Should all of Balboa Park’s museums be free?
It’s not just a great idea for residents. A financial case can be made that it’s better for the museum’s bottomline.
The San Diego History Center certainly thinks so. It moved to what it calls a “Give Forward” admissions program in October, and since then visitor numbers are way up.
“The Give Forward program has been transformative, for our museums, our staff and our members,” said SDHC Executive Director Bill Lawrence. “When the number of visitors is down, the energy that drives our purpose and passion is down. With the increased attendance from the Give Forward program, the energy has transformed and the community is taking notice.”
The average number of visitors has increased from 67 per day to 216, up 225 percent. It averaged 280 visitors a day in January.
The shift in admissions was inspired by the research of Ayelet Gneezy and Uri Gneezy, faculty at the Rady School of Management at UC San Diego, and experts in charitable giving.
Working with the Rady School professors, the museum determined the best way to increase admissions was to allow visitors to contribute based on their experience in the museum, instead of paying a set admissions fee. In addition, the museum highlights to visitors that admissions donations help pay for other people to visit in the future.
“As researchers, it is extremely gratifying to see what we have discovered in research applied successfully in practice,” Gneezy said. “Working with the San Diego History Center and helping them implement their new Give Forward pricing structure has been rewarding and is an excellent example for other museums to consider when thinking about admissions structure.”
The Give Forward program is not a short-term trial, but a permanent change designed to build long-term relationships.
“Continued viability for the San Diego History Center starts with enhanced exposure in the community and developing new relationships,” Lawrence said. “Increasing visitors who are learning to appreciate our region’s rich history and experiencing the stories of San Diego’s shared past, is an investment in our future.”
This program has also increased outreach to underserved communities by 44 percent.