Fundraising news, ideas and inspiration for professional charity fundraisers

Is fundraising an art or a science? And is that a useful question?

Is fundraising an art or a science? And is that a useful question?

“You can tinker with the delivery of the donor experience all you want. But if you never actually get to deliver it, donors won’t get those great relationships fundraisers want for them. To do that fundraisers need to put more effort into turning into the science it really ought to be, rather than persisting with the idea that it is an art that doesn’t require evidence to back it up.”

From Why are charities failing at relationship fundraising?
Third Force News*, 8th August 2017

It seems to me that, while there’s clearly such a huge job to be done in fundraising now, some debates are not worth having. Even if there’s a point somewhere in the above, wrangling over art or science and whether fundraising is evidence-based or not add little that will improve how fundraisers satisfy and inspire their donors. Given our recent history it’s a bit like worrying over your choice of front door colour while your house is burning down. Of all the distractions that get in the way of fundraisers consistently delivering a better donor experience, arguing about whether fundraising is an art or a science is among the most futile.

You might, as I do, believe it is both. Or you might think it’s neither, that fundraising in essence is just a series of human interactions, rational or emotional, and shouldn’t get above itself. But it’s certainly not just one or the other. Taking sides would surely be absurd.

Where does it come from, this notion that relationship fundraising might be ‘an art that doesn’t require evidence to back it up’? I see no evidence for this at all. It would be foolish to seriously put such a concept forward. In all my years, I’ve never heard
anyone of substance say anything of the kind.

I consider myself a relationship fundraiser. I didn’t have to be. It was only because the evidence for a more donor-based approach to raising money was all around me that first prompted me to write about it. I’ve never departed from an evidence-based approach. My early career was all about building donor databases through rigorous, persistent testing, an experience I’ve written about extensively over the years. Testing is both art and science. And it’s very expensive.
So you don’t test what you already know. You test first what will make most difference. If it won’t make much difference, why bother to test it?

Fundraising is inevitably results-led, so everything we did back then was based on established knowledge or evidence, as it will be still with any professional fundraiser worth his or her salt. Investing in evidence before big steps is the only way fundraisers can safeguard the donors’ funds entrusted to them.

So where does it come from, this concept that relationship fundraising is an art that doesn’t require evidence?

Not from me. Point one in my ‘15 things I’d do if I were the new head of donor development’ is, I’d aspire to be the most learned fundraiser of my generation. I was doing donor service road tests back in the 1980s (see my book Friends for Life). Two full chapters of Relationship Fundraising (5 and 6) are devoted to research and all my books and blogs revolve around knowledge and experience that has shaped and supported my opinions. Evidence in one form or another underpins every page of Relationship Fundraising – the evidence of my own eyes, what donors told me, of my and my colleagues’ knowledge and experience and, wherever client budgets permitted, of direct research.

The Customer - @gapingvoid

When what we should be doing is self-evident, we really don’t need to delay action pending academic evidence.

Knowledge vs evidence

Evidence is not quite synonymous with knowledge, as evidence can be faked, or misleading. In Relationship Fundraising, paraphrasing Ogilvy, I defined the difference between a merely good fundraiser and a great fundraiser as, ‘the great fundraiser simply knows more’. With knowledge and experience, evidence is either a given or isn’t necessary. Evidence supports knowledge and experience, but isn’t essential to either. You can know something simply because you’ve been there, seen it and done it. You don’t need to keep proving what you already know.

Gut feeling (which may be synonymous with instinct) also has great value. Ninety per cent of serotonin in the human body is produced in the gut. Guarantees of success are rare in fundraising and my experience says I’d rather trust my gut feeling – if it
feels right – than any amount of academic research that doesn’t feel right when set alongside my experience and knowledge of donors, how they feel and behave. No amount of theory will trump the evidence of your own experience.

Grey areas

• What people do matters a lot more than what they say they’ll do.

• If someone feels the need to call themselves an expert, they probably aren’t.

• Focus groups, frequently, get the soft issues wrong.

• By definition, all research needs to be qualified.


The hidden flaw - quotation from Relationship Fundraising (1992)

Ultimately, if it feels right, that’s enough reason to do it.

First, trust yourself. If it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t, at least for you. If it lacks integrity, or you think your donors wouldn’t like it, you shouldn’t do it, whatever your finance director says.

Of course you should learn from those who know. There are some easy-to- spot signs if someone’s worth listening to: track record, depth of experience, plausibility, gut feeling and instinct. Qualifications too, though it’s possible to be an unqualified success. Has he, or she, been there and done it him or herself? The converse may be a signal for caution. Other tell-tale signs might indicate someone’s not worth listening to. Pomposity. Jargon. Pseudo-science. Long words and too many of them.

Self-interest and bias too. You can toss a coin, or pull a name from a hat. In the end, you’ll make up your own mind.


What do donors want? Quotation from Friends for Life (1996)

What’s the evidence for doing the right thing by donors?

Somebody asked recently (I paraphrase), ‘where’s the evidence that improving the donor experience is the right thing to do?’ I imagine he or she would have stood at the quayside at Pearl Harbour as the planes circled, asking, ‘Where’s the evidence I
should take cover?’

For anyone with eyes to see, the evidence for an improved donor experience is all around. It’s in all the articles that followed the death of Mrs Olive Cooke. It’s in the alarm stories people shared at dinner parties and in pubs and clubs up and down the land. It’s in what donors tell us again and again if we take the time to listen. It’s in government’s and the regulators’ intentions for controlling fundraising. It’s in declining renewal rates and the increasing cost of acquisition. If you choose not to embrace the donor-based approach don’t shelter behind claims of lack of evidence, because that really gives you nowhere to hide.

This overwhelming evidence is the one thing that has given the the impetus and the credibility to get hundreds, even thousands of nonprofit professionals rallying to its flag. Evidence is just about everywhere that
fundraising has to change and has to change now. Putting the donor experience at the heart of fundraising strategies is unquestionably the right thing to do.

The time for fundraisers to get this right is now. To succeed will need the committed support of everyone. Some things are just bleedin’ obvious. Get over it, please.


Related articles

Which ad will work better, when, where and why?

Investing in testing. Why it will pay you to kiss a few frogs.

The tester’s dilemma.

The beloved guard book.

* There’s nothing personal in my disagreement with the writer of the above paragraph, so I’ve not included the author’s name as I only wish to challenge the point made, not to make this personal in way.

© 2017


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