Fundraising for Digital Planetariums

Planetarium technology isn’t the only thing that’s changed from the last heyday of planetarium installations in the ’60s and ’70s. 21st century fundraising is also a new concern for today’s educational planetariums.

Today, a planetarium upgrade (or construction of a new one) may well require you to get involved in fundraising efforts. While many museums and colleges have development staff in house, most schools with planetariums don’t. You and your colleagues may need to become more savvy and proactive regarding your sources for funding. Here are a few ideas for how to make your upgrade a reality:

Educate Your Administration

Though most planetarium professionals wouldn’t think of it as “fundraising,” we recommend educating your administrators about digital planetariums.

New astronomy education possibilities, multi-curricular options, and the powerful impact of fulldome digital projection may be obvious to many of us, but they’re probably unknown to decision makers at your school. Making this an on-going discussion helps spread the word to your community about the need for support.

Spitz presenting a SciDome demonstration at a planetarium fundraising event

Many schools schedule on-site demonstrations of our SciDome digital planetarium systems for their administration, school board, superintendent, and staff. Often, this is just the push that’s needed to make the planetarium upgrade a priority.

Talk to Your Audience

Don’t be shy mentioning the need for support to your public audiences, or displaying the message via a dome slide, as the audience gathers. Be on the look-out for local companies, businesses and individuals interested or able to make donations in support of your planetarium and its mission.

Grants vs. Corporate or Individual Giving

Many planetarians ask us about sources for grants to be used for an initial upgrade to a digital planetarium, or for replacing/upgrading components of the digital planetarium they already own. The NSTA‘s Shell Science Lab Challenge and NASA’s Competitive Program for Science Museums, Planetariums and NASA Visitor Centers are examples of grants that may fund a planetarium or program.

A professional grant researcher/writer can also help, but realize long lead times, plus the amount of competition, can be daunting. Tapping generous local alumni or a local company may be much quicker, and more straightforward.

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.