Shouldn’t ‘Best’ Practises Do Better?

Published by Charlie Hulme on

Have you ever noticed that no matter how hard you work, no matter how you segment your file, and no matter what ‘story’ you tell nothing ever changes? It doesn’t matter what agency you use or what you test, year in year out net result is predictably and depressingly, the same. Yes, there are shining exceptions, but they’re exactly that. On the whole our sector hasn’t seen real mission impacting growth since the 1970’s (in other words since before many of us were born!)

If that isn’t sobering enough consider the fact that there is significant money flowing into good causes. Just not through us. Morgan Stanley issued one ‘social bond’ to fight malaria which raised more money than every charity in the USA combined raising money for the exact same cause over a six year period! If our sector doesn’t work out how to grow and start having a real impact it’ll be replaced by people who can.

What’s the common denominator behind decades of stagnation? Us. We never change. We spend huge amounts of time, energy and money trying, but what we believe to be ‘change’ operates within the straight jacket of our ‘best practises’. So nothing changes.

Why is our ‘strategy’ document never strategic, just a spreadsheet and production schedule? Why is revenue never as accurate as Excel led us to believe (though costs are always dead on)? Why are our retention figures rapidly worsening? Why are our ‘loyalty’ programmes causing more people to leave? Why are campaigns always based on guesswork? Why can’t people tell us apart from similar organizations? Why are the results of mystery shopping exercises always so predictably appalling? Why can’t we defend ourselves from media criticism? Why? Because the people who couldn’t fix these (and so many other) basic failings hired and trained fundraisers in their own image. They in turn did the same.

We’ve been handed down the same tired, unimaginative, unprofitable mind set, methods and metrics that led us to such an untenable position in the first place. Yet instead of questioning them we take comfort in knowing ‘we’ve always done it this way’. we've always done it this way So, here we are halfway through 2014. What have we done so far that’s meaningfully different from this time last year? Sure, we’re working with yet another agency, or giving our existing one another shot, we’ve segmented our data differently, appended all sorts of lifestyle data to our file, and A/B tested every hypothesis we can think of. But we did that last year (and the year before, and the year before…) and net results have always been the same. What’s missing? When did we last question just how ‘best’ our best practises really are? Surely if they were the best we’d be doing better?

It’s time to admit that what we’re working with isn’t the ‘best’ at all, just what we’ve inherited. If we expect to see radical, mission impacting growth we’re going to have to do something radically different. The biggest barrier to growth and subsequent impact on the lives of people and causes we fight for is us. If we’re don’t question our mind set, methods and metrics then we should question our integrity.

Charlie Hulme

Charlie Hulme

Charlie is MD of Donor Voice. He helps charities uncover what, of all the things they do, cause relationship strength and what is harmful. Partners see a massive improvement in performance, value and retention. Voted top speaker at the Institute of Fundraising's National Convention in 2013, he writes frequently for SOFII, 101 Fundraising, the Institute of Fundraising and many others.


Brian Weiner · June 2, 2014 at 15:10

The key, in my opinion, is that the VAST majority of nonprofits broadcast messages in some form rather than engage in dialogue.

It is all too easy to change the channel, to turn off the radio. Much harder to stop listening to a close friend.

The best organizations have, or are in the process of migrating from “broadcast” messaging to a dialogue driven relationship.

Time for more to give it a try…

siobhan aspinall · June 2, 2014 at 19:23

This is fantastic Charlie! And I wonder if some of the external limitations on charities are also to blame – fear of spending money on riskier fundraising ventures for example. Maybe the best thing would be to have our sector replaced by one that is more efficient? Food for thought.

Rebecca Davies · June 3, 2014 at 14:52

Charlie: could it be our sea change is in incubation right now, and we must be patient? Giving Pledge, digital marketing & engagement, the realization of massive numbers of bequest intentions…

2014 overview: The 50 best blog posts! | READ AFRICA · January 7, 2015 at 23:16

[…] Bridgwood 41) A few words about Ebola and you – Francesco Ambrogetti & Derek Humphries 42) Shouldn’t ‘Best’ Practises Do Better? – Charlie Hulme 43) What’s it like to be old? (By Richard Radcliffe, aged 60) – Richard […]

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