It was Albert Einstein who said: “assumptions are made, and most assumptions are wrong.”
In our ‘post-truth’ era where experts often take second place to social media influencers and politicians with personality disorders, assumptions are rife. At a time when the ‘loudest’ or ‘most followed’ voice is often the one to win out, the proliferation of assumption-based misinformation is at an all time high. Those of us invested in making informed and factual decisions must be careful to guard against the popular tendency to go with whatever ‘truth’ seems the most correct. Never has it been more the case that to ‘assume’ is to make an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’.
In the wake of the terrible bush fire crisis sweeping Australia, there has been no shortage of misinformation making the rounds. Of course, the failure of the news media to understand how charities operate and distribute funding is the most glaring case in point. However, for the purposes of this discussion, I am more interested in examining the assumptions and false judgments closer to home. As it turns out, it is not just tabloid journalists who get it wrong when it comes to fundraising.
All too often I hear skilled fundraising professionals bemoan the fact that well-intentioned members of their organisations are challenging or actively hindering their efforts. Some common complaints voiced by beleaguered fundraisers include:
“I know four pages seems like a lot for direct mail, but that’s what works!’
“No, it’s not insensitive to ask members of staff if they’d be interested in leaving a gift in their will.”
“No, everybody doesn’t hate face to face.”
“No, we don’t have to shut down all our fundraising because of some negative publicity.”
“No, people DO want to give to our organisation – we just have to ask them!”
“No, people won’t give if we only focus on positive stories!”
As frustrating as this can be, the problem is compounded by the fact that oftentimes these misconceptions are entirely understandable. On an ‘emotive’ and ‘intuitive’ level many of the criticisms waged at fundraising make sense. It certainly can seem rude or insensitive to ask people for money in any number of circumstances. Certain forms of fundraising do appear annoying, clumsy and inefficient. Fundraising asks can look overly negative, dramatic and obvious. At the end of the day, you really can’t blame people for voicing apparently self-evident concerns about these rude, insensitive, annoying, clumsy, inefficient, negative, dramatic and obvious approaches to raising money!
Charles Dickens wrote in Great Expectations: “take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There is no better rule.” The truth is that all too many criticisms of fundraising are grounded in assumptions, not evidence. While it is easy to understand why someone would criticise a four-page direct mail letter as long-winded and awkward, the evidence shows time and time again that the four-page format works. While it makes sense that people find face-to-face fundraising irritating, as a source of regular giving revenue it remains second to none. While the use of ‘positively-geared’ stories seems an inspirational and uplifting approach, it is consistently the fundraising asks which highlight the ‘problem’ and ‘need’ that deliver the better returns.
In an age where expertise and evidence are under threat, it is essential not to let assumptions and appearances rule our fundraising decisions. This is not to say that we should not challenge our fundraising strategies – there is no innovation without questioning minds! However, we need to respect the skill and experience of our fundraising professionals and found ‘best practice’ on what is proven to work. Appearances can be deceiving, and we must rely on facts over ‘feelings’ – particularly when it comes to the financial wellbeing of charities.