Fundraising: Art vs. Science

• donor • fundraising practices • fundraising • effective fundraising • fund development process • Leaky Bucket • fund development plan
Ellen Bristol

I just had a great conversation with two people who, like me, have been thinking about the Art-vs.-Science debate that's been going on in fundraising circles for a whileScience Class! now.  One  is Linda Lysakowski, a multi-published fundraising author and expert in the field.  The other is Cathy Williams, who's chairing the Fundraising Effectiveness Project for AFP (the Association of Fundraising Professionals).  It was really reassuring to hear from these experts that there is a growing awareness of the need for science in the fundraising field, and a growing hunger for "scientific" resources that help nonprofits achieve great results through fundraising.

Sometimes I feel like the proverbial "voice crying in the wilderness" about this issue, so this whole conversation was very reassuring.  Even more reassuring to me is knowing that more and more nonprofit experts are taking this issue seriously.  There's some wonderful work going on in the nonprofit world that is helping to elevate the importance of management science and statistics.  And it's about time.  Nonprofit businesses are lagging behind the for-profit world in terms of the way they measure, manage and improve their fundraising results.

So what's the big deal anyway?  Many people who raise money for charities are convinced that the "right" way to be successful is to have good instincts, good social skills, and a big fat rolodex full of wealthy contacts.  Hey, if you've got that stuff, more power to you!  But those attributes make up the "art" of fundraising.  It's tough to replicate the working style of such pro's, as admirable as their work might be.  And it's not even possible for junior development people to start out with decades of experience or a big fat rolodex. Gathering those contacts alone takes years and years.  Once you've done a certain kind of job for that long you get very skillful at it, to the point where your skills seem intuitive, a matter of art.   But try and "bottle" that expertise, so the junior folks can do the same magic.

We simply don't have the time to groom a development officer for 10 or 15 years.  The development officer has to start producing NOW, right away!  There's not much time or room left for decades of OJT (on the job training).  So a more scientific approach is called for.  And it's in keeping with the overall trend of professionalizing that's going on in nonprofit circles.

The first and most fundamental way to bring science into your fundraising efforts include setting up methods, benchmarks, rules and metrics ahead of time.  Let's just talk about one issue for a minute, that of acquiring and retaining donors.  If you don't give your development officers a set of qualifying criteria ahead of time, and make sure they use it, they are likely to focus on poorly qualified prospects.  But it takes just as much time to win over a sub-standard prospect as it does to acquire one with high potential.  Why not decide ahead of time which prospects are "right" for your nonprofit.  Give your team well-designed qualifying criteria, and tell them, "invest more time in prospects that meet these criteria, and less time in those that don't." They will be more productive, and YOU will have more objective means of assessing and evaluating their performance.

The "science" aspects of fundraising include a range of benchmarks, metrics, rules, methods, and practices that help development professionals use their time more efficiently, and maintain their focus on the most strategic issues.  Such guidelines and metrics allow individual contributors to stay focused on their strategic objectives, and help senior nonprofit executives manage agency-wide performance more effectively.

In upcoming blog postings, I'm planning to discuss this question of Fundraising Art vs Fundraising Science at more detail, and I'd love your comments.  And I'd love for you to contribute to our ongoing study, the Leaky Bucket Assessment for Effective Fundraising.

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