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Your donors are not stupid

Anyone familiar with the concept of an outlier is fairly well inoculated from the seductive aroma of a well penned anecdote. Yet fundraising consultants continue to peddle the tired myth of the winning story, the singular parable that will endow an agency into perpetuity.

We are in the era of savvy donors. While I applaud the sector’s recognition of the importance of outcomes measurement, I’m afraid we are overemphasizing the importance of big numbers versus good measurement practices.

When I was in college I ran a small non-profit that was surprisingly competitive in grant applications. We did not necessarily have a greater impact than those organizations we competed for funding against (quite the contrary in fact). Although we did not have bigger numbers than other organizations, we did have better processes and capacity to collect and learn from our data.

Other organizations provided bigger numbers, we provided more believable ones.

The pressure to report big numbers is more self-imposed than we tend to realize. Foundations and donors are begging organizations not for more fantastically large metrics, but something they have good reason to believe is true, within some well estimated margin of error.

As donors become more sophisticated in their giving, increasingly more agnostic across focus areas, organizations must also become more sophisticated in their internal use of information and more statistically honest in their reporting.

Anyone can make up a big number. 5,439! See, that was easy. But it doesn’t mean anything. If you know it, so do your donors.

Indeed, the brilliance of the dawn of the impact oriented social investor is that organizations would do well to fully embrace evidence based processes for the betterment of program impact and the assurance of future funding.

But having data is not enough, and blindly reporting metrics or wrongly inferring meaning from misleading infographics is plainly transparent to this new crop of social investors. To win their hearts, organizations must win these donors’ minds. And in their minds, they are investors, no longer emotionally manipulatable donors.