons. The dig team had already unearthed about half the T-rex that would be named Bucky and become the center- piece of the Dinosphere exhibit.

Jones wasn't the only one to get that experience. Throughout the excavation, museum staff invited potential donors to visit the digs.

The museum had organized excursions for donor groups for years, Patchen said, but the digs were the first time the adventures were tied to a specific project.

Donors since have been invited on trips to Seattle in connection with the Dale Chihuly sculpture and glass-blowing exhibit, and to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam as part of a "Power of Children" display.

Lifetime relationships

Similar to the IMA, the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art offers big donors an opportunity to travel with staff. The Eagle Society is an exclusive group for those who give at least $1,500 annually.

The Eiteljorg each year hosts one major trip to a state such as Washington, Utah or Montana, and a less-extravagant escapade that might entail a visit to an art collector's home.

The travels have been part of the Eiteljorg's fund-raising efforts ever since President and CEO John Vanausdall arrived 10 years ago. The trips, however, have evolved into a major program in which 20 people might go each time, he said.

"What we try to do is take them to places that relate to our mission and give them an experience that they couldn't arrange for themselves," Vanausdall said. It's to get them to understand and be involved more deeply in our mission."

Mel and Joan Perelman are Eagle Society members and became involved in the museum about 10 years ago, following Mel Perelman's retirement from Eli Lilly and Co. as executive vice president and president of the research laboratories.

Perelman said it's hard to quantify the return investment organizations receive from such trips he's taken with the Eiteljorg and, to a lesser extent, the IMA and Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. He doesn't view them as fund-raisers, but rather as chances to reinforce his involvement in the organization. Even so, there's no doubt the treks are valuable to not-for-profits. Said Vanausdall: "We're hoping to build a relationship that might last a lifetime."
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