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Q-and-A with Robert J. Spiller: Smithsonian Assistant Secretary for Advancement answers your questions

Robert J. Spiller, Assistant Secretary for Advancement for the Smithsonian Institution, joined John Glier, CEO of Grenzebach Glier and Associates, on April 3 for a webinar entitled “Fundraising for the Nation’s Museums: Planning and Managing a Challenging Present and an Uncertain Future.”

Rob Spiller, assistant secretary, The Smithsonian

Rob Spiller, Assistant Secretary for Advancement, The Smithsonian

In the webinar, Rob explained how the Smithsonian is taking steps to address the short- and long-term impact of COVID-19. He also detailed how the institution is providing people across the country with resources they can use to explore arts, culture, history, and technology through virtual content, research and educational tools.

We followed up with Rob after the webinar to answer attendees’ questions.

Q. Talk about the challenges that your frontline staff are facing and how you’ve reset expectations.

Firstly, we understand that we are in uncharted territory, and are emphasizing our team taking care of themselves and their families first and foremost, coupled with focusing on stewardship during this time.

We are also encouraging our gift officers to connect with donors to build relationships. We’re continuing to hold our gift officers accountable but in recalibrated ways. For example, we’re now counting Zoom meetings and phone calls as visits to acknowledge and maintain our visit goals. That’s not a revolutionary change, but it is an important, necessary shift. At the same time, we want to ensure that our gift officers are comfortable having philanthropic conversations remotely. To help, we’re running workshops with experts who can help us address issues such as how to respond to donors’ financial questions.

Q. Are you making asks to specific individuals or are you waiting for individuals to reach out on their own to make gifts when you express a need?

We’ve been pulling back on these conversations unless otherwise already engaged in active gift conversations. However, because we are still engaging with our donors fairly consistently, we’ve found that some have expressed an interest in supporting The Smithsonian.

Q. How are you communicating the message that The Smithsonian’s mission is more important than ever?

This varies across our organization, but we have emphasized our virtual educational resources in our messaging and in conversations. We also are making the case that cultural and research organizations are an important part of the healing process for our country. Art, culture, research and convening will continue to play a role in defining who we are as a nation.

Q. What has been the impact of your quick pivot to rolling out educational resources, such as virtual tours and field trips?

We’ve received a lot of positive feedback from our core members and some interest from prospects, especially from technology companies. The crisis allows us to tell that part of our story more now than we could when our museums were open.

Q. What is in the care packages that you’re sending donors? How are you managing the logistics of sending them out?

We’ve been sending customized packages to some of our stakeholders based on their interests. For example, we have sent jigsaw puzzles to those donors with children. The idea is to send items that remind donors of the organization and reinforce the relationship we have with them and their families.

Q. What messages have you found lead to closure?

There are large variations, based on segment, but overall, we’ve found success signaling to our community that our mission is as important as ever, and the Smithsonian is contributing during the crisis and will be important as we emerge. Back to our mission and purpose in many ways.

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