What a Great Museum Can Teach You About Extraordinary Donor Communications

What a Great Museum Can Teach You About Extraordinary Donor Communications

I love Vancouver.

As an American, the city is a revelation in urban planning and beauty.


It also happens to have one of the best local history museums.

Walking through the Museum of Vancouver, I had an incredible realization: No one was giving me a tour and yet I was absolutely engaged.

I read every piece of text. I studied every image. I watched all the videos. I tried on a corset!

I’ve never experienced that before.

I love museums but I’m a wanderer. In fact, I often treat museums the same way donors treat our communications.

I jump from exhibit to exhibit. I get distracted by whatever looks the most interesting. I skim. And at a certain point, I hit a wall. I’ve taken in enough and I’m done.

The Museum of Vancouver, though, had some special sauce. And you can learn a lot about donor communications from their great visitor engagement:

Empathize with your reader

Sure, people go to museums to learn something. They also go to have fun!

The Museum of Vancouver made it easy to do both.

Their exhibit on neon signs is a great example. Look how effortlessly they explain different types of gases in a few short (and interesting!) sentences.


When you’re writing for your donors, never forget your goal. Why should someone read this?

Then make sure to ask yourself, “Am I making that goal easy on my reader?”

If the museum had explained gases by quoting a high school chemistry textbook, I would have been on to the next exhibit faster than the speed of light.

Have a personality

You don’t have to be a comedian to write well. You just have to have a personality.


I love the way the museum weaves history and little morbid humor into their description of this neon sign from a funeral parlor. How droll!


Even if your mission doesn’t allow for a touch of humor, what can you do to make your writing more personable?

Make your reader an insider

Did you know that museums sometimes struggle with letting go of collections?



Learning about why that happens pulls back the curtain on their inner workings. It’s something that most visitors would never think about. It even gives you a new perspective on the museum as an organization.

What can you share with your readers to make them feel like an insider? Remember that what you might take for granted could be fascinating to one of your fans.

Give your stakeholders a voice

The Museum of Vancouver had two other notable exhibits:


One about Vancouverites with interesting collections.


And another about the indigenous people who lived in what would become Vancouver.

While drastically different in tone and content, the museum faded into the background to let people speak for themselves in each of these spaces.

How can you get out of the way of your communications and let your clients, volunteers, or donors shine?

Don’t be afraid of emotion

Watching the videos of Musqueam people talking about their struggles was powerful. And it wasn’t just because it was their story being told by their people. It was powerful because they never shied away from their emotions.


Telling the stories of the First Nations in Canada was, historically, done by museums that didn’t represent them. In fact, objects on display were often stolen. And interpretations made by someone who knew little about the culture they came from.


Acknowledging this past cultural appropriation and the deep psychological wounds it created isn’t easy. But it was powerful.

Solving the problems of the world or your community are going to be full of emotions. Instead of fearing them, dig into them. Find ways to channel those emotions into action. Or gratitude. Especially gratitude.

Communication is a two-way street

It’s a special kind of museum that offers you a chance to put on a corset.


At every turn, the exhibit on collecting offered a chance to get to know each collector’s passion in a hands-on way. Whether it’s playing with Star Wars toys, examining prosthetic eyes, or throwing on a feather boa, I tried them all.


And while I will never meet any of the collectors, I felt that I knew them. I was able to connect with them and share something with them.

It was loads of fun.

Moving away from a medium where you talk at your reader and truly engage them is your ultimate goal.

It’s no easy task but how can you turn your donor communications into a conversation? A moment of connection? An opportunity for play?

Master that like the Museum of Vancouver has and you’ll have your biggest fans begging for more.

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