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Donor Recognition Wall

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 colleendilen in Exhibits, Museums, Nonprofits, Social Change, The Future 21 Comments