Contenders for the two ‘i’s in fundraising?

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!

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