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Case Study: How a Nonprofit Moved Toward a For-Profit Marketing Model to Advance Its Nonprofit Mission

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Company: Museum of Science, Boston
Contact: Doug Burbo, Senior Corporate Development Officer
Location: Boston, MA
Industry: Nonprofit, B2C
Annual revenue: Confidential
Number of employees: Confidential

Quick Read:

For more than a century, Boston's Museum of Science has depended on government grants and donors to finance its stated goal of encouraging "interest in and further understanding of science and technology and their importance for individuals and for society." The institution attracts about 1.6 million visitors a year, including more than 50,000 Museum members who visit regularly.

Corporate branding and marketing for fundraising purposes hadn't been given much thought, but in 2001, as the U.S. stock market collapsed and the global economy slowed, the Museum found itself stretched for donors. It realized it was time to start marketing itself.

The Museum hired Doug Burbo in 2002 as Senior Corporate Development Officer. Experienced in marketing and business development but new to the nonprofit world, Burbo quickly saw the potential benefits corporate donors could bring to the Museum. At that time, however, there was a limited track record of successful crossovers between for-profit and nonprofit entities, and the notion of corporate sponsorship was not welcomed by Museum staff concerned about the institution's independent reputation.


Pioneering any major change naturally involves its share of challenges; this study reveals how one very traditional organization was able to make the transition.

The Challenge:

Times were changing, and the Museum of Science's list of ambitious goals faced hurdles: rising costs, government-funding cuts, and a global stock market collapse that left potential donors with less spare cash. New market conditions called for creative thinking and nontraditional approaches borrowed from—and involving sponsorship with—the for-profit sector. Embracing this model, however, involved some challenges.

Until recent years, nonprofit organizations were more commonly seen as charitable tax write-offs than marketing partners. But with less charity to go around, corporations needed more incentive than goodwill.

Within the Museum, fears were surfacing that any "corporate imaging" could mar the Museum's longstanding smart reputation and conservative culture. The public, too, trusted the Museum to remain objective.

The Campaign:

Understanding that he had to deliver value and attract sponsors without over-commercializing the institution and offending its public or internal team, Burbo took steps to foster buy-in on all fronts and construct a successful marketing program.

He needed to better define the program, especially the difference between donation
and sponsorship, as the museum had never before embarked on such a large-scale corporate marketing campaign.

Step 1: Position sponsorships as a viable marketing vehicle. This would be done by

  • Educating businesses on the advantages of being viewed as good corporate citizens;

  • Working with independent consultants to evaluate the Museum's services and communicate the tangible value of its offerings.

Step 2: Stimulate corporate participation. This included

  • Offering multiple-tiered programs to appeal to various levels of funding and participation;

  •  Listening to sponsors' marketing objectives and developing partnerships suited to the parties' specific goals;

  • Fortifying sponsor relationships with excellent service, follow through, and communication of program results.

Step 3: Bolster internal support. This would be done by

  • Partnering only with credible companies that would promote an image consistent with the Museum's conservative principles;

  •  Developing tactful sponsor promotions that showed sponsor appreciation while maintaining the Museum's neutral stance;

  •  Balancing sponsor advertising, direct marketing, and media coverage with non-promotional value-added services, such as member hospitality nights.

"Credibility is very important for us," said Burbo. "We choose our partners very carefully (and) handle our partners tastefully."

Step 4: Capitalize on existing relationships. This included

  • Asking Board members or prominent members to use their personal contacts to reach potential sponsors;

  • Encouraging sponsors to publicize their partnerships with the Museum by using Museum logos, Web links and other publicity tools;

"We work with (these companies) to help promote the relationships, and that makes it a much more successful program for both parties," Burbo said.

The Results:

As a result of Burbo's initiatives, the Museum has gained internal and external acceptance of sponsorship activities, and it has obtained significant funding for more than 550 interactive exhibits and a range of community programs.

"Cause-related marketing really appeals to certain organizations," said Burbo. "They're able to brand and market to their charter audience in a tasteful way, providing us with revenue that we can be put it back into the Museum, thus enriching the  community. It really is a 'win-win-win' situation all around."

Successful sponsorships have ranged from single-event partnerships to enduring relationships that incorporate several exhibits and events and offer widespread promotion throughout the Museum.

For example, the Museum was able to leverage the technical capabilities of Prezza Technologies, a data collection and survey application provider, to capture information about the Museum's guests while also offering those visitors insight into Web-based technologies and scientific data collection methods.

On a grander scale, the Museum was able to lure new corporate sponsors such as Cisco Systems, Intel Foundation, Lockheed Martin Foundation, and the GE Foundation. Working with these sponsors, the Museum established the National Center for Technological Literacy (NCTL) to strengthen technology and engineering education in classrooms and K-12 curricula nationwide.

Lessons Learned:

  • Listen to your sponsors. Museum staff members helped foster long-term alliances by putting in the time to really review and understand each sponsor's objectives. This required a heavier commitment up front but paid off with greater sponsor satisfaction and loyalty in the end.

  • Know your limits. Although blatant advertising and partnerships with corporations of differing ideals could have brought in more resources, Burbo recognized that protecting the museum's integrity was more important. By making the right connections and augmenting promotional services with value-added benefits such as the member hospitality nights, the Museum was able to keep commercialization to a minimum.

  • Get an independent assessment for a new product or partnership. The Museum legitimized the tangible merits of its services and strengthened its sales pitch by hiring independent consultants to appraise and document the value of its offerings.

  • Make the most of existing relationships. By supplying logos and links, and making requests—often through members of its Board—the Museum was able to conserve valuable resources by broadcasting its message and building awareness on the sponsors' dime.

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Kimberly Smith is a staff writer for MarketingProfs. Reach her via kims@marketingprofs.com.

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