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Revisiting the Art & Science of Fundraising

ID-100146531(1)Dvorit Mausner, of Hope Consulting references her extensive work in development fundraising to dissect its components and propose a different method for the gritty task of managing prospect information via individual and shared databases.

People say fundraising is an art and a science. After eight years on the frontline, I have to agree. (And although I’ve switched fields, by habit I still carry a paintbrush and beaker.) But are the interpersonal art and data science of institutional development equivalent or does one outweigh the other?  To run a successful fundraising program, I believe that one’s art is only as good as one’s science, and not necessarily vice versa.

The Art

When a nonprofit development staff member contacts potential donors, it’s generally helpful to know at least a few simple things like their location, work, and previous giving. Even this limited information—which is not always easy to gather!—allows the fundraiser to create art, decent pictures of prospects and their contribution potential. Imagine that each tidbit is a tool: a sketch pad, box of charcoal, and sharpener. From these, pages are brought to life with outlines and shading. As staff fill in details through good questions and listening, a narrative emerges… the story of a potential donor and the organization uniting, hopefully with a signed-check ending. The fundraiser’s social intelligence makes her creative vision a reality; not everyone can close gifts. It just may take an artist.

The Science

But, what if that fundraiser wanted instead to paint a canvas in many shades and textures, transforming the potential donor’s tale from flat black and white to a colorful intricate depiction? (Why bother if this takes more time and tools? Because sustainable fundraising is built upon donor-organization relationships, which are often dynamic, vibrant, and complex. Could a mere sketch do them justice?) As the art becomes more elaborate, so too does the science. The artist-cum-scientist must ask how well the pigments mix and dry, are they prone to fade, what brushes and cleaners are needed, etc.

Analogously, a fundraiser would look to a robust data set to best understand prospects. What were previous contact outcomes? What are prospects’ hobbies? Who are their relatives? And more! The science of development is in the collection, organization, and use of relevant (and sometimes seemingly irrelevant) information. This builds knowledge toward the effective and efficient pursuit of the highest quality donor prospects. A scientist practices trial and error yet has little time to waste.

Tools For Both

A vast, comprehensive, and regularly updated database is not always the highest priority for a development team, but it ought to be. A small shop could benefit from a ready-made CRM system with data fields that can be tailored. With a larger budget, a database can be custom built. Regardless, these platforms take significant resources to sustain. And because every organization with a prospect database maintains its own information, a collective problem arises: organizations inevitably duplicate each other’s efforts as they originate and maintain records on shared prospects. Barring the sharing of sensitive data, there must be a greater level of productive data sharing than we are doing now, one that would allow us to take advantage of the commonly collected data that could theoretically be centrally compiled and disseminated. Imagine fundraising made simpler because we made prospect data collection simpler.

A case in point is the need to update mailing addresses for the thousands of prospects that move each year. Our saving grace is the National Change of Address service (NCOA). A routine download by an organization with a database plugin will automatically correct prospect data in a cross-comparison provided by the USPS. This is accurate information that is provided by the prospects themselves, then standardized for nonprofit outreach.

A Way Forward

I can imagine expanding upon this principle if a central organization were to create a unique ID for all donors (just as BRIDGE will create unique IDs for all organizations). What might happen if both prospects and organizations could update and access information on a shared portal? Say that prospects could indicate: preferred method of contact (phone, mail, email, social media, events, etc.), preferred method of donation (in person, online, phone, etc.), preferred time of year to give (after tax season, calendar year end, etc.), areas of interest (international health, education, human rights, etc.), capacity to volunteer (professional skills, service provision, mentorships, etc.), and more. Say organizations could prove that certain individuals were already within their prospect pool; they could then receive access to compiled information on each person. This could save fundraisers incredible time and effort, eliminating the waste of sending mailers to those who never open them and refining prospect pools where interests have no overlap.

Theoretically there are even more uses of a portal in which prospects receive a unique ID. Individuals themselves could record which organizations they’ve previously supported. Evaluation information could be incorporated, such that a donor could view her “donation portfolio” to gain a sense of personal impact, and perhaps even comparisons against others’ portfolios. This would increase pressure on organizations to provide performance data, recognizing that wasting resources is not only an issue for organizations, but also those who support underperforming ones.

A collective prospect data source could do wonders for the social sector. The more we focus on the data science of fundraising, the more quickly we can put critical dollars to work for positive change. Yes, fundraising is also interpersonal art. But if one absolutely had to emphasize one over the other… well, I for one would rather drink from my beaker than be a starving artist.