Evidence and Ideas: The scientific approach to fundraising?

Published by Alan Clayton on

There has been much online huffing and puffing recently about ‘evidence’ v ‘opinion.’

The scientific method in fundraising is misunderstood too often. On dozens of occasions I have found myself in debates at fundraising conferences about ‘data v creative’, ‘logic v intuition’ and most recently ‘evidence v opinion.’ More often than not the data-heads win the argument, at least in the coffee break. Why? They have the ‘evidence’ to support their opinion, of course.

It is irrefutable that analysis, reason and logic create constant learning, continual improvement and incrementally increasing income, often compounded.

hHowever, the cycle of data, analysis, measure and improve is not everything. The greatest scientific names of all time are not the ones who measured the experiments. They are not even the ones who carried out the experiments. They are the scientists who had the idea to do the experiment in the first place.

Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Einstein, Faraday, Darwin. It was their big intuitive leaps that made them famous. They surrounded themselves with brilliant analysts to develop their work.

They had the hypothesis. In our language, this is the idea. It is the big, revolutionary idea which goes on to be tested, measured, proved and then iteratively improved.

My experience of the last year has been immersed in the same insight. All fundraisers dream of a board of directors or trustees that ‘get’ what fundraising needs and provide the leadership, space, resources and support to let it flourish. Most of all, they dream of the investment required to make it happen.

I must have seen over fifty senior fundraisers prepare an investment case for their board over the last year.
All of them prepared the following:

  • A perfectly crafted business case, containing historical performance analysis, market analysis and future financial projections.

The ones that presented only the above all failed to get the investment. All the ones who succeeded also presented something else:

  • A big, fresh idea which unified their organisation behind a driving, emotional proposition and inspired the board to action.

It seems that boards need both in order to take action. The idea creates the dream, the plan reduces the fear. Boards are human and they need inspired as well as convinced. High level boards realise that it is the hypothesis which creates transformational change for the scientific loop of ‘test, measure, learn’ to improve.

Scientific rigour and analysis are essential and are to be encouraged and demanded, but there is more.

Big leaps that encourage boards to make big investments also need big vision. They need big ideas borne out of experience, insight and intuition. In our language this is creativity.

BigIdea2Those who demand ‘evidence’ as the starting point for everything would do well to remember that every hypothesis or idea started out as someone’s mere ‘opinion.’

There are many more leaps to come, so there is still a place in our sector for the current and future Mark Phillips, Simone Joyeaux, Ken Burnetts and many more intuitive thinker/feelers.

That’s my humble opinion.

Alan Clayton

Alan works in the inspiration and creative business, for charities, non-profits and NGOs globally. He is a force for rapid and dramatic change and growth, with people power at the front of his philosophy. After a career in national charities, he spent ten years running a full service agency, then formed Revolutionise in 2008. Alan has worked with over 320 clients around the world. He specialises in pitch-winning creative insight and strategy, donor insight, emotional communication and motivation. Alan is chairman of Alan Clayton Associates, Karat Marketing, the telephone fundraising agency in Dunfermline, Scotland and managing partner of the Inch Hotel and Inspiration Centre, Loch Ness.


Carsten Direske · November 5, 2014 at 13:09

Yes, I am with you, Alan! Or as Bruce Springsteen put it:
You can’t start a fire without a spark. I only wonder, if these constructions of organisations with too powerful boards are still a good solution. If the boards see their role as “facilitators” / “moderators” or even better “enablers” – fine. But if they play the blocking card “We’ve always done it this way…” even a thousand sparks won’t light the fire. Any strategy will fail if the “the team” incl. volunteers etc. who are to execute its measures won’t really back it. That’s what boards need to know, too.

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

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