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The post “But, It’s Not Industry Standard” spurred a good deal of helpful comment and insight (and incite) from Agitator readers defending or challenging my assertion that ‘best practices’ or ‘industry standard’ is too often used as a shield for defending the same old stuff.

The comments are also a microcosm of the dilemma the sector faces: A shortage of properly trained and educated fundraisers at a time of rapid nonprofit growth — up nearly 24% in the past 10 years.)

In the post, I noted that our trade seems to have too many “folks who hold themselves out as ‘experts’, but who clearly don’t think or read and simply regurgitate what they’ve heard.” I used the misunderstanding or misrepresentation questioning the value of predictive modeling as an example.

With that, a reader, using the alias, weighed in saying that, while he was a “huge proponent of predictive modeling and more advanced analytic frameworks”, he challenged the notion that “Loyalty can be quantified from self-reported survey or focus group research” for predictive purposes.

Steadfast in his belief that “the most predictive variable of giving, is previous giving” he nevertheless noted that he would “love to learn more about the empirical evidence and methodologies that support a Loyalty based approach”.

This is exactly the right attitude as far as I’m concerned. Be skeptical of the ‘new’ but be willing to challenge the ‘old’.

Kevin Schulman and Nick Elllinger, of our sister company DonorVoice, offered detailed insights to ThatGuy with a series of a practical examples/tests, and references to academic research on the subject. Healthy and helpful additions to the discussion. (Read their comments here and here if you’re curious why they believe in the significant predictive power of commitment/loyalty.

In addition — and as an important reminder and challenge for all of us — Kevin noted “that far too many people entering this field only learn what is handed down to them by folks who had it handed down to them and hold steadfast that they need to learn nothing more, that the Earth is flat. This self-taught culture too often breeds a prescriptive approach that reduces the understanding of human behavior and mathematical disciplines to a few bullet points…”

I’m fully aware that with the dramatic increase in the number of new nonprofits over the past decade (up nearly 24%) that for most organizations the availability of trained, experienced fundraisers is more fantasy than reality.

I suspect that’s why Kathy Swayze, a veteran fundraiser laments in her comments that sometimes there’s no alternative but to rely on ‘best practices’. “It is important to note that there are some instances where even very large organizations need to hear about best practices. Some have had so much turnover and so much dysfunction that getting them back to ‘industry best practices’ is a good start from where they currently are. In addition, practical applications of fundraising techniques slam head first into the politics of silos in many organizations. So, you may have a team that doesn’t understand the first thing about fundraising making important fundraising implementation decisions.”

Well, I suspect everyone reading this understands and sympathizes with Kathy. And, I’m equally sure that everyone concerned with the future of our sector understands the importance of doing something to change the status quo when it comes to turning ill-trained, under-educated fundraisers set loose on the sector.

Fortunately, as Jay Love notes in his comment: “Thankfully there are institutions around the world conducting proper scientific research into the world of Philanthropy. Let’s hope the work of those institutions and the wonderfully devoted teams there will soon become the accepted standards for professional fundraising.

What’s so paradoxical and puzzling to me is that a time when there is more and more quality research being conducted in the behavioral sciences regarding fundraising and philanthropy there are so few organizations that insist on hiring properly trained and educated folks for their fundraising departments or their consulting practices?

As Kevin puts it in one of his comments: “Apprenticeship hasn’t been a viable approach for decades in traditional trades or crafts given the major disruption of global labor supply and technology.

“Why then is it acceptable (by default) for a field that ultimately deals with economics, behavioral economics, psychology, color theory, design theory, survey design, linguistics, statistics….to not demand that folks entering the field have deep, subject matter expertise in these areas?

How many job postings in this sector demand advanced degrees in these fields? Damn near none. And yet if you look at the program side of the house and maybe in finance you find lots of people with degrees (advanced or not) in their chosen field. [Emphasis added.]

“Understanding how to motivate human beings and getting them to develop habitual behavior with your organization in a way that yields sustainable growth is a multi-disciplinary science. It requires multi-disciplinary expertise that only comes from hiring a team with specific, subject matter expertise. The consultancies don’t have this either, they are
typically nothing more than a mirror reflection of the client on this score.

“Does on the job experience help? Of course, but only if the lessons learned are worth learning.”

The Radical Idea

All of this discussion and debate inspired Ben Miller of sister company DonorTrends prepare his own post — Are you a Fundriasing Fox or a Hedgehog — where he concluded with this radical idea for getting from a ‘best practices/industry standard’ of today to a more empirical, educated tomorrow:

“One way to know if the people making important fundraising decisions know the first thing about fundraising, is to ask them why?

“If the answer is because that is how it has been done in the past, or because it is industry standard, then they most likely do not know why they are doing it.

“If the answer is based on reason and supported by evidence, then they know why they are doing it.” [Emphasis added.]

If organizations — their CEOs and boards — commit to simply hiring people who know the “first thing about fundraising”, this will hopefully at least buy our sector the time required to absorb and benefit from the research challenging and changing the status quo.

Keep your comments coming. Keep challenging the status quo.