I’m going to tell you about a simple, but brilliant and well executed idea.
It wasn’t my idea, so I can’t claim any credit, though I have been involved in the later stages, and funnily enough in the earliest stages as a donor myself.
When it was launched, it was hoped it might raise £50,000, but we’re now on nearly £400,000 and counting. I’m talking about the honours boards for the brand new St Albans Museum + Gallery.
But don’t switch off.
These are honours boards with a twist, totally appropriate for this restoration campaign, completely in keeping with the building. And they’ve taught me so much about why people give.
Think about relevance, beauty and permanence
The new museum and gallery is housed within the beautifully restored early 19th century Town Hall building. In the basement, as with many buildings of that period, are a number of cells, in which defendants were held, before being led up directly into the dock in the courtroom.
Both the cells and the courtroom were to be lovingly restored, leaving in place two key details: the prisoner graffiti on the cell doors, and the oak panelling in the courtroom.
The idea that derived from these two features was strikingly simple: instead of traditional honours boards, how about etching people’s names graffiti-style into oak panels?
The resulting boards, unveiled earlier this month, are strikingly beautiful but also have a permanent feel, because the names are etched into the wood, and they’re clearly not going anywhere, hopefully for centuries.
Get the level right
The key decision that then had to be made was to set the donation level. How much would it cost to get your beautiful graffiti name? The answer: £250. It’s high enough to feel like something special and important, and low enough to get lots of people interested in going for it. Over 1,000 donors from the local community so far contributing over 1,400 names, so it must have been about right!
Emotional power: think about why people give
Fast forward to early June 2018, and the opening of the new museum and gallery. As a supporter of the restoration for a number of years and having more recently become a trustee, I was lucky enough to be stationed at the honours boards, helping people to find ‘their’ names.
I wasn’t prepared for the emotional power of it. I wasn’t prepared to be moved almost to tears every half an hour.
So many of the donors wanted to tell me their stories.
Many had put their children’s names up there, and were excited to show them to their young ones. Many proudly pointed to their own names or the names of their families, and were clearly so happy to be part of the community in this permanent way. It was about roots, it seemed to me. A sense of place and contribution.
And there were many names that were bought in memory of family members and friends.
I was told about people’s much loved grandparents, parents, children, and late husbands and wives.
One man told me about how his late mother had appeared in the dock as a 14 year old because she’d been playing on haystacks, and the farmer claimed she had damaged it!
From the cells to the court room and a life lived in St Albans. What a fitting tribute.
Another woman told me that she hadn’t been able to put up a headstone when her husband had died for religious reasons, so this felt like the right thing to do.
She found his name, briefly touched it, and was gone.
Listen to your supporters. Really listen to them.
Those powerful hours at the honours boards for me were all about people’s stories. I learned again, even after over 20 years, about the formidable emotional power of giving.
I learned about the importance of permanence and how we define ourselves and our loved ones through a sense of place tied in with the quirkiest of details.
I learned that it’s important not to second guess what people’s motivations might be for donating. They may surprise you.
I learned that when you’ve hit upon an idea that catches fire, you need to respond quickly to cater for the needs of your supporters. Nobody is more important.
And I learned about the importance of building our fundraising campaigns around simple relevant hooks that resonate with our supporters.
Those hours and those personal stories are now indelibly etched in my memory. I am so proud to have played a very small part in helping them to be told.