A comprehensive look at five ways museums, zoos, aquariums and national parks can recoup revenue or generate new earned income in 2021.

Whether you are a cultural institution (like a museum, zoos and aquariums) or a travel-based organization like a national park, COVID-19 has probably upended your finances. Raise your hand if you have had to cut budgets, sell assets, reduce your staff size, or terminate programs in order to stay afloat. As the economy recovers, you’re probably looking to create sustainable revenue streams in order to establish your organization’s new normal. The quickest way to generate revenue is to look for new sources of earned income. 

For most cultural organizations and nonprofits, earned income is the money you can make outside of investments and government and private sector support. Your earned income is revenue generated from exhibitions, programs, events, memberships, admission fees, gift shop merchandise, bookstores, restaurants and renting out physical locations for events. In order to help you generate ideas, we dug deep and developed five ideas for you. 

Idea No. 1: Invest in Ecommerce

The first thing any cultural organization can do is invest in ecommerce. Most ecommerce platforms allow you to sell more than just merchandise online. Your organization can sell tickets, memberships, classes, and subscriptions to just about any kind of product or program. 

An ecommerce site doesn’t limit you to connect with people locally, it also allows you to sell a wider audience online and through more channels. Great store examples are The Getty and MoMa. Another great example is The National Parks Foundation’s online store which features great merchandise and also allows visitors from around the world to donate and support their efforts. The Field Museum also has a very impressive site that lets anyone shop online, buy tickets to events and manage their membership! The Minnesota Zoo also does a very good job of this. 

When it comes to the e-commerce platforms to use, we personally love Shopify and Squarespace, but there are many other options available like BigCommerce, Lightspeed, Magento, and WooCommerce that may work for you. Many of these platforms have developers who can help you get set up if you don’t have someone seasoned on staff. These individuals can also help you start to sell your products on Facebook, Instagram, AmazonGoogle, Pinterest, and other online shopping sites. 

Idea No. 2: Refresh Your Merchandise Strategy

For cultural organizations, income generated from product sales (like that found in gift shops) accounts for as little as 5% but as much as 25% of your annual revenue. Unlike most retail stores that carry merchandise based on trends, the merchandise most cultural organizations carry in their gifts shops is closely tied to the exhibits and programs that they offer. 

As a store buyer and merchandiser, it’s critically important for you to think of your retail store as a shoppable extension of the venue overall. You want to carry a wide, but well curated, range of quality merchandise that corresponds to what’s on exhibit permanently and temporarily. You also want to make sure you have products that fit multiple price points so that visitors have a large enough selection to shop from. 

Make sure that your shop has core merchandise that are staples. These can be general souvenirs like mugs, postcards, stickers and t-shirts. They can also be products corresponding to long standing programs, exhibitions and events. You’ll also want to make sure you have more unique products to seasonal exhibitions or programs. As you source products for new exhibits, here’s where you can possibly gain new sales. Ask yourself: 

  • Is there a way I can think outside the box for something we’re offering? 
  • Can our organization purchase a handmade line from a local artist? 
  • Can we collaborate with a local artist to design something exclusively for us? 
  • Can we capitalize on trends (like consignment, vintage or antique) to add uniqueness and exclusivity to our merchandise selection?
  • Can I work with my trade show wholesalers to create a better merchandise mix?

From here, you’ll also want to invest some time in redesigning the layout of your store and your displays. How you present merchandise is everything, so it’s important to curate the shopping experience to match what visitors are seeing. If you need help, we’ve created a 67-page guide you can download for free!

Idea No. 3: Develop New Membership Incentives

As I’ve been researching ways for cultural organizations to develop new sources of revenue, developing or redeveloping membership programs is something that stood out. Whether it was a museum, zoo, or aquarium, many organizations offer the same type of membership incentive. It looked like this:

For an annual fee of ($25-$95), a member would get year round access to the zoo, aquarium, or museum. They would also get an average 10% discount on paid events, and 10-15% off food purchases. 

In general, the value of the membership comes off in a pretty generic fashion and the incentive to purchase wasn’t overly clear or persuasive. Since membership is an important metric in multiple areas, it leads me to ask myself, “How can membership be incentivized in a way that drives people to purchase one?” The answer looks something like this:

  1. It has to show me the value I get for becoming a paid member.
  2. It needs to offer me tiers of membership that clearly state the benefits of each membership.
  3. Mid-tier, premium memberships need to be inclusive of amenities like parking, wi-fi and low cost freebies.
  4. Upper-tier, premium memberships need to include complimentary access to member only events. I should not have to pay for them. 

The Columbus Zoo, The National Cowboy Museum, and The Discovery Museum have done a pretty good job in conveying value and showing what you get for membership tiers. While offering value to families is critical, I think there’s also room for museums, zoos, and aquariums to experiment with new types of memberships that focus on adults only. 

Would I attend a cocktail party and concert at The Columbus Zoo that cost $100, with all the proceeds going to support their tigers? Absolutely. 

Would I attend a charity rodeo and dance event where all the proceeds go to the National Cowboy Museum? Heck yes, and I’d ride in the rodeo too!

And if you’re a national park, since entrance fees generate millions of dollars per year but parks are still left with a deficit to fund improvements, maybe there’s a way to create better perks for purchasing park passes. 

Would a pass that costs $10-20 more but earns someone a yearly discount at Moosejaw, Backcountry, REI Co-op be something they’d purchase? Most likely. 

Could you take that a step farther and collaborate with an industry organization like Outdoor Retailer or Airbnb Experiences? I have at least five ideas on how to make that work!

Idea  No. 4: Revamp Your Exhibitions, Events & Programs

Educational events and programs are good sources of earned income if they are well designed and laid out. They come as great sources of revenue when they are original, not something that everyone else is offering, and that people feel is unique. It’s the originality and uniqueness that increase their value in the attendee’s mind, and they are willing to pay for them. 

For example, the Woodland Park Zoo in Washington creates events centered around what local Seattle area residents like to attend. They host highly experiential events for families and adults only. From wine tastings to concerts, holiday light fests and fake snowball fights, the zoo focuses on creating programming that Seattleites love. Each event also has a title sponsor from a large area business such as Alaska Airlines or Sound Credit Union. The Oregon Zoo also did a great job of designing a larger scale concert series that featured artists like Taj Mahal, Indigo Girls, k.d. Lang, Chris Isaak, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and many more. 

Another way to revamp and/or create new programs is to look for like-minded people and companies to collaborate with. For example, a national park could collaborate with The National Wildlife Foundation, The Sierra Club, the Nature Conservancy, or another grassroots organization to design a multi-city program that focuses on wildlife and wilderness conservation. 

A zoo could do a retail collaboration with organizations and retail brands like Elephant Origins or Pangols Coffee on Gorillas. They could also partner with a local shelter or national organization like Best Friends to develop adoption programs. The retail merchandise that could be an extension of these programs could help fund the support of zoo animals. 

The same goes for an aquarium – you could collaborate with 4Ocean or Shelby Reef or The Surfrider Foundation. While you’d have to work out how these collaborations would/could work, I bet there are some creative ways that finding new partners and advocates can have a positive impact on awareness and fundraising efforts. 

Idea No.5: Take Sponsorships & Adoption Online

Another great way to increase your revenue that isn’t related to selling merchandise or memberships is to take your sponsorship opportunities online. Taking sponsorship online directly relates to developing an ecommerce site. Two great examples are the Toronto Zoo, Bird TLC, and the Point Defiance Zoo. Both organizations made it easy and cost effective for people to sponsor animals. They allow you to set-up one-time or monthly animal sponsorships. People can also contribute to conservation initiatives. These make for  great gift ideas for animal lovers!

If you aren’t an organization with animals to sponsor, you can still use this idea in order to help fund your local educational programs and events. For example, both The Virginia Aquarium and MOTE offer extensive education programs for children and have expanded these programs to help with the influx of home education parents face. Either of these organizations could set-up an endowment or a simple “sponsor a child” campaign in order to help fund these programs so that they are free of cost to the kids that participate in them. 

Where We Go From Here?


Whether your organization is seasoned at maximizing earned income or it’s just beginning to explore how to increase it, we hope these tips and ideas will help you as you begin to recover from the impact of COVID-19. We know we’re not “out of the woods” yet, but like you, we want to focus on helping generate positive outcomes. If you have questions, ideas, or examples of how you’re changing your strategies, please reach out to macala.wright@emeraldx.com as I’d love to talk to you, help you find resources and/or share your successes with the IGES community.

Further Reading:

  1. The luxury evolution of the museum gift shop — Fashionista
  2. Museums don’t just want gift shops to make money — they want them to shape our understanding of art — VOX
  3. 3 Strategies to Increase Museum Revenue with Visual Marketing — CrowdRiff
  4. Museums Are Closed, But Digital Exhibitions Could Be A Revenue Source—If Only They Tried – Forbes
  5. The Future of Nonprofits: Run Them Like an Innovative Business – Forbes

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