Without a major gift of $1 million or $2 million dollars, it could be challenging to ask for other, smaller donations, Staiger said.
The museum's struggle is tough but typical for a local enterprise, according to experts.
Last summer, Palo Alto History Museum organizers signed a lease option with the City of Palo Alto on the historic downtown Roth building.
The Spanish Colonial-style building, built in 1932, has sat unoccupied since the city purchased it in 2000, its basement flooding with heavy rains and marked by water damage. The structure also needs seismic retro-fitting, Staiger said.
Estimated restoration costs have climbed from $5.5 million to $7.2 million.
Under the option agreement, the museum group has two years to raise the money, at which point the city will grant them the right to lease the building for $1 a year, said Staiger, who is also the city historian.
The hunt for money is a two-step process, with the group seeking the individual million-dollar gifts before launching a public campaign, he said.
"Large donations encourage smaller ones. When significant community figures give, then the public as a whole will see the project is viable and they will come forward," he said.
The group has already raised "several hundred thousand dollars," $250,000 of which came from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to fund the group's effort to find more massive donations, he said.
A couple of smaller foundational grants totaling about $125,000 were given for construction costs, he added.
And because the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, $800,000 of investment tax credits will be available for restoration, the museum's Project Director Karen Holman said.
But the three-year search for a major donor hasn't turned up anyone yet, he said.
The time-consuming and sometimes confounding process is to be expected, local museum founders said.
It will take at least a decade before Mountain View history buffs can open the doors of a museum currently in planning stages, according to Bob Weaver, president of the historical association.
The group will pursue the same strategy as in Palo Alto: find locals with deep pockets to make big, initial gifts towards the projected $10-million cost, he said.
They are looking for friends of wealthy, well-meaning residents, who "can put their arm up around the guy or gal's shoulder, and say, 'This is a good thing. I think you should do this,'" he said.
He added, "I don't know any of those people. We are looking for those people."
Who you know is crucial, agreed Laura Bajuk, executive director of the Los Altos History Museum, which opened a new $3.5 million, 8,200-square foot exhibition space in 2001.
"People give to people," she said, noting personal connections helped convince potential funders of the importance of the project.
It took 10 years to complete fundraising and construction, she said.
Dudley Kenworthy, a retired former Stanford fundraiser, has volunteered to lead the Palo Alto museum effort. He said the first 18 months of fundraising were spent simply researching who to ask.
"You do a great deal of analysis of people who have some possible reference to this topic," working through community organizations such as churches and looking at attendees of past history-museum events, he said.
Kenworthy's many Stanford projects included the school's first capital-improvement campaign in 1959, which raised more than $100 million to construct now-classic campus buildings.
He hopes to net the needed big gifts within the next 18 months, he said.
Identifying keystone funders isn't the only challenge — timing can make the difference between flowing cash and tight fists, museum boosters said.
"If we started three years earlier, we would've got the dot-com boom," but the current economy is weaker, Staiger said.
Bajuk of Los Altos agreed, noting her museum looked for money "in the middle of the tech boom."
"People [would] say, 'I just happen to have a lot of stock that I can liquidate.' We would not be able to repeat that success today. The climate would not support it," she said.
And, of course, political clout can't hurt.
A hometown museum for Sunnyvale was merely a fervent hope of Historical Society members for decades — until city official Laura Babcock came on board.
Babcock, a long-time planning commissioner, already knew Sunnyvale City Council members and arranged a series of meetings to ensure the city and nonprofit group worked together, she said.
The city applied for state funding and the $2.6 million Heritage Park Museum, which will replace the current single room used for historical displays, is due to open in fall 2008, she said.
But relations have been rockier in Palo Alto, where museum boosters locked horns with city staff about repairs to the waterlogged Roth building.
The Palo Alto Historical Association, which later formed Palo Alto History Museum as an offshoot group, began lease negotiations for the Roth building with the city in 2004.
The city offered the building as-is, but the group claimed the city should help pay for water damage it hadn't sufficiently prevented.
After two years of negotiations, the City Council allotted $415,000 for repairs in spring 2006.
The Roth building was designed by prolific local architect Birge Clark and occupied by the Palo Alto Medical Clinic — now the Palo Alto Medical Foundation — for nearly 70 years.