Smithsonian officials are over the moon that they needed only five days to complete their first Kickstarter fundraising campaign — to conserve, digitize and display Neil Armstrong’s Apollo 11 spacesuit.
The National Air and Space Museum reached its $500,000 goal Friday for the “Reboot the Suit” project, thanks to more than 6,200 backers who made donations ranging from $1 to $10,000.
Because the online campaign continues through Aug. 19, museum officials have upped the goal to $700,000 and will use the additional money to preserve, digitize and display Alan Shepard’s Mercury spacesuit, which he wore in 1961 as the first American in space.
Armstrong’s suit will be restored and displayed by July 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Both spacesuits will be featured in the Destination Moon exhibition the museum plans to open in about 2020.
“It’s a little overwhelming,” Yoon Lee, the Smithsonian’s director of digital philanthropy, said about public reaction to the campaign. “We thought we could do it, get to our goal, but we didn’t think it would be so fast. We’ve been racing to keep up.”
Elizabeth Ngonzi, a professor at New York University’s George H. Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising, called the project innovative.
“It’s pretty genius,” Ngonzi said. “Part of it is a PR move. It helps them connect to the public. It’s a staid, established brand, and if you want to revive it, this gets you in front of people.”
Like other Kickstarter projects, the campaign offers a variety of rewards to “backers” who make pledges. The money is paid only if the campaign is successful. After Kickstarter’s fees, the museum will receive about 90 percent of total donations, Lee said.
Armstrong’s spacesuit is the largest project a cultural organization has launched on Kickstarter, Lee said. It is the first in a year-long partnership between the Smithsonian and Kickstarter. Upcoming initiatives will come from different Smithsonian facilities.
The online project is part of the larger $1.5 billion fundraising effort underway at the Smithsonian, an organization of 19 museums and research centers that receives about $800 million in federal aid annually. The Smithsonian’s annual budget is about $1.3 billion.
“One of our goals in that campaign is to reach people everywhere,” Lee said. “This partnership makes wonderful sense in that respect.”
The campaign got the attention of Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C), who reintroduced a bill this week to change the governance of the Smithsonian Institution to make it easier for it to raise private donations.
“The notion that you’d have to go around begging for money to restore this historical object makes my point,” she said.
The institution’s 17-member Board of Regents would be expanded to 21, all private citizens. Currently, the board is made up of nine private citizens, six members of Congress, the vice president of the United States and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. In her proposed reorganization, House and Senate leaders would each nominate 12 citizens, and the president of the United States would chose 21 from those 24 candidates.
“To have the board dominated by public officials ties the hands of the Smithsonian behind its back,” she said. “Federal funds can’t cover all the costs, and they need to do more fundraising.”
But, Ngonzi said, the Smithsonian’s entry into online crowdfunding should be seen as innovative rather than desperate. Established organizations that have a significant pipeline to donors still need to find new ones, she said. Kickstarter helps them get their message to people who are not in their database but who are probably aware of their missions.
“You’re leaving money on the table when you don’t activate people who are involved,” she said. “You start connecting to young donors, who eventually become older donors.”
“This is low-hanging fruit,” she said. “It’s a way to activate people who are interested.”