Cover Story: A Historic Challenge
After years of selling a dream — raising funds for something that didn’t even exist yet — the folks at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia weren’t about to be stymied by a couple dozen dead Presbyterians.
The former Philadelphians surfaced, so to speak, in 2001, on the first day of construction on the museum and education center dedicated to enlightening the public about the Constitution of the United States of America. It seems that part of the center’s parking garage was being built on an 18th-century cemetery that had been moved in the 1950s — most of it, anyway.
Once a spade unearthed the first body, construction screeched to a halt while archeologists sifted through mounds of dirt and retrieved a million artifacts: bones — both human and chicken — nails, shards of glass and pottery, and other pieces of 18th-century life in Philadelphia. The discovery of the bodies — people from various ethnic backgrounds who, according to city records, lived and worked in the area surrounding the NCC in Philadelphia’s historic district — lead to the largest urban archeological dig ever.
One year, 37 corpses and $5 million later, construction continued.
The setback was frustrating, but it gave the small group of fundraisers charged with the task of financing the project more time to spread the word — not that they hadn’t had plenty of time already.
The NCC was founded in 1988, after the bicentennial of the Constitution, when Congress issued a charter for it to 1) form a program of outreach and education about the Constitution and 2) build a museum dedicated to the country’s most important document.
“Of course, it was much easier to do the outreach piece than it was to [build the center],” says Suzanne L. Seiter, vice president of development at the NCC.
The challenge: to get people from around the country to invest in something that, at the time, was nothing more than a paper model and some flashy graphics. And the graphics were, indeed, flashy. Creative agency AEI Digital, whose offices overlook the NCC, took the blueprints for the museum and used video-game technology to create a 3-D “fly-through” of the center that put viewers right in the middle of the action.
Two months before the center celebrated its first anniversary on July 4, Seiter talked about the fundraising task with a sigh so visible it lifted her shoulders and shrouded her face with a look that incorporated pride, weariness and incredulity — almost as if she, herself, couldn’t believe what her team had,accomplished.
In the years between 1988 and 1996, the NCC worked primarily on spreading the word about the Constitution, providing programs and activities around the country and offering online lesson plans for teachers. It also presented the semi-annual We the People Award to “exemplary citizens.”
“We were creating a presence, and we did things to build our reputation as a source for constitutional information for teachers as well as the general public,” Seiter explains.
“But in 1996, then-Mayor Ed Rendell (now governor of Pennsylvania) came on as the chairman of the board of the National Constitution Center,” she adds. “Much of his administration was dedicated to the economy and creating cultural tourism, and he really began the effort to push for building the museum.”
Out there on its own
The original fundraising campaign, which began in 1988 and picked up speed with Rendell’s involvement, ended in March. The campaign goal was $185 million; the actual take: $185,000,216.
Of that, $108 million came from the federal government (U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Transportation), the state of Pennsylvania, the Delaware River Port Authority and the city of Philadelphia. The remaining $77,000,216 came from the private sector, Seiter says, stressing that the NCC is now a fully independent nonprofit organization. By prior agreement, once it opened on July 4, 2003, it lost all of its public funding except a small subsidy from the state tourism budget.
That abrupt cutoff of funds was akin to pulling the proverbial rug out from under its feet, especially with a $6.5 million annual operating budget looming. But scary as the transition might seem, there were circumstances that mitigated the fear. The first came thanks to what Seiter calls “brilliant” foresight on the part of her predecessor and the other people who were involved in the project from its start. (Seiter took over as vice president of development in April 2002.)
The original $185 million development goal included $40 million for the NCC’s endowment, as well $6 million to cover the first year’s operating budget. (Building costs ate up the other $139 million.)
For FY 2005, about half of the $13 million annual budget will be raised through admission and parking fees, the museum store, and facility rentals; the rest will come from the endowment and donated revenue.
Seiter explains that that 50 percent breaks down as follows: In FY05, which begins Oct. 1, NCC expects to raise 36 percent from individual giving; 31 percent from foundations; 18 percent from corporate giving; 11 percent from membership (gifts between $25 and $1,000); 2 percent from board annual gifts; and 2 percent from its We the People Award dinner.
The other thing that keeps Seiter from worrying too much about losing all that government funding is the autonomy that comes with being “cut off.”
The NCC is located on land belonging to the National Park Service but is a private nonprofit organization. As part of the original charter, it built the building and then turned it over to the Park Service. Now the two operate under a unique public/private partnership.
“As part of the original agreement, the feds put $66 million toward the $108 million of public money,” Seiter says. “[Losing that support] gives us interpretive independence, and we don’t have to be at the vagueries of budget and decision making in Washington.
“So it’s scary, but it also gives us an autonomy that’s beautiful,” she adds. “We’re committed to being a nonpartisan organization, so without having to rely on any government money, we don’t have to worry about who’s in political power.”
In the beginning
The development staff at the NCC currently comprises 10 full-time staffers plus a number of interns. But when the NCC dream was first conceived, there was just a handful of folks working on fundraising. They started by asking board members for pledges and then for names of potential donors. Those potential donors went on the list. Teachers who requested lesson plans went on the list. Basically, anyone who showed the slightest interest went on the list.
The earliest donors, Seiter says, “really were investing in a twinkle in people’s eyes.” One of the largest early gifts came from media magnate and Philadelphia philanthropist Walter Annenberg, who gave $10 million in 2000.
But even before that, million-dollar gifts were coming in as early as 1998, and there were those who began giving $200,000 annual gifts that same year. Board members had started giving annual gifts from the very start, in 1988.
“There were some wonderful early believers, some very early friends,” Seiter says, expressing amazement that so many of those huge early gifts were unrestricted.
“It was just like, ‘Here, go build your dream,’” she says. “If they needed the money for construction, it went there. If they needed it for the endowment, it went there. [Now] it’s harder to get people to give unrestricted gifts. They’re more project and program oriented.”
Former Philadelphia City Councilwoman Joan Specter was one of those early fundraisers, and she’s still with the NCC development staff. Back then, she was called the campaign manager and set her sights on raising major gifts. Given that the NCC was nothing more than a dream, fundraising was an in-the-trenches kind of experience.
“As you can imagine, the National Constitution Center had no alums; it had nobody. It wasn’t as though you could just pick up a list of names and start making calls. I had to decide who was the audience, who would actually care about the Constitution,” she says, cryptically but characteristically refusing to talk about just who she decided that was.
That done, Specter turned to the organizations that her audience would belong to, and she started writing letters. She also realized that she already knew many of the people she was targeting.
But even with a high personal profile and years worth of connections, Specter didn’t find it easy.
“People then — and even now, here in Philadelphia — didn’t really understand what the Constitution Center does and what it means to America,” she says. “Most people think of it as an abstraction. And once you understand that people think of it as an abstraction, you can understand how difficult it is to raise money for it.”
Early fundraising was slow going, but the word eventually spread. And once the groundbreaking took place on Sept. 17, 2001, with former President Clinton on hand to ensure lots of publicity, things picked up.
“Until you put the shovels in the ground, you’re selling a dream, you’re selling a concept,” Seiter says. “We were still selling a dream, but now it looked like this was really going to happen.”
With the momentum building, the NCC staff instituted a number of educational programs around the country, including a hugely popular “I Signed the Constitution” campaign, which provided schools, libraries, and citizen groups with a packet of information about the Constitution, as well as a parchment that individuals signed to “reaffirm their belief in the founding document,” which were then sent back to the NCC to be archived. For their effort, the signers got “I Signed the Constitution” stickers.
The program was such a potent exercise in brand awareness that the NCC later used the concept as part of its control package, which, Seiter says, remains the most successful in the center’s short history.
Getting DM involved
The NCC started its direct mail program after the groundbreaking in 2001 with very little to offer; packages couldn’t regale potential donors with promises of parties or free admission or other traditional perks, simply because the center didn’t exist yet. Donors at all levels got a newsletter and a pocket copy of the Constitution; $100 donors got a pin.
By April 2002, there were about 1,800 members on the files. As the opening drew closer, direct mail began to offer firm dates, as well as invitations to take part in activities, free admission, etc., and the response grew considerably, Seiter says. On opening day, the NCC had more than 6,000 members.
Under the direction of Membership Coordinator Betsy Murray, NCC offers a generous membership package that includes, depending on level, the newsletter, pin, pocket Constitution, free or discounted admission, and reduced ticket prices for programs that involve an additional fee. New members also get phone calls from membership staff.
“They call our members and say, ‘thank you for your membership; no, we’re not asking you for more money, we just want to talk to you,’” Seiter says. “We all do a good job of asking for money, but we have to continue to communicate with our donors, let them know how their money is used [and] how much we appreciate their support.”
Membership status of all of the original donors was grandfathered so everyone could have the first six months to get acquainted with the NCC. That means that this fall, the push will be to renew donors before their memberships lapse. By the end of the year, the NCC staff will be faced with its first efforts to win back those who do lapse.
To do that, the team will focus on relating the message that history isn’t static, and that the NCC will continue to expand.
“We want to be sure to establish a strong program base so we can say to people, ‘Maybe you came to see the center once, but there’s something new here for you to see,’” Murray says.
“We never want people to feel, ‘Oh, the Constitution Center … been there, done that,’” she adds.
NCC does two special appeals a year, around its anniversary and Thanksgiving (as opposed to the winter holidays so as to avoid religious issues and make it easier for donors to enjoy end-of-year tax benefits). The renewal program comprises five contacts.
With everything being so new, many members are still paying off their pledges, so the staff has to be careful about asking them for more gifts, Seiter explains.
And talk about counter-intuitive: Only a year after the NCC opened, development already is focusing more on renewals than acquisitions. Seiter won’t say no to a new donor, but she wants to make sure that the existing donors are getting all the TLC they want and need.
“The new memberships are definitely tapering off, and we’re concentrating very hard on renewals,” she explains. “The acquisition part is very expensive, so it’s crucial for us to remember to put the emphasis on communication with and care and feeding of our existing members.”
Seiter says she would consider 10,000 to 12,000 members a reasonable cap.
“After that, it gets too hard to take good care of them,” she says. “I’d rather do a really good job of upgrading our existing members. It’s possible to get too big and you’re sending out postcard thank-yous. This is a crucial time; we need to be keeping the people we have.”
Fresh faces, fresh ideas
Seiter’s team is rounded out by Director of Corporate and Major Gifts Ka-Msiyara Corbett; Director of Foundation and Major Gifts Michelle Eisenberg, and Director of Annual Giving Danielle Shepherd.
Except for Specter, the staff has very little fundraising experience, which, Seiter says, allows them the freedom of not being bogged down with baggage from old jobs and ways of thinking. And she stresses that the staff is encouraged to work together toward the goal of moving donors up the pyramid.
“As a leader I can set the tone that we all need to work together. Everyone knows the goal is to get that $25 dollar donor to leave you in their will,” she says. “The membership people know they’re creating the pipeline and giving us the wonderful names.”
Because the staff, and the center itself, is so brand-spanking new, there also were mistakes to be made. OK, not mistakes, but maybe just enthusiastic misjudgments. In particular, the staff cast too wide a net when it first began trying to attract donors through DM, spreading its reach across the country and getting not-so-fabulous results.
Finally, Seiter pulled in the reins and began to focus almost exclusively on Philadelphia and its immediate vicinity. In January 2003, she stopped mailing nationally and buying national lists.
“We had in no way saturated the Philadelphia market with members,” she says. “So we pulled in our borders and, boy, we shot up. It didn’t make sense to recruit members from Nebraska; they just didn’t know who we are. Some people believe in our mission and never need to visit (the center), but that’s not the majority.”
The NCC has begun to focus on building its annual giving program (the 1787 Society) and its corporate support program. And it’s also slowly starting to expand its reach again, in concentric circles emanating from its hometown. In 2005, it will launch its first new exhibit at the center and then take it on the road in 2006. Plans are to collect names and buy lists in the areas where the exhibit will be displayed and invite local folks to the opening in the hopes that they’ll wind up becoming members.
Murray said the NCC also is using a DM campaign called the Talkback Series, where far-off prospects receive a package that tells them about the center and poses the same question asked of on-site visitors — “What does it mean to you to be an American?”. The recipient is asked to answer the question on a Post-it® note attached to the reply form. Responses are archived along with those from the actual exhibit at the center.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for them to speak their minds and feel like they’re a part of the exhibition and the center,” Murray says.