The Smithsonian's Spectacular Traveling Fundraiser

Zach Brooke
Key Takeaways

What? The Smithsonian groomed employees across many fields as ambassadors, promoting their personal stories as part of a fundraising campaign. 

So what? The TED Talk-style lyceum helped the national museum complete its $1.5 billion capital campaign, the largest fundraiser ever for a cultural institution.  

Now what? Most nonprofits are full of authentic personalities motivated by a deep passion for its cause. Consider leveraging these stories in advocacy and informational campaigns.

How a TED Talk-style road show helped the Smithsonian fund the largest cultural institution campaign in history

The pavilion at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles was filled to near capacity. The 4,100-square-foot space was designed to bridge worlds and reflect a proud hybrid identity. Combining Japanese and American influences, the room’s wall of windows offers an intimate, insulated view of the National Museum’s Historic Building next door, once a Buddhist Temple and later a government-commandeered processing center that pushed around the paperwork necessary to exile thousands of WWII-era Japanese-Americans to years of wartime confinement. 

But that sober, sensitive topic was not what the 300-strong crowd had gathered to discuss this night in September 2015. Nor were they there to explore the Issei generation of Japanese immigrants who came to America at the end of the 19th century or any contemporary Japanese-American trends or personages. Rather, those in attendance were there to see 10-minute presentations on topics as disparate from Japanese-American culture as outer space history, given by Smithsonian employees who had flown in from as far away as Washington, D.C. The visiting presenters spoke passionately about what they do, why they do it and what it means for America.

The diverse roster enlivened a crowd whose interests extended beyond the museum’s purview. Some in the audience, like Scott Tennent, the Smithsonian’s director of advancement communications, were looking forward to a particular speaker on the program, only to be captivated by a different topic entirely. “There was a curator from the Hirshhorn Museum that was there to talk about the work of the artist Robert Irwin. That’s what I wanted to see,” Tennent says. “But then there was another speaker, Pete Marra from the National Zoo, who specialized in saving birds. I have not studied birds in my life. I don’t go birdwatching. I listened to him speak and was so enthralled by everything that he had to say. He really opened my eyes. [He brought me] to these ‘wow’ moments that the Smithsonian and its scholars are responsible for.”

Pete Marra

Rounding out the program that night were Eric Jentsch, a curator at the National Museum of American History, and Margaret Weitekamp, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum. 

The quartet gathered at the behest of the Smithsonian’s fundraising arm, which had groomed them and 27 of their colleagues to bear witness to the unique possibilities for preservation and advancement offered by the Smithsonian. In brief snippets, each described what their work meant to them and why it is vital to the fabric of American culture. That night’s scene repeated itself 20 more times by the end of January 2018. In cities across the country, this traveling lyceum rolled out under the banner “People>Passion>Purpose,” and from the start it became a lynchpin in one of the world’s largest fundraising campaigns. 

$1.5 billion is a lot of money. If a new country formed tomorrow with a GDP of $1.5 billion, it would eclipse the economies of 28 nations. If that sum were distributed to a random human, that person would become the world’s 1,376th-richest individual. In terms of fundraising, it’s the largest sum in history raised for a cultural institution. 

The people “People>Passion>Purpose” series was a key branch of the Smithsonian’s first capital campaign. Fundraising began in 2011 and for three years extended solely through the upper strata of society, soliciting contributions from America’s wealthiest and garnering eight-figure support from contributors such as David H. Koch, Oprah Winfrey and Boeing Co. Other prominent supporters among the 60,000 elite early benefactors included fashion designer Ralph Lauren, director George Lucas, actress Eva Longoria, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. 

When the campaign went public in 2014, it had already reached two-thirds of its goal, $1 billion dollars. A commendable start, but one which still left a sizeable summit before organizers. With the ultra-wealthy tapped out, the Smithsonian needed to appeal to the generosity of the public to finance the remaining $500 million—and hopefully more—of the project. 

What’s more, it was important that each of the 30 entities the Smithsonian comprises hit their lesser goals, which when aggregated, totaled the topline $1.5 billion. Many of the largest donations came with strings attached and could not be distributed to parts of the Smithsonian with the greatest needs. Koch’s $35 million gift was earmarked for renovation of the Smithsonian’s dinosaur hall. Winfrey tied her $13 million donation to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. And Boeing poured its $30 million into the National Air and Space Museum. Those donations funded capital projects at just three of the Smithsonian’s 19 museums, all of which had ambitious plans to renovate and expand. And the museums were but a single constellation operating within the Smithsonian’s vast galaxy. An additional 10 research centers, plus the National Zoo, were encompassed by the Smithsonian’s mandate.

Organizers needed a campaign that would appeal to all segments of the Smithsonian, as well as tout the big picture of the institution’s footprint, which includes 6,500 employees and 155 million objects. They needed a pitch that would highlight the full spectrum of knowledge preserved and furthered in each corner of the organization. They needed something different. 

This assignment to encapsulate the Smithsonian was given to Penne Kirkpatrick, then a decade-tenured employee involved in marketing and special events. Designated the assistant director of programming, she ideated the public-facing campaign as a series of TED Talk-style presentations featuring museum employees who would highlight the importance of their work and what excited them about it. This was not to be a series of dry, academic seminars, but an emotional account of the professional lives and impact of the Smithsonian’s specialized workers. Not only that, but they would travel the country, bringing their enthusiasm to communities far away from the Smithsonian’s home base in Washington. The mountain would go to Muhammed. It was a fresh idea that stood alone in the thickly templated world of nonprofit fundraising. Almost too fresh.

“We often talk about how we cleared this major hurdle,” Kirkpatrick says. “It was such a turning point in the life of the project. [Our leadership] didn’t know what it would look like, they didn’t know how it would all come together, so there was a big leap of faith.” Part of what helped Kirkpatrick sell the project internally was its name. The campaign was dubbed “People>Passion>Purpose,” a recycled phrase originally used as the title of the Smithsonian’s 2013 internal report. When first released, it resonated with the institutional community instantly: Here are dedicated, noteworthy researchers and educators pursuing their lives’ work and furthering the mission of America’s foremost national repository of artifacts.  

“We relied so heavily on talking about our collection—we have over 155 million objects, and they are treasures, they truly are—but what brings them to life is the people,” Kirkpatrick says. “As magical and beautiful as they are, [the objects] come to life when somebody tells you the story behind them.”


Greg Adams, a processing archivist, performs banjo folk music.

The approach also touched on all four themes of the campaign: Spark discovery, tell America’s story, inspire lifelong learning and reach people everywhere. Granted, financial considerations were the primary driver of “People>Passion>Purpose,” but the novel effort tackled items the outreach arm of the institution had been searching for ways to address. Chief among them: that outside the Beltway, the institution was viewed largely as a capitol creature, a strip of grandiose buildings set against the expansive National Mall. The Smithsonian is a Washington destination, and not terribly relevant once tourists have boarded their flights back home.

Additionally, there was a common misconception that the Smithsonian’s funding came from the federal government. Its museums are free; some deep-pocketed entity like Uncle Sam must be picking up the tab, right? In reality, federal appropriations account for little more than two-thirds of the Smithsonian’s budget; 30 cents of every budgeted dollar comes from private support.

“We had to start telling that story,” Kirkpatrick says, but first they had to talk about the experience that people have in the museum. “They’re inspired, they’re in awe, they’re in wonder. We had to create that experience away from the museum. We had to get people to take a new look at the Smithsonian [to understand] that it isn’t just a place you come on your sixth-grade field trip, that you can engage with it across the country and around the world.”

Beyond raising funds, the goal of the campaign was to reach as many Americans as possible to show them that the Smithsonian is relevant to their lives and relies on private support, Tennent says. To get the message out, Kirkpatrick enlisted Atlanta-based creative agency Ideas United to scale “People>Passion>Purpose” to a national level. The 17-year-old outfit was founded by four Emory students originally looking to put on a film festival. That project, Campus Movie Fest, has grown to become the world’s largest movie festival, showcasing the work of more than 1 million students around the world since its inception. This gave the organizers a desirable network of creative contacts, who morphed into go-to freelancers when Ideas United converted into an agency. Ideas United already enjoyed big-fish status as agency of record for the world’s largest sports agency, PGA America. Yet the wide-ranging scope of the Smithsonian’s mission was a supreme challenge to distill into a speaker series.

“The exceptional breadth and depth of the Smithsonian was both an incredible inspiration and challenge,” says Ideas United CEO David Roemer. “They were able to tap into our expertise in scaling the event.” 

The Smithsonian highlighted its reach within the communities where events were held. There are more than 200 Smithsonian affiliates around the country, which are local museums like LA’s Japanese American National Museum that enjoy a special relationship with the Smithsonian. Partnering with these museums promoted the Smithsonian’s regional presence throughout the country. When these affiliates geographically overlapped with a donor hotspot, they formed the ideal venue for “People>Passion>Purpose.” In addition to hosting the event, many of the affiliates offered up ambassadors who could connect Smithsonian fundraising to their network of donors. 

Kirkpatrick selected and groomed Smithsonian employees to headline the events. The genius of the campaign was its ability to rely on the Smithsonian’s academics and researchers to be the stars of the outreach effort. “We had [previously] leaned heavily on our directors and our leaders,” Kirkpatrick says. “But we learned in talking to our donors and our audiences that they actually connected more with the specific work [of our researchers]. When they could envision somebody going out into the field and working with elephants in Africa or bringing a new artist to a world stage, that is what people really responded to.”

Speakers were selected based on their charisma and marketability. Smithsonian employees had long known who among their colleagues radiated the most magnetism, so they hustled to secure those people for the effort. But charm was not the only requisite to speak. Some of the vetting process was tied to donation targets. Speakers were chosen from fields whose targets were still unmet. Kirkpatrick also aimed to represent public-interfacing workers, as it was important to highlight that researchers toiling in the field were on the same footing as the museum educators who guide patrons through the archival treasures.

The results were spectacular. Some presenters reflected the awe of the subjects they worked with. Liz Cottrell of the National Museum of Natural History used her presentation to illustrate the awesome majesty of volcanoes. “It’s not a coincidence that the things you’re respiring are the same things that come out of volcanoes,” she said. “Water and carbon dioxide. That’s because volcanoes have made our atmosphere. They have made our planet habitable. And that’s what I mean when I say that we live on this earth by permission of volcanoes.”

Others, like Adriel Luis of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, gave cultural context to their work to showcase its relevance in Americans’ lives. When Luis became a curator, most of his friends had no idea what that meant, but one distilled it perfectly: “You’re like DJ—except for things,” his friend said. “I’ve been carrying that with me ever since. As a curator, as a DJ of things, my job is to meet you with that thing at your mood, at your moment, that will help you complete your story,” Luis says.

Adriel Luis

All styles were merged into what Kirkpatrick calls a tasting menu that presents a common theme: the American experience from hundreds of angles. “We asked them to step outside their comfort zones,” she says. “[They] get 10 minutes to talk about what [they] do, why [they’re] passionate about it, and what difference it’s making in the world. And we ask them to do it through their personal lens.” The presenters were specifically advised not to ask for donations. That task was handed over to fundraising specialists who reached out to audience members through phone calls and e-mail.

The target goal of $1.5 billion was reached by October 2016—more than a year before the campaign was scheduled to conclude—and kept growing. By the time “People>Passion>Purpose” presentations wrapped in January 2018, the donations totaled $1.8 billion. The Smithsonian is now preparing for a gala that will celebrate the seven years of work and thank members for showing their support. 

Though the need for “People>Passion>Purpose” has dissipated, the program proved popular enough that discussions are in place about the future of the campaign.“We have heard loud and clear from our volunteers and from our audiences that we need to keep our presence at regional activities,” Kirkpatrick says. “They want to stay connected with the Smithsonian, and we’re committed to doing that.”

A future effort might entail filmed versions of the presentations on the campaign website or social media, in addition to the sizzle reel that exists online today. It also may mean turning the events into a touring act that visits paid venues across the country, which Kirkpatrick experimented with once during the initial campaign. 

Nothing has been finalized, however. The Smithsonian first is implementing a new strategic plan that will take the organization through 2022, and there’s the happy problem of having to allocate the remainder of $1.8 billion not already accounted for. But the popularity of “People>Passion>Purpose” has ensured the campaign will survive in some form, having earned a place alongside the other 155 million objects held in America’s attic. 

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Zach Brooke
Zach Brooke is a staff writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at or on Twitter at @Zach_Brooke.