Contenders for the two ‘i’s in fundraising?

Published by Rachel Beer on

You hear a lot about the importance of innovation in fundraising and there’s no doubt that innovation is important – all the ways of doing anything that are now widely accepted, traditional and best practice, were innovations at one point, after all.

Things always move on and almost everything can continually be improved upon, but I still don’t think innovation is as vital as it’s hyped up to be, and there are usually very significant wins to be had by improving on what you’re already doing.  If I were a Director of Fundraising, I’d want my team to have optimised the ROI of existing activities before I invested in creating anything new.  As Percy Barnevik famously said, when chairman of ABB Asea Brown Boveri (the world’s largest electrical-engineering group):

“We don’t need any more bright ideas. There are lots of them around… In business, success is 5% strategy, 95% execution.”

And, if you think that’s not applicable to charities, when Barnevik set up the not for profit organisation, Hand in Hand, he put his business principles to work there, too, saying:

“I don’t want Hand in Hand to be the best NGO.  I want it to be the best company.”

So, I’m not putting innovation forward as one of my two ‘i’s in fundraising, even though it sounds exciting, because it already gets more attention than it deserves.  Inspiration also gets far too much press, so I needn’t add anything further.  And improving isn’t going to make the cut either, because that’s something we should all be striving continually to do and because I want to talk about a couple of ‘i’s that seem to get overlooked.

The power of instinct

I’ve never heard anyone talk about the role of instinct in fundraising before, but it was my starting point for this piece because I have been thinking a lot recently about how much I have relied on it over the years (and still do).  I have also learned that ignoring your instinct doesn’t usually turn out well, so I made mental note to stop doing that a while ago.  Very occasionally I forget, and those occasions are usually a painful reminder.

Forgive me if there’s a chapter on instinct in a book about fundraising that I should have read, but I have to confess that I’ve learned almost everything I know about fundraising by fundraising, not by reading about fundraising.  And I’ve learned a great deal about fundraising from listening to ‘my gut’.

Part of me feels disingenuous for extolling the virtues of following your gut, when one of the key tenets of direct marketing is to test – so you don’t have to rely on instinct – and because I’m an advocate of as much testing as is possible.  In an ideal world, everything would be tested and proven – or disproven, for that matter – and rigorous and repeated testing is an excellent way to continually improve your response, average gift, net income and return on investment (there’s another two ‘i’s I couldn’t leave out of a post about fundraising).   That’s why it’s considered best practice.

The problem is, this isn’t an ideal world and there are an awful lot of charities out there for whom testing isn’t often an option.  Why?  Either because their donor bases aren’t big enough or their budgets aren’t big enough to afford the volumes for acquisition, or to the split production runs, that make test results meaningful.  For many charities, all of these points apply.

So, being pragmatic now, what should you do when statistically valid testing isn’t an option?  And, if you only have the conditions to test one thing in each appeal, how do you decide what to test in the first place – particularly if you don’t have any previous test results to reference and you’re starting from scratch?

This is where your instinct comes in very handy and you shouldn’t be afraid to use it.  When you read the first iteration of that next appeal, and there is something that doesn’t feel right to you, listen to your gut and change it.  Better still, if you can test it, do – then, the next time you’re making a decision, you’ll have added some more knowledge to your toolbox and you’re more likely to be right about following your gut next time and the time after that.

Still unconvinced about the power of instinct?  Then read, Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, which explores the concept of ‘thin slicing’, ‘a term used in psychology and philosophy to describe the ability to find patterns in events based only on “thin slices”, or narrow windows, of experience’.  In essence, Gladwell explains, what we think of as using our instinct is actually a subconscious, rapid-fire referencing of our previous, relevant experiences.  And, it turns out, it’s remarkably reliable.

But instinct can be dangerous on it’s own

So, your instinct is actually based on experience, rather than ‘just a feeling’.  Good to know, isn’t it?  This also means that the wider our experience and the bigger the library of knowledge we are referencing, the more accurate our instincts will be.  This is where insight plays such an important role.

If you do not match the profile of the audience you are communicating with – as is often the case for fundraisers – your instinct about what will resonate with them could very easily be wrong.  Even if you do match the profile of the audience you’re communicating with, don’t forget that you are still a highly subjective sample of one.  That’s too far off statistically valid to consider relying entirely on it.  The tongue-in-cheek mantra, “I am not the target audience“, can be a useful one to help keep you on the right track.  But you also need some real insight into your audience to have an idea about what the right track is.

What insights into the audience do you have?  And how can they help you to put yourself in their shoes?  What has motivated your donors to donate in the past and what insights might this give you into the messages that might encourage prospective donors to support your cause?  What insights can you glean from past results that can help you make the right decisions about which warm audiences to select and what will motivate them to give again?  And don’t forget, insights from campaigns that haven’t worked so well could be just as useful – to help you understand what not to do again.

You can also look further for useful insights.  Insights from other fundraisers, other charities and causes can be hugely valuable.  And you don’t even need to pay to attend a conference or buy a book to access these insights anymore – there are so many resources online, including this blog, where you can read about campaigns, tests, results and learnings that other fundraisers have shared, and I know many fundraisers that aren’t averse to sharing if you just phone them and ask.  Even if others’ insights aren’t from similar cause, by absorbing them you are building the reference library in your mind that you will thin-slice when making decisions in the future.  And you’ll be able to be a lot more confident about those decisions as a result.

Of course, there are many other ways of gathering useful information from which you can glean insight – through quantitative and qualitative research, including focus groups, surveys, data analysis, audience profiling, donor feedback, comments on your blog, discussions on Facebook and Twitter and much more.  Now that we have social media and free, or low cost, online surveys, understanding more about your supporters doesn’t have to bust your budget, and you can use planned communications to existing donors as an opportunity to collect little bits of additional insight that will help you make future fundraising appeals, donor care and other supporter communications even better and more valued by the people receiving them.

So, this is a plea to have these two less talked about ‘i’s in fundraising – instinct and insight – brought to the fore, because the combination can be a potent one.  Next time you’re working on an appeal, try finding a little more insight to include in your brief and let your instinct tell you whether you’ve got the approach right before you send it out.

Oh, and I hope those that cringe (as I do) at the phrase, ‘putting the fun into fundraising’, will forgive me for the title of this post – which is a little bit too similar for my liking – but I decided to run with it anyway!

Categories: strategy

Rachel Beer

Rachel Beer has been a professional fundraiser since 1999, with experience gained from at several fundraising creative agencies in the UK, as well as in house. Currently a fundraising consultant, she specialises in helping organisations to take their fundraising to the next level – creating fundraising brands, appeals and campaigns that excite existing supporters and attract new donors and fundraisers. She also works with teams in house at charities, helping them to develop the skills to get the best possible results. In 2008, Rachel created NFPtweetup - a regular series of events to promote effective use of technology in the charity sector, and she is well known as a fundraising expert, digital specialist and strategist for the third sector.


Howard Lake · September 15, 2011 at 21:59

You’re absolved on the blog post title issue Rachel. Yes, corny – although I don’t think I’ve seen it before, but guaranteed to attract attention. Well, it worked for me.

Thanks for this. It resonated with me. Yes, innovation is important and perhaps unavoidable these days with the tempting opportunities that new, effectively free channels offer to fundraisers. But nice to see it being questioned, or at least put into a ranked order of importance.

Yes, make the most of what you’ve got seems a very sensible maxim for fundraising at any time, but particularly in these parlous times. Innovation and experimenting should be maintained but as a small proportion of the overall budget – a bit like a R&D activity.

Lovely to see instinct being praised, again provided it is accorded the right weight, hence the role of insight. I had one of those experiences just this week, where my gut feeling turned out to be spot on, and I should not have taken the easy way out.

So, good choice for your ‘i’s. I wonder who will now try to appropriate the remaining letters of the word…

Rachel Beer · September 16, 2011 at 09:37

Thanks for your thoughts, Howard.

I’m going to take it from your comments that I just about managed to offset the corniness by enough worthwhile points! I promise, I never set out to write a post about the ‘i’s in fundraising – it just grew from my starting point about instinct and I suddenly noticed I was mentioning a load of other ‘i’s. I hope the 101 community will forgive me! ;)

I totally agree with what you say that, provided it’s available, some budget should be allocated for innovation and experimentation alongside core, ‘banker’ activities. That also helps come evaluation time, because it helps to set expectations about income realistically (in the respect that you will have projected much more conservatively for new, as yet untested, R&D activities) and your innovation activities won’t be seen as ‘failures’ in comparison. That’s so important for keeping budget decision-makers on board with the idea that new things should always be in the mix, with a view to ensuring there’s a good mix of bankers in the future.

I think all of the ‘i’s mentioned in the piece are important – and I hope that comes through – but I thought there was some value in flagging up a couple that often go without mention. I hope no one does attempt to allocate all of the other letters. It might push the corniness factor too far!

Barry Gower · September 16, 2011 at 17:57

Well done Rachel, Delighted that you have drawn so much from the principles and concepts used in the commercial world – after all charities are businesses and should be run like them.

Perhaps one of the simplest ways to echo the thoughts which Barnevik expressed when he said “I don’t want Hand in Hand to be the best NGO. I want it to be the best company.”

is the following :

Great business/associations/organizations/etc (delete as appropriate) are great, not because of new innovations or fantastic products, but because they do the ordinary things properly.

Lucy Gower · September 17, 2011 at 10:50

Great post and I agree that trusting your gut combined with seeking real insights; really doing whatever you can to understand your donors is vital in fundraising.

As you say there are a lot of ‘i’s in fundraising and I do think innovation is a vital one. I think the word innovation is overused and overhyped and because of this it loses meaning.

Good innovation should be based very much on insight and spotting opportunities to develop new fundraising techniques, or making improvements to existing techniques. The art of having an idea and doing something about it is innovation. It does not necessarily have to be something totally radically new; if it’s a new way of fundraising to an organisation then it’s an innovation for them.

Stephen Johnson in his book ‘Where good ideas come from’ describes innovation as a series of previously unconnected connections. Looking for new ways of making connections to make improvements to ‘how we do things round here’ whether the improvements are big or small is innovation too.

I agree that fundraising teams need to get their house in order before embarking on new fundraising. For some organisations, even auditing their fundraising and implementing more robust reporting could be an innovation.

So there are a lot of elements to innovation, I think it should be part of the DNA of every organisation, not siloed but combined with the others; instinct, insight and inspiration to help fundraisers to constantly look for new connections, seek improvements and ltimately the next big idea to make a big difference to the causes they fundraise for.

PS I forgive you for the ‘i’s if you can forgive me for referring back to them in my comment! :)

Andre Affagato · September 18, 2011 at 18:45

I really like your wp theme, exactly where did you down load it through?

Rachel Beer · September 19, 2011 at 14:29

Thanks for adding your thoughts, Barry and Lucy.

Barry, you’ve reminded me I once read that one of Duncan Bannatyne’s philosophies for business is to do something better than your competitors, rather than try to come up with anything new or innovative (which involves more risk). Many good ideas, whether simple, complex, old or new fail because they are implemented without sufficient care and attention to detail. It sounds dull, but it’s true.

Lucy, I think true innovation is quite difficult to pin down – it’s highly subjective as to what passes as innovation and what is just doing something slightly differently or better. Is combining pre-existing things in a way no one has combined them before innovative? I would say so, but others would see it as common sense, and it probably is that too! I like the Stephen Johnson quote – makes sense to me. I think I don’t really care whether something is innovative or not, or what innovative really means, so long as it works :)

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