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How to Build Partnerships for Museum Digitization in 2020

By Jaap Otte on Fri, 02/07/2020 - 17:07

What is the future of corporate fundraising when corporations are increasingly turning away from philanthropy and towards an approach of working with non-profits (such as museums) as an entrepreneurial activity? Were corporations ever philanthropic, or have they just found a smarter way to create value from their interactions with museums?

The answer is uncertain, but to be successful in receiving corporate support in today’s environment, museums need to adapt to corporations’ desire to be actively involved in the projects and programs they support and create more value for themselves.

How can museums unlock more and higher quality support than in the past, and create greater value for both the non-profit and its corporate partner (whether it is a museum, research or education institute, or all three as in the case of the Smithsonian?) First, let’s explore areas where things are changing.

There are several differences between philanthropy and partnerships/collaborations. Philanthropy and partnerships don’t exclude each other (it’s often a sliding scale.) Also, there are big differences from one company to the next and things aren’t changing overnight, but the trend is clearly visible. I am listing some of the changes, exaggerating here and there to make my point:

Then: Corporate Philanthropy

Now: Partnerships and Collaborations

Model: the corporation as a responsible citizen

Model: entrepreneurship in non-profits





Corporation in a supportive role

Working together as partners and equals on joint challenges and projects that make use of the company’s business expertise

Support unrelated to the corporation’s core business activity

Collaborations are a direct extension of corporation’s core business

Storytelling around the corporation as a social actor, unrelated to their business

Storytelling around joint problem solving; use cases (not advertorials!)

Gimmicky sponsorship activation

Authenticity as a collaborator

Development/advancement officers leading the charge, program officers supporting or hands-off

Program officers leading the charge, interacting with their peers at the corporations, development officers in a supporting role

Driven by the needs of the museum

Driven by what both parties need

Corporate hands-on involvement in the program framed as a donor benefit

Hands-on involvement is what it is all about

The business purpose of the corporation need not be relevant to the nonprofit t (i.e., donations from a food company or financial conglomerate or a manufacturing corporation are equal….)

Non-profit: “What corporations do we really want to work with?”

Driven by donations to non-profits as 501 (c) (3) entities

Choose the (legal) tool that best fits the partnership: donation, contract, business venture, MOU, etc.


What hasn’t changed is that a passion for the program, cause, project, mission etc. of the non-profit with the corporation is still essential to making a corporate/nonprofit relationship work, especially long-term. The “win-win” doesn’t mean it’s all transactional. The heart is what makes museums and other non-profits such desirable partners; many employees at corporations, including the C-suite, would love to work at a non-profit, and a collaboration with your organization gives them the chance to fulfill at least some of that dream.

What also hasn’t changed much are event sponsorships, whether it’s sports, entertainment or a conference. From a company’s perspective, these continue to be a marketing service they “buy”, although the trend towards collaborations and partnerships will probably have a negative impact on straight-forward event sponsorships as well.

I mentioned there are big differences between companies; some companies are still very much focused on philanthropy and would have difficulty being a “real” partner, while others have fully embraced the entrepreneurial, joint problem-solving approach. Technology companies are becoming synonymous with the latter, which brings me to partnerships for the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, because they have proven to be attractive for technology companies and the Smithsonian.

For some background, the Smithsonian is a global leader in museum digitization. Still, with the largest museum collection in the world, ca. 156 million objects, and a tiny fraction (<1%) on display, providing digital access to the other 99% of our collections is a more pressing need than at other museums. Technology partnerships have been critical to helping us move forward in this area.

How did the Digitization Program Office (DPO) get started with corporate partnerships? Back in 2011, Vince Rossi and Adam Metallo from the DPO’s 3D Program (and together comprising the entire 3D staff at the time) had the foresight to realize that they should go to technology industry conferences to find the digitization solutions they were looking for, instead of the traditional museum conferences we all go to learn from our peers. At those industry conferences, they discovered that several technology companies not only had the solutions they were looking for, but they also were working on the same challenges as the Smithsonian. These companies eager to hear from us and team up to help. Better yet, they were able to tap into solutions that you could not buy, even if you had the money!

A key example is Autodesk, a Silicon-Valley based leader in design and engineering software, who stood out early in these meetings because of their interest in jointly developing the very first in-browser 3D viewer for the Smithsonian, and for their passion for the work the Smithsonian is doing. Autodesk has continued to work with the Digitization Program Office and other Smithsonian museums on a range of projects over the years.

This is what we learned from Autodesk about the corporate partner’s perspective:

  1. Developing solutions for and with museums can drive innovation because museums are often the most demanding customers when it comes to quality and longevity. Solutions developed for them can be applied in other industries.
  2. Partnering with museums and other non-profits allows corporations to test new solutions, something they are often unable to do with their paying customers.
  3. Companies are looking for compelling storytelling opportunities of which museums have many. They understand that to be part of the story they need to have an authentic, substantive role. Savvy marketing people also know that anything smacking of advertorials and gimmicks that give a company visibility will be easily spotted and ignored.
  4. A passion for the non-profit and its mission with both the corporation’s employees and leadership is (still) essential to deepen the relationship and hold the corporate partner’s attention over time.

Being entrepreneurial (or nimble) is generally not in the DNA of museums and research institutes, and certainly not in those of the 170-year old Smithsonian with its 19 museums, 9 research centers and a zoo. But the creative startup vibe at the Smithsonian’s Digitization Program Office, and the realization that in order to succeed we really needed outside partners who can help us develop new solutions, created an environment open to experimentation and innovation within a safe space inside the organization.

Federal rules forbid the Smithsonian from endorsing any corporation, whether a partner, donor or vendor. For a long time, this limited our attractiveness to corporations. In a twist, today’s preference for authentic storytelling over product marketing is helping the Smithsonian in its relations with corporations because it allows us to focus on telling the story of what we did with the corporate partner, instead of having to contort ourselves because what the partner really wants is an endorsement.

The good news for all non-profits is that it’s not just technology companies and museum digitization programs that have discovered this new reality. At the 2018 Social Capital conference, I heard representatives from some of the largest auto manufacturers, logistics companies, and retailers tell the audience that they want to partner with us to use their business expertise to solve problems. Probably less reassuring, they also said they are moving away from just writing a check, but it is clear there are new opportunities for those who can rethink their corporate relationships and how they work with other parties.