Demonstrating that museums have much to gain from sponsorship, San Francisco’s Exploratorium has generated $4.1 million in revenue since launching a corporate engagement program two years ago.

Partners include Autodesk, Inc.; Chevron Corp.; Franklin Templeton; Genentech, Inc.; PG&E Corp. and Sunpower Corp, all of which have multiyear deals.

The 43-year-old institution—which features more than 1,000 experiential exhibits that mix science and art—launched the program in 2011 to support its relocation from the Palace of Fine Arts to a new $300 million, nine-acre campus on Pier 15. The new venue—which opened April 17th—is roughly three times the size of the Exploratorium’s previous home.  

While the museum’s advancement department continues to secure donations from individuals and corporations, the engagement program takes fundraising to the next level by providing access to unrestricted dollars.

“The money we get from sponsorship goes directly to our operating budget,” said Barbara van Dillen, the Exploratorium’s director of corporate engagement.

Van Dillen—who worked for more than two decades at IMG prior to joining the Exploratorium—has focused the nonprofit’s sales efforts on locally-based technology companies.

The strategy: offer collaborative partnerships that can be used to engage employees and demonstrate community involvement. 

Rather than offering on-site exposure, the nonprofit aligns each partner with programming that supports their business and/or corporate social responsibility initiatives.

For example, Pacific Gas and Electric ties into the venue’s sustainability program to support its green energy initiatives; Genentech provides free admission to California public schools teachers; while Chevron uses its partnership to support STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiatives.  

Autodesk partnered with the museum in part to demonstrate its support for the maker movement, a growing subculture of consumers who have embraced electronics, technology and other DIY activities. 

The software company in 2011 acquired www.Instructables.com, a Web site that offers user-generated content on DIY projects.   

“They own that area, and that’s our DNA,” said Van Dillen.  

The sponsorship exec works closely with the nonprofit’s development team to make sure partnerships do not harm existing philanthropic relationships, she said.

“It’s a coordinated effort. I don’t want to cannibalize my colleagues in development.” 

The takeaway: museums and other nonprofits can generate significant sponsorship revenue by offering tailored marketing packages.

“In general, nonprofits are so concerned about getting what they want that they often try to fit a square peg in a round hole. They need to listen to what a company wants to do and try to figure out an alignment.”

Novarto, Calif.-based Bartram Sponsorship Strategies assists with sponsorship sales.