July 3, 2014

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Dreaming Big

Thanksgiving Point Launches its First Capital Campaign

Heather Stewart

July 3, 2014

Thanksgiving Point founders and staff had a grand vision for a totally unique museum experience—something combining the fun of a children’s museum with the educational value of a science museum. It would be engaging, interactive, inspiring. And it would take a lot of money to build.

The challenge: raise nearly $30 million to make the nebulous vision a reality.

The team was passionate about the new museum; they believed strongly in its potential value for local families and the community. But they had never been tasked to raise such a large sum before. “It was the first time Thanksgiving Point had gone out into the community for big support for a big new project,” says CEO Mike Washburn.

So there was a steep learning curve for staff and volunteers—and for donors, who hadn’t really thought of Thanksgiving Point as a nonprofit institution, says Washburn. Another difficulty was explaining the concept of a museum of “natural curiosity” to potential donors. “It’s hard to adequately explain something so creative, so complex and big,” he says.

And the capital campaign for the museum launched in 2008, right as the economy began to tank. As the recession dragged on, some major donors had to pull back on their commitment—including Utah County. 

Despite all these challenges, Washburn says, “in the scheme of things, in a really bad economy, it actually went pretty well.”

The campaign ended up taking longer than planners originally envisioned; they broke ground about 18 months later than hoped, in the spring of 2012, and the museum officially opened its doors in May of this year. In fact, the campaign is not officially over—Washburn says they’re still hoping to raise another $700,000.

Getting Serious

Before Thanksgiving Point began actively fundraising, it spent several years developing the museum concept. Washburn says that an anonymous donor gave the organization enough money to work with architecture firm FFKR and exhibits company Roto, “to develop enough to actually go out and start talking to people about it.”

One of the first fundraising steps for Washburn was finding the expertise to help organize a successful campaign. “Once we got serious, we realized that because we hadn’t really done it before as an organization, we needed some expertise,” he says. “We needed some key people—part volunteer, part paid—to help us understand how you run a capital campaign.”

The paid help included new fundraising staff, as well as the nonprofit consulting group Pathway Associates. A government affairs firm, Tetris Group, helped Thanksgiving Point work to obtain funding commitments from the state of Utah, Utah County and Lehi city.

Cultivating Prospects

The volunteers included a team of “catalysts” who helped forge connections with key prospects. The catalyst team developed lists of prospects and cultivated relationships with those potential donors.

“You start internally and with people you know … Who do we know the best? Who’s most likely to engage with us,” says Washburn. “In part it’s a numbers game. It’s trying to find people who care about what you care about—and not everybody does.”

Over the course of the campaign, the fundraising team tried various tactics to engage with prospects and pique their interest. For example, as the exhibits were developed, they created “little mini versions” in the form of interactive desktop toys and delivered them to potential donors. Or they developed fun collateral that incorporated the prospect’s company logo or signage.

“Those kinds of things honestly never worked,” says Washburn. “What worked was person to person, true passion and just ultimately finding those people who cared.”

Staff and volunteers hosted private dinners with small groups of people to introduce them to the museum concept. Then Washburn and his staff would follow up with one-on-one conversations. It was this more personal contact that proved the most successful.

“Until you’ve done it, you think that all you have to do is say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this really cool thing,’ and people will just throw money at you, and it just doesn’t work that way,” he says.

Lifting Spirits

The intensive portion of the capital campaign lasted more than four years—long enough to cause burnout among staff and volunteers. Washburn says he assembled three different catalyst teams during the campaign as volunteers bowed out. “You just wear some people out. They say, ‘I don’t know anybody else. I’ve given you every possible name, set up every possible meeting.’”

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