Saving the Arlington Planetarium – A Fundraising Success Story

We often hear about planetariums closing or cutting back due to lack of funding. The David M. Brown Planetarium in Arlington Virginia was one of them, until a group of local advocates got involved and launched an effort to save their local planetarium. They were so successful that this month, the Brown planetarium announced the purchase of a new Spitz Scidome digital fulldome theater – completing a public relations, outreach, and fundraising campaign to keep their planetarium alive.

Arlington’s 30 foot Spitz A4 planetarium was opened in 1969, and was renamed in 2008 in honor of the astronaut David M. Brown, who died in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster on February 1, 2003. In early 2010, Arlington Public Schools Superintendant, Dr. Patrick Murphy, announced that the Arlington planetarium would close due to budget restrictions.

In May 2010, The Friends of Arlington’s David M. Brown Planetarium formed as a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization with the goal of keeping the planetarium’s doors open. Their financial target was $402,800, to be raised by June 30, 2011.

In June 2010, the Friends of the Planetarium launched a website, including a monthly blog to share their progress. They began with an open meeting to gather and discuss creative ideas on how to proceed.

In the months that followed, they held open houses, lectures, concerts and benefit events that attracted powerful support from allies like congressman Jim Moran, and astronaut Bill Readdy. The Save the Arlington Planetarium website established donor levels, including seat dedication for a contribution of $1,000. Over 40 individuals and companies donated $1,000 or above, and nearly 20 contributed $5,000 or more.

Throughout the campaign, The Friends of Arlington’s David M. Brown Planetarium aggressively promoted their events, and sent press releases at every step. The PR effort was hugely successful – in 2010 and 2011, newspaper and web articles about the Brown Planetarium appeared weekly – sometimes 3 – 4 articles each week.

Another significant part of the effort was hosting shows in the planetarium, including multiple demos by Spitz to show the latest technology to prospective donors.

On July 1st, 2011, The Friends of Arlington’s David M. Brown Planetarium announced the planetarium had been saved. The day before, an anonymous donation of $50,000 was made pushing the level of contributions over $400,000. After a 6-month selection process Arlington Public Schools ordered a SciDome HD digital projection system and new Spitz projection dome.

Installation of the new Spitz equipment will begin in May. The renovated David M. Brown planetarium is scheduled to open in summer of 2012.