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History museum aiming low for donations

History museum aiming low for donationsA view of the Canadian Museum of History is shown in Gatineau, Que., on Tuesday, Oct.16, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA - Canada's largest, most-visited museum is relaunching a fundraising campaign to capitalize on historic anniversaries over the next few years.

But the Canadian Museum of History has set the bar very low — just $10,000 to be raised over each of the next two years, an apparent recognition that ordinary Canadians aren't that interested in bailing out hard-pressed public institutions.

The sprawling structure — across the Ottawa River from the Parliament Buildings — has until recently been known as the Museum of Civilization.

The Conservative government in 2012 announced the name change, which took effect just before a series of anniversaries, such as the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War later this year and the 150th birthday of Canada in 2017.

The museum recently issued a tender to find a firm to run its annual giving campaign, which is currently based on a direct-mail appeal to donors.

The tender documents show that in the last three years, the museum — which welcomes more than a million visitors a year — has found just 530 such donors.

And officials foresee only tiny annual increments in donations, to just $20,000 by 2017, even with a professional firm running the campaign.

The Canadian War Museum is also under the corporate wing of the history museum. Donations there are more robust, with 8,200 donors in the last three years and a goal of $400,000 to be raised in the next year, according to the tender documents.

But officials also note the average age of so-called "annual giving" donors — the repeat givers — is 78 years, and the program will have to reach a new generation in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

The two museums together had expenses of about $92 million in 2012-2013.

The history museum — an architectural gem in a picturesque setting, opened in 1989 — is the capital's biggest tourist draw, with family-friendly exhibits and a popular IMAX theatre.

But it is also struggling financially. The history and war museums together ran up a $3-million deficit in 2012-2013 because of the Conservative government's deficit-cutting, which forced them to absorb payroll increases and other rising costs. The maintenance bill is also rising.

The government has provided a one-time, $25-million cash injection over four years to transform two of the history museum's galleries to better reflect its narrower mandate of presenting Canada's past.

In the meantime, annual attendance has dropped slightly to below 1.2 million, eating into ticket revenue and increasing the pressure to tap donors.

The two museums missed their 2012-2013 donation targets — which include corporations and individuals — by about $300,000.

"Over the past several years we have done direct mail appeals several times for the Canadian Museum of History, trying different lists, stories and timing but always with poor results," says the tender, which is offering a two-year term renewable for a third year.

"As such our donor base at the Museum of History remains small. ... The Museum's leadership feels strongly that annual giving fundraising is necessary for the Museum of History. We simply need to find the right strategies that match the giving behaviours of our most likely donors."

The more successful war museum fundraising relies on small amounts, with the average gift of $65 for its direct-mail campaign in the last year.

A spokeswoman for the history museum says the so-called History Campaign fundraising will target corporations and foundations for the bulk of the $5 million it plans to raise by 2017, to purchase new artifacts and help refashion the exhibit halls.

Patricia Lynch also defended the low targets for individual donations, saying the history museum is coming later to the fundraising game than its sister institution.

"It's two very different campaigns," she said. "The war museum has quite an established history now of very successful donor campaigns ... whereas this History Campaign is just starting out."

The history museum's vice-president of corporate affairs, Chantal Schryer, said the institution has developed a "robust fundraising plan," of which the planned giving campaign outlined in the tender is only one aspect, to be complemented by major gifts and sponsorships.

"The Canadian War Museum's annual giving campaign is a long-established fundraising activity that has seen dramatic increases since the museum opened at its new location in 2005," Schryer said in a statement.

"As the new Canadian Museum of History takes shape, we expect to generate the same enthusiasm from Canadians to support its programs and activities."

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