While interviewing Mary Jo Maute about the Whatcom Museum’s participation in Project Homeless Connect, she told us of the free family membership program the museum offers to qualifying low-income families. We decided to dig deeper and learn more about this initiative and its potential to increase access to individuals who might not afford to engage with the museum otherwise. Below is an interview with Rifka MacDonald, Marketing and Membership Associate at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, Washington.
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Please describe your free membership program?
The Family Access Membership Program (also known as FAMP), which was launched 2 years ago, is an ever-expanding initiative that offers free Family level memberships to qualified, low-income families. To qualify, a family must be a Medicaid recipient, receive food assistance, or have a child enrolled in a Headstart pre-school or a school’s Free or Reduced Lunch Program. More programs, such as W.I.C., are always being evaluated as viable qualifiers so that we can continue to welcome as many as possible to the Museum. FAMP is a service of the Whatcom Museum Foundation and the Whatcom Community Foundation, whose generous grants have made it possible for us to do the outreach that is fundamental to expanding awareness.
Could you say more about your partners and how you promote FAMP?
Our partners are predominately school districts and local care organizations, such as the Opportunity Council (who are connected with Headstart schools, one of the programs that can be used to apply for FAMP). Other organizations are the Bellingham Food Bank, Big Brothers Big Sisters, Ferndale Food Bank, Whatcom County Library System, Bellingham Public Library, Whatcom Catholic Community Services, and many many more. Depending on the style of each office, we provide physical and/or digital copies of our flyers and posters. Oftentimes, counselors and other advisors within the organizations are able to promote FAMP directly to their clients in a personal way. These partner organizations are often just as excited as we are to offer Museum memberships to families that would not normally be able to afford admission costs. Without these organizations we would never be able to reach out to so many distinct groups.
What prompted this initiative?
The program was conceived about two years ago through a combination of research and as a way to address attendance goals. At that time, we were receiving feedback from visitors that, although they greatly enjoyed the Lightcatcher (our 2nd public building opened in 2009) experience, they were finding it to be too pricey. Many of these patrons recalled the days when the Museum was free. The Development department decided to use membership as an inroad to reach new audiences. Deciding to provide a program like FAMP was a natural extension for the Museum, but funding from the Whatcom Community Foundation has been essential both to launch FAMP and keep it going. FAMP has greatly evolved in its 2 years of existence, and is on track to be self-sustaining in the next year or so.
How many families participate?
In our second year we have welcomed over 100 new members to the program and 50 renewing members. We receive new applications every day and are always expanding our efforts to alert new communities and outside organizations about this opportunity.
Do you have a way to know if FAMP program participants are using their memberships?
Once someone has qualified for FAMP, they are members – we don’t distinguish them from those who have purchased their memberships. At this time we aren’t tracking attendance from FAMP members, but based on feedback from visitor services, I know that at least some FAMP program participants are using their memberships. For example, I spoke with a FAMP program participant who had always prioritized having the Museum a part of her family’s life, but could no longer afford to renew her membership due to a recent job loss. Because of FAMP, she was able to stay a member and continue coming to the Museum with her children.
Could you describe your involvement with FAMP?
FAMP is a part of my position as Marketing and Membership Associate; I facilitate the connections with our partner organizations, the distribution of materials, customer service with new and renewing applicants, the application process, and any follow-up. Any call I receive regarding FAMP is always a positive one and I really enjoy walking folks through the application process. Knowing that more people are getting access to the Museum is undeniably the best part of this program!
Is there anything else you would like to share about FAMP?
The key to building awareness about FAMP was abundant and versatile material – our application is online, available at dozens of local organizations/school offices/etc. Our posters are up at libraries and schools in two counties, food banks, Goodwill, and so many more outposts. Even groups, like Big Brothers Big Sisters, who do not have an active office were able to send out a digital version of our poster.
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Rifka is a museophile and Pacific Northwest native. She studied Anthropology at the University of Washington and is currently the Marketing and Membership Associate at the Whatcom Museum in Bellingham, WA. Her vision of museums is as a community that invites all to participate in the creation and preservation of culture. You can reach her at email@example.com or 360.778.8939.
Do you have a similar program at your museum? How do you make your organization financially accessible to broader segments of your community? Once financially accessible, what next steps do you take to ensure that your museum builds strong relationships with these members?