Evolutionary Biology and Human Psychology: A Case For Museum Donor Walls

Visitors at the Virginia Holocaust Museum admire the museum's Donor Wall

There are a few activities that I consider “must-dos” whenever I visit a museum, but my boyfriend (a huge trooper who has accompanied me to over 50 museums in the last four years) only has one thing that he cares to do during a visit: Check out the donor wall. In Seattle, I thought it was just to see if Jeff Bezos had given away any money yet (and his company eventually did). But Ian checks everywhere. While standing in front of the donor wall at the first 45 or so museums with him, I thought something like, “Yes, yes. The donor wall lends credibility to the museum.” But when the Bill Gates Giving Pledge was announced in August of this year, it changed the way that I think about the donor wall.

A donor wall with recognizable names does lend credibility to a museum, but research may suggest that displaying these names has a psychological effect on visitors that could likely boost fundraising capabilities. The museum’s donor wall, like the Bill Gates Giving Pledge, appeals to our human psychology and is right in line with evolutionary biology. It could just be the right tool to gradually increase long-term giving and awareness of social change needs.
While it’s not likely to make or break a museum’s fundraising efforts, let’s generally acknowledge the rather intuitive reasons why having a donor wall is a good idea. To begin with, it’s a public ‘thank you’ to donors that builds their reputations as philanthropists in the community– and we like it when donors are happy. Also (as I mention above), the donor wall lends credibility to the museum. Potential donors can say, “Wow. Recognizable-Person-XYZ donated to this organization. That person must have done their research and determined that this institution is worthy of funds. This means that the institution is worthy of my funds as well.” I think both of these reasons for the donor wall (public thanks and credibility) are valid. Here’s why they work so well and have the potential to contribute to a larger increase in societal giving:
1) Human beings follow actions of high-influence individuals. Chimpanzees follow the lead of experienced, high-status chimps when it comes to solving a problem or adapting a new behavior, studies find.  What’s interesting is that human beings ‘ attraction to prestige is taken as a given; they are trying to learn more about the chimps. It’s safe to say that Bill Gates is a high-influence individual. And if human beings naturally take cues from high-influence individuals, then society is taking the cue from Bill Gates that those who are capable should give a majority of their wealth to charity. Much like buying the newest Prada bag or flying a private jet to Paris for a dinner reservation, Gates’s cue makes it possible to collect bets on how soon we’ll be saying, “I wish I could be on the donor wall because that’s where high-influence individuals get listed” (and not even in museum-goer circles)!  Many don’t need to give a majority of their wealth to get on the donor wall, but it doesn’t hurt to have a power-player sending social cues to make folks want to.


2) Celebrity role models are “influential teachers.” Here’s a bummer: A University of Leicester study has found that celebrities like Angelina Jolie serve as more influential role-models for youngsters than famous figures from history- or even their friends and parents. Moreover, evolutionary biologists say that worshipping celebrities helps us live more successful lives because it helps facilitate social understanding. There’s fundraising potential, then, in taking a cue from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and revving up museum and nonprofit’s celebrity alignment. Enlisting celebrities with “influential teacher” impact  to draw attention to famous role models from history and their great achievements in museums? That sounds like a pretty resourceful and mission-driven marketing strategy to me. Even if these celebrities are not coming to your museum, the fact that they are publicaly supporting museums may have long term benefit for these kinds of institutions.


3) Acts of kindness are contagious. Harvard and UC- San Diego have just proven that people who benefit from kindness really do ‘pay it forward.‘  When somebody directly experiences an act of kindness, they pass along the act to somebody who was not originally involved, which cascades into a cooperation that involves dozens in a social network. Understanding this may prove beneficial to museum fundraisers. Very basically, showing that you’ve secured several donations may influence others– but there could be a lesson here in demonstrating how those donations have helped others. Or, more specifically, how those folks on the donor wall have impacted the visitor’s own experience. This is especially important because personal relationships with issues increase donations. Museums do this by thanking donors for contributing to one item in the collection. Showing that the museum is involved in this kind of network, and aiming to fundraise based on this principle of ‘paying it forward’ may have long-term benefits.


4) We are evolving into a “Survival of the Kindest” mindset. An article in Science Daily indicates that human beings are evolving into a species that places a significant value on kindness. We are drawn to others who demonstrate kindness and giving, and we are similarly compelled to demonstrate kindness ourselves. Moreover, as evolution takes place, we’re likely to evolve into increasingly giving and collaborative beings. We’re even attracted to mates based on their levels of kindness. The point here? Perhaps, in a way, the donor wall belongs in museums because it may come to trace the evolution of giving and of ourselves.


The direct benefits of donor walls are hard to measure, and no, they probably shouldn’t be the primary focus of a museum’s fundraising plan (or arguably, even close to it). But these walls are generally easy to maintain and may be a silent sidekick, slowly converting visitors into donors over time. Evolutionary biology and human psychology studies lead us to believe that these walls might be up to something- and if that something helps spread the mission of museums and nonprofits, then it seems like a darn good thing to keep around and up-to-date.


*Photo from the Virginia Holocaust Museum.
Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Fundraising, Trends 21 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

21 Responses to Evolutionary Biology and Human Psychology: A Case For Museum Donor Walls

  1. Elizabeth

    I really enjoyed this post! I never thought about donor walls as anything more than something to glance at to see how prestigious the organization is. But I took an arts administration class and we talked to someone (I guess I won’t put his name) at the Museum of Arts and Design in NYC. He said if you go into nonprofits and fund raising, check out that donor wall and make a mental list!

    Do you ever think of it as a resource of good donors?

  2. colleendilen

    Elizabeth, that’s an awesome tip and a really good way to think about donor walls. They are a good resource– or, at least better than we potentially give them credit for.

    Like you, I hadn’t really stopped to ponder the role and effectiveness (real or potential) of the donor wall until recently, either. When you visit a lot of museums, you get used to them pretty quickly- especially when you begin to notice that often many of the museums in one area share the same pool of influential donors. Upon thinking about it, though, it seems as though having shared influential donors provides just as much fundraising potential as having donors who are unique to the institution.

    Thanks for your comment and helpful tip!

  3. Mikalee Byerman

    I must be truly odd: I can honestly say I’ve never, EVER even looked at the donor wall in a museum. Too fascinated by the old artifacts, giant gems and creepy dead people.

    But I do like the philosophy of the “survival of the kindest.” Take that, Darwin. And other creepy dead people…


  4. Mitch Leuraner

    This is interesting. I always look at the donor walls too, but it never occured to me that they indicated how prestigious the mueseum is. I actually always look and dream about the day when I have enough money to get my own name on them. I have always thought that was the point in having them – it never occured to me that they were used for anything else!

  5. lenteaticepick

    Thank you for this, it’s really insightful! I haven’t looked at donor walls before, but you’ve put them in such an interesting perspective.

  6. Sunflowerdiva

    Very, very interesting! But I totally do NOT agree with #2, that celebrities are our influential teachers. 😛 Pfft to that!

    • colleendilen

      I know. It’s sad, isn’t it, that being an influential teacher is different than being a good teacher? That having been said, there are some celebrities out there that are not terrible role models and who place a high priority on giving, learning, and moral values.

      • lauramore10

        There are SOME. But SOME let their money get to their heads. 🙁

  7. beyondanomie

    I think a more fundamental reason for them is that mankind consistently seeks immortality – a life after death of some sort – as a means of self-validation. The donor walls are a small-scale version of endowing a chair in your name at a university. A way of creating a relatively permanent image of yourself that will extend beyond the grave to future generations.

    Much of this desire is subconscious, sublimated into family or other life achievements, but the donor walls (and similar recognitions of actions like plaques, trophies and so on) are a potent way of the institution creating a degree of permanence and commemoration so as to enhance the psychological reward experienced by the donor. A bit of operant conditioning… write the cheque, get the treat… 😉

  8. Harrison

    I’ve never looked at a donor wall to see how prestigious an organization of any sort is, why would I do something like that? I guess I can or of see that one, but credibility? I can’t think of a reason I would use a donor wall to judge the credibility of a museum.

  9. enjoibeing

    very interesting post! really enjoyed it thoroughly. especially #2 and #4. congrats on being freshly pressed too! and nice blog layout.


  10. Dale

    I’ve never thought of a donor wall to up the prestige of a museum, playground, or anything else. I always saw it as an attempt by the museum to garner more donors. From all I’ve seen (running a non-profit), this is Fundraising 101. Donor walls serve serval donor purposes: self recognition (“That’s my name up there!”) coupled with organization-identity (“That’s my name up there and I am part of why this awesome museum… my awesomeness and its awesomeness rub off on each other”, IOW, the “survival of the kindest” makes way to “reciprocated awesomeness”) coupled with being in the “club” of donors (“My name is on the same wall as Bill Gates–we’re buds! Yeah, he probably knows me.”) coupled with the organization saying to future donors (“See, people believe in this and you’ll be in this exclusive club and in the ‘know’ when you give too.”)… and on and on.

    As a donor, I personally find donor walls self-conscious and distasteful. We may be evolving into kindness (I doubt it) but we’re devolving more and more away from beauty in the name of economics year by year.

  11. Usha

    Excellent reflection on the donor wall. I have stood in front of them and marvelled at the sheer genius of a public recognition program. Humans like public recognition. It helps us feel important and socially accepted as people. Whether we deal with high powered individuals that seem like they already have enough recognition, you’d be surprised that there is always room for more.

    Nonetheless, keep writing great reflections. I’ve bookmarked your page 🙂

  12. oslm

    I see no evidence that we are evolving into a kinder society. If anything, we are less concerned about the welfare of others than at any other time in American history. If politics are an indicator, the entire word is de-evolving into a mindset of the haves owe the have-nots, so that through government taxation we all become have-nots. That way we all become dependent on the government for everything. Isn’t that where we are really headed? Yes, there are many people who donate to causes. My question is this: “How much would these big donors give if they weren’t getting a big tax break?”

  13. gebarr

    Though we are not evolving into a kinder society, how wonderful that there are philanthropists out there who donate to such great causes as museums. I like it.

  14. Lance Ponder

    I confess I’ve never looked at the donor wall either, but I will from now on. But for a slightly different reason. I’m a bit of a cynic. I look at it and think… follow the money. What kind of people promote this or that institution.

  15. Heather CJ Atkins

    I like the way you think 😉
    Just a few thoughts:
    It’s pretty sad that scientists are still comparing us humans to a generalized study of chimps. The relevance is there, however, still so very far off. In addition.. Angelina Jolie is probably one of the most admirable people out there that an individual could possibly target as inspiration. Perhaps her dating habits are questionable, but those who choose to lovingly adopt children in need are exemplary in my book!

  16. sayitinasong

    I have to say i have never stopped to look at a donor wall in a museum- but I’m definitely going to be paying more attention now, your boyfriend has a very good point there doing so…

  17. indigenou

    Thought you’ve had a fair bit of human psychic concerns or better humane a’muse’um :D. I think if we have a good understanding of humane psychological reverences with a marketing cliche connect, we can surely MARKET well. Pretty nice blog btw..

  18. Emily Lu

    Heh, I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one who takes a peek at the donor wall while heading into a museum. I thought it was just the fundraising geek in me (I didn’t start doing it until after I started working in development and will probably continue doing it now that I am no longer in that field), but maybe not..

    Thanks for the share and the insight Colleen!

  19. Pingback: A Case for Donor Walls (Guest Blog by Elizabeth Edelson) | Purchase College SUNY: Continuing Education

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