Engaging Gen X and Y, Fundraising Across Generations, Generational Philanthropy

Book Post #7: Thursday Night Thing

One of the front-runners in developing young audiences in San Diego is the Museum of Contemporary Art.  In August 2002, MCA started Thursday Night Thing to build awareness of the Museum’s downtown location and to build a young audience of people in their 20’s and 30’s.

The event was first conceptualized as an evening where the Museum would incorporate interactive programming, DJ performances, and inexpensive bars on a monthly basis to make their galleries welcoming to people who may be hesitant to visit a contemporary art museum. Originally, the Museum hoped to have 300 people per month, but from the first month the event proved to be wildly popular and regularly saw attendances of 600 to 800 people. Their most popular TNT to date was in August 2010 when they hosted over 1900 attendees!

After the first year, the Museum began booking more local bands (as opposed to just DJs) and another audience began attending. To gain more local visibility, the Museum developed promotional partnerships with radio, television, and print media.  After the Jacobs Building opened in 2007, the Museum had more space available that necessitated more programming throughout and provided TNT with a new venue.

The most notable transition of TNT was a result of the economic downturn and budget cuts. TNT had to go on hiatus for a summer.  Once TNT resumed, it transitioned from a monthly free event, to a quarterly event with a $10 admission price (the price as general admission to the Museum during normal gallery hours). Surprisingly – or not so surprisingly, the TNT attendance continued to grow –despite the admission costs.  There is an inherent belief that something that is “free” holds little value.  I would recommend to most nonprofits to charge – even a nominal fee – for events so that attendees associate a value.

Thursday Night Thing has built a loyal young audience for the Museum – especially at their downtown location where the event is hosted. But at first, they didn’t see a direct association with the event and actual membership numbers or contributions made.  Once admission fees were imposed, the Museum developed a new e-membership level designed for the computer-savvy, young audiences, and people interested in a more “green” membership option.  TNT attendees began signing up and enjoying the benefits – including free admission to all TNT event.

What I have learned from MCA’s TNT about throwing a successful young audience event:

  1. Find interesting “draws” to the event like local live bands.
  2. Charge a small admission price.
  3. Offer membership opportunities that will appeal to a younger audience.

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