Image of  RAF Museum CEO Maggie Appleton

Over the last year we’ve been interviewing charity leaders pioneering use of digital during the pandemic. We spoke to Maggie Appleton, CEO of the RAF Museum about how her team has achieved digital fundraising success during COVID-19, and how charity leaders should plan for the changes ahead. 

1.Museums have had a very tough year. How have things changed for you and your team during the pandemic? 

As with all our museums, so much has changed for the RAF Museum in the last year. We were closed for two thirds of the year, so for an organisation that’s here for our visitors first and foremost, it has had a huge impact on our team, both physically and mentally, as well of course on our financial health as a charity. 

Our team switched to home working incredibly swiftly. Our IT colleagues got us up and running from home and we put a huge focus on how we could best support and keep connected with each other while working remotely. We have had a core team onsite throughout the three lockdowns too, of course, brilliantly keeping our beautiful museums and our collections safe. 

We have 240 paid staff and 500 volunteers and, as well as meetings moving online, people began getting together for virtual tea breaks; connecting – often with great humour – through a dedicated Teams chat and our Intranet; and through a buddy system. Our in-person Staff Forums moved online and have been complemented with additional Webinars to keep everyone up to date and give plenty of opportunity for questions. We’ve been so conscious that we aren’t all in the same boat. We’re in the same terrible storm but some of our boats are more watertight than others: some colleagues juggle work with home schooling; others are alone; some live in tiny bedsits with little company; many are worrying about – and have lost – loved ones. 

All our people pulled together to re-open in the summer with our ‘Good to Go’ visitor attraction accreditation and focused on our dual mantra of ensuring a COVID-safe visit without compromising our warm welcome. It was a mammoth effort setting up our new ticketing system, one-way systems and ensuring we had measures in place to keep both our visitors and our staff safe, but it was so worth the effort. When we opened our doors in July after the first lockdown, our visitors were so delighted to return, and so appreciative. And we were even more excited than they were…

As well as preparing for re-opening during lockdowns, we’ve focused on continuing to share our collections and the incredible stories of RAF people online. We were able to progress our Collections Online programme and developed and weaved in our new Adopt an Artefact fundraising initiative (brilliant presents for those who have everything! See https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/support-us/adopt-an-artefact/). Equally, our teams countered having to cancel one after the other of our public events and planned schools workshops and imaginatively moved our programmes online. And the warm response we received from schools, families and the general public has really helped keep our morale up.

2. You’ve been working with Goodbox on contactless giving during the pandemic. Can you tell us about this collaboration and what you’ve achieved together?

We have worked with Goodbox for a number of years and have a range of their products across our two Museums.  As a registered charity, we rely heavily on visitor donations which has been a challenge due to being closed for so many months.   Our visitor numbers have been severely impacted by the pandemic, resulting in over 50% decrease compared to our pre-COVID-19 targets but, despite this, we welcomed over 200,000 people across our two sites and have seen a significant increase in our contactless visitor giving during the months we were able to reopen. 

We spent the time during the first lockdown with Goodbox focusing on the plans for reopening, despite not knowing when this would be.  We developed several scenarios with differing opening dates running from the May all the way through to a reopening in 2021.  Thankfully we were able to open for several months during 2020.

Our initial focus was on the importance of changing our donation ask messaging to reflect the pandemic and the financial situation we were in.   We updated the artwork on all of our units in response to this, and developed training for our Visitor Experience team, ensuring they were confident in how to talk to our visitors about the need for their continued support.

We spent time analysing our donation points and scrutinising figures to ensure they were as effective as could be and positioned in the best locations.

It became clear early on that our supporters still wanted to continue to help the Museum as much as possible financially, we therefore adapted our previous donation ask and introduced a £10 and £20 donation ask in our entrances at both London and Cosford.  Before closure, we had a standard £5 ask throughout the sites. Following reopening, the increased donation options equated to 40% of our donations by value and 25% of all transactions were either £10 or £20.  These small changes had a huge impact for the Museum, and saw visitor giving increase by over 150% compared to before the pandemic, in the weeks following reopening. 

3.What have you learned from this collaboration? Will it change your approach to fundraising in the next phase of the pandemic?

We have learnt that the desire and ability for our visitors to donate is still there, but we need to make it is as easy for our visitors to donate as possible. 

Contactless giving has been extremely successful for the RAF Museum, but it needs time and effort put into making it a success.  It’s not as simple as installing the technology and watching the donations come in.  Time needs to be dedicated to continually monitoring the donation ask messaging and how that connects to our visitors; the location of the units and the motivations for giving.

We are looking forward to being able to reopen and will continue to focus on ensuring our messaging is reflective of our situation, that staff feel confident in talking to our visitors about supporting us with a donation and analysing the units continually.  We are hopeful that people’s desire to support through a contactless donation will continue to grow as we saw during 2020.

4.As vaccinations numbers grow, how is the RAF Museum planning for the future, and what role does digital play?

We’re hugely looking forward to re-opening on 17 May, all being well, and hope of course that we shall remain open. We will be putting all our learning from previous re-openings into practice and supporting our team to return to the Museum to welcome visitors back. Although the vaccinations bring great hope and positivity, our focus will remain on keeping all our people – our team and our visitors – safe. But we do hope that, as we move through the summer and into the autumn, we shall be able to bring people together in more joyful ways to be inspired by our storytelling and programming. Museums and culture are food for the soul and spirit; they will be a key contributor to our national recovery and at the RAF Museum we’ll be working to continue to make a positive difference for people – onsite, out in our communities and online.

As well as blending office and home working in the future, we will continue to connect digitally with our audiences, harnessing the learning that has kept us connected during closure with both our loyal visitors and new audiences, locally, nationally and internationally. Our access and learning team will continue to share online resources for families and use the expertise they’ve developed broadcasting into schools to continue to engage with those who are too far away to visit, and to supplement onsite learning for others. We will continue to grow online events too; our current Lancaster Challenge will complete on the day we re-open, which coincidentally is the 80th anniversary of the famous Dambusters Raid. Over 4,000 people have engaged with us online to walk, run, cycle 80K, 150K, or 500K. It’s been a brilliant way of encouraging people to share their own family stories, as well as supporting everyone to get out for fresh air and exercise in the dark winter days of lockdown #3. And as well as every penny of profit supporting the Museum, many participants – including our fabulous team – have been fundraising through it too.  

 5.With the next year likely to be volatile and bumpy, how can charity leaders best prepare for it? 

For most charity leaders – as with other business leaders – the year will be a combination of managing the continuing uncertainty while working to recover and rebuild. We have had to learn to be agile and responsive, and will need to draw on that experience as we navigate 2021.  But to recover well we need to look further into the future too. Successful leaders will be those who manage wisely and cautiously, while setting our sights firmly forwards and not losing our ambition. We’ve scrutinised our Strategy 2030, tested our priorities and shifted some of the delivery. But what hasn’t changed is our direction and our values. Most of all if we take anything from this dreadful year, surely it’s that leadership has to be fed by kindness. 

For more information about the RAF Museum, see www.rafmuseum.org