CoolData blog

6 October 2011

The emerging role of the (fundraising) analyst

Filed under: Data, skeptics, Why predictive modeling? — Tags: — kevinmacdonell @ 12:44 pm

Effective fundraisers tell stories. When we communicate with prospective donors, we do well to evoke feelings and emotions, and go light on the facts. We may attempt to persuade with numbers and charts, but that will never work as well as one true and powerful story, conveyed in word and image.

But what about the stories we tell to ourselves? Humans need narratives to make sense of the world, but our inborn urge to order events as “this happened, then that happened” leads us into all kinds of unsupported or erroneous assumptions, often related to causation.

How many times have you heard assertions such as, “The way to reach young alumni donors is online, because that’s where they spend all their time”? Or, “We shouldn’t ask young alumni to give more than $20, because they have big student loans to pay.” Or, “There’ s no need to look beyond loyal donors to find the best prospects for Planned Giving.” Or, “We should stop calling people for donations, because focus groups say they don’t like to get those calls.”

Such mini-narratives are all around us and they beguile us into believing them. Who knows whether they’re true or not? They might make intuitive sense, or they’re told to us by people with experience. Experts tell us stories like this. National donor surveys and reports on philanthropic trends tell stories, too. And we act on them, not because we know they’re true, but because we believe them.

Strictly speaking, none of them can be “true” in the sense that they apply everywhere and at all times. Making assertions about causation in connection with complex human behaviours such as philanthropy is suspect right from the start. Even when there is some truth, whose truth is it? Trend-watchers and experts who know nothing about your donors are going to lead you astray with their suppositions.

I’m reminded of the scene in the movie Moneyball, now playing in theatres, in which one grizzled baseball scout says a certain player must lack confidence “because his girlfriend is ugly.” We can hope that most received wisdom about philanthropy is not as prodigiously stupid, but the logic should be familiar. Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s, needed a new way of doing things, and so do we.

The antidote to being led astray is learning what’s actually true about your own donors and your own constituency. It’s a new world, folks: We’ve got the tools and the smarts to put any assertion to the test, in the environment of our own data. The age of basing decisions on fact instead of supposition has arrived.

No doubt some feel threatened by that. I imagine a time when something like observation-driven, experimental medicine started to break on the scene. Doctors treating mental illness by knocking holes in peoples’ skulls to let out the bad spirits must have resisted the tide. The witch-doctors, and the baseball scouts obsessed with ugly girlfriends, may have had a lot of experience, but does anyone miss them?

The role of the analyst is not to shut down our natural, story-telling selves. No. The role of the analyst is to treat every story as a hypothesis. Not in order to explode it necessarily, but to inject validity, context, and relevance. The role of the analyst, in short, is to help us tell better and better stories.


This blog post is part of the Analytics Blogarama, in which bloggers writing on all aspects of the field offer their views on “The Emerging Role of the Analyst.” Follow the link (hosted by SmartData Collective) to read other viewpoints.


1 Comment »

  1. Kevin,

    Your conclusion is so nicely put – telling better and better stories. I hope that they will also be truer and truer!

    The bit about the ugly girlfriend also cracked me up, especially when the scout described her as “a six, at best.” Either the scout had a very odd view of ordinal scales, or he thinks most of us are ugly.

    Comment by Meta Brown — 7 October 2011 @ 2:39 pm

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