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How to fundraise for a multimillion-pound capital works project

Luminita Holban, ORNC Painted Hall

Find out how Old Royal Naval College capitalised on its USPs to engage funders and supporters in its efforts to raise £8.5m for its Painted Hall Conservation Project

By Luminita Holban


As a relatively new charity (established in 1997) the Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) had to work extremely hard to establish its identity and raise its profile. Often, people would not be aware that we were different from, say, the National Maritime Museum or the University of Greenwich. Or they would think we were still associated with the Royal Navy or with the Government.


We had an interesting conundrum: everyone would recognise our buildings (particularly the classic ‘Canaletto’ view from the river) but no one knew who we were. We were “the most important heritage site no one’s ever heard of”.


Capturing attention with our USPs


We put a lot of time and effort into creating and promoting a unique brand for the site and reinforcing the message that we were an independent charity, not a government-funded institution. We also highlighted our unique selling points - these being great architecture and art, relaxing riverside location, open and free to visit. And, of course, the Painted Hall. Described as “the Sistine Chapel of the UK” and “the most complete realisation of Baroque scenography in an English interior”, the Painted Hall was built in the early 18th century – not for royalty, but for some of the poorest people in the country: old and injured sailors, retired from the British Navy.


We recognised the potential of this unique architectural space to attract wider attention and support and raise the profile of our entire site. But it needed significant investment, not just in conserving the paintings themselves and introducing better environmental controls, but also in new visitor facilities which would transform the Painted Hall into a world-class, engaging and fully accessible heritage attraction.


To achieve these goals, we developed the Painted Hall Conservation Project – an £8.5m programme of transformational capital works, accompanied by a range of innovative learning and community engagement activities.


Challenges in securing funding


When looking at funding options for this project – which is considerably larger than our annual budget – we decided to apply to the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for an anchor grant. This was for a number of reasons: because of its rigorous application procedures, HLF backing gives credibility and prestige to a project; an HLF grant usually leverages other philanthropic donations; and our fundraising capacity and prospect pool at that time would not have allowed us to raise the full amount needed exclusively from private donors.


HLF grants, however, are becoming much more competitive, particularly at national level (i.e. for grant requests of over £2m). Project proposals now need to be quite well developed even before the first-round application stage. So it’s becoming increasingly more likely to be rejected first time around. The crucial thing is to take away as many positive lessons from this ‘failure’ as possible, take on board the HLF’s feedback and work very closely with your HLF case officer to address any issues. In the end, it’s likely that the resulting scheme will be better and stronger for it.


Our application was successful the second time around and we were awarded a £3.18m grant. Organisations hoping to secure HLF funding should be prepared for a significant investment of time and resources in developing a truly transformational proposal. They should also make sure the team who are going to be responsible for delivering the project, are involved in its development and have ownership from the start.


We have also raised almost £3m from other donors – roughly £1m from trusts and foundations, £1.5m from individuals and £0.5m from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.


Appealing to major donors


Before this campaign major donors were not a significant income stream for us. We lacked a good fundraising database, a pool of warm prospects, and a prospect research function. But we were confident that the multifaceted Painted Hall project would appeal to many philanthropists because there really is something in it for everyone: conservation, art history, naval and maritime heritage, curatorial expertise, educational activities, access and participation.


Our approach with major donors has been simple (although that doesn’t mean easy): we always try our best to get them on site, to experience the awe and wonder of the Painted Hall in person. Most people who visit are overwhelmed and surprised that they didn’t know more about it. The visit is often the key to unlocking a donation.


Engaging the public


The Painted Hall is free to visit, which gives us an opportunity to highlight the need for support to the general public. Over the past five years we have increased on-site donations in the Painted Hall (i.e. cash in donation boxes) ten-fold to around £140k per year. This has largely been achieved by having a stronger staff and volunteer presence in the Painted Hall, to talk to visitors about the project and highlight the conservation need.


But we felt the Painted Hall Conservation Project could offer even more – a unique chance for people to support the conservation of a square foot of painting for £75 (there are more than 40,000 sq ft of painted surfaces in total!) During the project, the public will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go up onto the scaffolding, right underneath the painted ceiling, and get an insight into the conservation process and the creation of the paintings. Tying neatly in with this, we have created the Sponsor a Square Foot campaign, which is already active, but will be promoted more strongly once scaffolding tours start in the Spring/Summer of April 2017.


We’ve also recently completed our first-ever crowdfunding campaign, which raised £22,843 within a month (on the Art Happens platform). This attracted quite a large number of donors (293) and was for one specific element of the project – conserving the gilded decorations of the proscenium arch in the Painted Hall.


If you have an interesting and/or unique site, building or object, bring potential donors to see it, and touch it (where appropriate). Give them behind-the-scenes access, and introduce them to key experts, who are not only knowledgeable but also passionate about the project.


Next steps


Overall, we’re very happy with our fundraising progress so far, having raised almost 75% of the total budget. To help raise the additional funds we need, we’re preparing some targeted appeals (both to trusts and to major donors) focusing on learning, access and participation activities, which are happening alongside the conservation project – for example:


-       Working with children with special educational needs (in particular autism) to use the Painted Hall as a resource for achieving learning outcomes

-       Developing resources for blind & visually impaired visitors

-       Training our staff and volunteers in supporting visitors with special access needs

-       Career and skills development opportunities


Having made such good progress to date, the trustees were happy to give the green light to start the project, and the scaffolding went up at the end of September. We’re confident that, once our pioneering scaffolding tours start, there will be much more interest and publicity, which should help raise the profile of the Painted Hall and therefore attract even more support over the two years of the project.


Luminita Holban is head of grants and individual giving at the Old Royal Naval College 

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