Run DMCMC

Run DMCMC

Turning the geek factor up to 11 for a moment, there are some interesting possibilities for mathematical techniques used in technologies like predictive text to be used to assess fundraising interventions.  Ever since an influential 1948 paper by Claude Shannon – “the Father of the Information Age” – so-called ‘Markov Chain’ models (a variant of which is  ‘Markov Chain Monte Carlo’, or MCMC) have been “widely used in speech recognition, handwriting recognition, information retrieval, data compression, and spam filtering”, as well as ‘Natural Language Processing’/word prediction, by assigning probabilities to ‘state transitions’, ie the probability of one letter or word following another.  Using such chains to predict which fundraising interventions are most likely to lead to a gift would be a huge boon for the industry, leading (in theory at least) to far more efficient donor journeys and more granular understandings of business process value.  So, who wants to Run DMCMC?

Ratio’s(ination)

Imagine an ant crawling along a beach, left and right, forward and back, up and down, as it navigates home. It’s chosen path looks something like this:

Ant walk pic

The route is complex, but the complexity is a product of the environment, not the ant, whose decision-making power is minimal.  The example is abstract but relevant for people, too: “human beings, viewed as behaving systems, are quite simple. The apparent complexity of our behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which we find ourselves.”

The question of how to navigate complex environments using limited decisionmaking capacity and incomplete information is at least as relevant for organisations as it is for animals.  As a fascinating recent post [login required] to the Prospect-DMM email forum suggests, the answer may lie partly in the use of ratios, which offer an elegant, contextualised ways to cut through bewildering amounts of information.  Simple, powerful metrics to use in fundraising could include:

  • Last five years giving/lifetime total
  • Responses/contacts
  • Number of appeal/number of gifts
  • Cost of appeals/lifetime donations

One obstacle is not being able to integrate or even extract information from our database systems to begin with.  Recent news that insurance giant Aviva has made great strides in integrating database systems to the great advantage of their business raised a thought which is highly relevant for many charities: are we prisoners or masters of our IT/database systems?  And, when techniques like database screening may be restricted or even off-limits in future, can we afford not to try to mine other data for insights?

Weapons of Math Destruction

If, as the ICO believes, the British public would experience “substantial distress” in learning their data had been processed in a wealth screening, the public will surely be distraught should they ever read Cathy O’Neils 2016 book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.  The many ways in which mathematical models and algorithms – the so-called ‘WMDs’ – are used to make crucial decisions relating to the public realm and, increasingly, private lives are as worrying and widespread as they are opaque and unaccountable.  Across vital issues like criminal justice (where court decisions increasingly use automated quantitative modelling and scoring), access to credit, finance and education (where credit scoring and rating of teachers increasingly rely on WMDs), jobs and employment (where a missed payment could mean being overlooked for a job interview) and even the feelings and emotions we experience (thanks again, Facebook), WMD’s are in wide and growing use.  This largely unseen trend is worrying as WMD’s inevitably contain errors and anomalies which, if not caught, can have significant effects for those affected by their scores or results.  Even worse, WMDs can have pernicious effects when they run perfectly – many contain implicit value judgements which end up disadvantaging poorer groups, or, in the case of aggressive advertising, are designed to target these very people.  Yet all too often WMDs’ methods and results go unchallenged.

O’Neils Mathbabe blog is an engaging mix of political commentary, engaging geekery and knitted hats – well worth a read.  And both are valuable and timely in helping us to understand – and hopefully better manage – our algorithmic overlords.

Where is the Money (Going to Be)?

In No Country for Old Men, menacing assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) shuns Woody Harrelson’s frightened offer of help to find a satchel loaded with millions of dollars.  “I can find it from the riverbank”, a terrified Harrelson pleads at gunpoint, “I know where it is”.  “I know something better”, counters the icy Chigurh, “I know where it’s going to be”.

Chigurh Hotel Scene pic

As fundraising researchers, we spend a lot of time focusing on where the money is.  But do we spend enough thinking about where it is going to be?  The scene is a reminder that to prospect by relying on companies or sectors enjoying current success (as a way to assess employees’ affluence) is to miss a trick.  Do we prospect often enough by trying to predict which sectors will become successful in the future?  It may sound like a fool’s errand, but understanding which sectors and products are on a strong growth path and likely to experience an uptick in growth – wearable tech, virtual reality, voice recognition technologies and peer-to-peer finance come to mind – would be a boon for prospect research.  Intelligence on mergers & acquisitions, IPOs and other comparable ‘liquidity events’ is equally valuable (lookin’ at you, Aramco).  Such horizon-scanning need not be resource-intensive and is par for the course for many investors and businesses – for very good reason.

Calling Bullshit

How to call bullshit in the age of Big Data?  There is now a whole course designed to do just that, and it is the best thing ever (no b*llshit).

callingbullshit

Heat & Light

Heat & Light

The Information Commissioner’s recent decision to fine several charities for data processing and consent transgressions has generated a remarkable amount of heat (in the form of impassioned comment) but, from my perspective as a practitioner, somewhat less light (ie actionable insights).  So I have collected a short list of questions below – these are presented as honest enquiries, informed by an awareness that change in fundraising practices is inevitable, that better ways of working are possible, even desirable, and that tomorrow’s ICO compliance conference is likely to be a big part of this change.

Before the questions, though, permit a historical detour, as it is absolutely imperative to recognise the antecedents of current regulatory attention on charities.  Even the most cursory search of recent Fundraising Standards Board’s (FRSB) Annual Complaints Reports shows total complaints received doubled in four years, from 33,744 in 2012 to 66,814 in 2015, complaints which were prompted some 60 billion fundraising contacts over this time.  Strikingly, the FRSB estimated that for each complaint received, a further 20 people are annoyed but do not complain; this puts the 2015 total at around 1.3m.  Their source seems clear: “half of all complaints are incurred by less than 2% of charities reporting”…”just 1% of reporting charities (all of which have voluntary income of £10 million and over) generate six in every ten complaints”.  Frustration at continued inaction in addressing the issue led outgoing FRSB Chair Andrew Hind to deliver a strongly worded rebuke in his 2016 Complaint Report foreword:

“[T]his report shows that more than 66,000 people were so unhappy about a charity fundraising activity targeted at them last year that they took the time and trouble to make a formal complaint about it to the charity concerned…The stark reality identified by this report is therefore that, in all likelihood, some 1.3 million people were dissatisfied by the impact that a charity fundraising technique had on them in 2015. That’s enough unhappy people to fill Wembley stadium 15 times over.  Just three fundraising activities – direct mail, telephone calls and doorstep fundraising – are responsible for more than seven in ten of these concerns” [italics added]

A brief word also on the Daily Fail, whose 2015 ‘New Shame of Charities’ story is widely thought to have precipitated the current storm?  It should be remembered that the story was prompted by a concerned whistleblower, as DM Investigations Editor Katherine Faulkner made clear in her evidence (given in a closed session) to the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) in October 2015.  The DM were not even the first newspaper to run such whistleblower stories in recent years – in 2009 the Daily Mirror published a similar one relating to charity telemarketing, while, in 2012 the Telegraph ran an exposé of what it called “aggressive, intimidatory and potentially unlawful [fundraising] tactics”, after an undercover Telegraph reporter worked at Tag Communications for 12 days, the FRSB later found Tag had “deliberately confused and misled the public” in their fundraising activities.  This story used the very same method as did the DM in 2015; indeed, it seems highly unlikely the DM would have covered charities in such detail in recent years had earlier stories not set a marker and had a whistleblower not approached them. Media coverage obviously caught the ICO’s attention (their reply to my recent Freedom of Information request says “[a]llegations have been made in the media that individuals are being overwhelmed by fundraising requests”).  But, odious as the DM is, there is a wider backstory of public dissatisfaction with and frustration towards charity fundraising which cannot, and should not, be ignored.  The current climate may make the above look like the case for the prosecution; it is not, but those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it and I, for one, do not wish to see the recent past of British charity fundraising repeated anytime soon.

I would add that the recent ICO rulings seem to me to present a real opportunity for the sector.  I cannot escape the conclusion that affinity and engagement are the key determinants of large contributions, and I see no reason why an increased emphasis on measuring and acting on these attributes cannot yield substantial gains for many charities.  Odd as it sounds, I also welcome the recent scrutiny on screening – the ICO’s actions can in important ways be seen as a catalyst for fundamentally more open and transparent relationships with our donors.  They are also a spur to re-examine longstanding practices, a result of which may well be an increased capacity to build enduring relationships with supporters.

All that said, my questions are:

  1. Consents & reasonable expectations.  We travel magically to a Utopia where charities have in the recent past secured every necessary consent, perfect privacy statements are publicly displayed and where, thanks to a concerted communications campaign, “substantial distress” would not reasonably be expected to be caused upon learning that ones data been processed in a wealth screening.  In this world, is wealth screening illegal?
  2. Types of screening.  Any organisation with significant data assets screens regularly – so as not to send mail to deceased people/so use the correct address, and for any number of other reasons.  Is the risk of “substantial distress” the main, or only, difference between these processes?
  3. Substantial distress.  Both the recent ICO Civil Monetary Penalty notices and paper accompanying the imminent Fundraising & Regulatory Compliance Conference stress the likelihood that “substantial distress” would be caused were data controllers to learn their data had been processed in a wealth screening.  This might be true, however no evidence is cited to support this claim in the judgement or the paper, and subsequent Freedom of Information requests have been refused or are awaiting a reply (Note to Madeline Bowles: whoever you are, thankyou!).
    1. Related: how can we know “substantial distress” is likely when such distress is itself partly the result of the manner in which the activity in question is described or explained?
  4. Understanding capacity to give.  Quite simply, how are charities to arrive at an understanding of who might have capacity to be able to make a major donation without analysing publicly available sources?

Do also check out Factary’s very good recent “5 Questions to Ask the ICO“.

For those attending the conference tomorrow – enjoy.  For everyone else – catch you at online at #FRCC2017!

Heat & Light II: “Let Sunshine Win the Day”

George Osborne revelled in his role as the ‘Austerity Chancellor’.  However, for all his talk of “tough choices”, this austerity did not, it seems, extend to charitable sector spending, where at times his decisions seem generous almost to the point of profligacy.  Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of disbursals of funds raised by fines on banks, in which Osborne had significant – if not sole – say in directing the funds, totalling by some estimates almost £900m. Some edited highlights of these disbursals include:

  • £50m to the Cadet Expansion Programme (itself established in 2012 by the Coalition) to place 500 Cadets in British schools, each cadet costing, it seems, a cool £100,000, more than many whole charities cost each year
  • £7.6m towards the refurbishment of Wentworth Woodhouse, which led the Guardian to question the surprise choice – with a £42m total cost of renovation, £7.6m will only pay for the roof to be fixed and some other structural repairs at a private home which only granted access to the public in the 1980’s.  The funds were said to be contingent on the Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust publishing a business case which, at the time of writing in February 2017, did not seem to have been posted to the Trust’s website
  • £20m towards the costs of the National Rehabilitation Centre at Stanford Hall in Nottinghamshire, which Ceasefire magazine have cogently and persuasively argued should really be a cost borne by Government, who sent affected veterans to battle in the first place
  • £35m towards the Armed Forces Covenant (Libor) fund.  The Fund was established in 2010 by the new Coalition Government – David Cameron himself tasked the initial  working group with producing a “low-cost” ideas for rebuilding the Covenant.  Again, this is arguably money which should have been provided by Government to care for veterans.

A recent Private Eye story also reported on the continued expense of the National Citizenship Service (NCS), which (it reports) will receive £1.26bn from 2016-2020.  This includes £187m in 2016-17 making it one of the largest charities in the country according to recent figures from Professor Cathy Pharoah at the Centre for Giving and Philanthropy at Cass Business School.  Despite this, the NCS is on track to miss participation targets by some 40%, with a recent National Audit Office report, saying “[w]eaknesses in governance and cost control need to be addressed”, concerns which led Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the influential Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, to say “it is difficult to see how [the NCS] will be sustainable in the long term”.

Charities faced allegations of misspending or getting poor value for money from LIBOR funds they received, but surely the bigger question surrounds opaque Government decisionmaking.  It is concerning that not long before the Kids Company enquiry, the Treasury and MoD were making highly centralised decisions as to who would receive hundreds of millions of pounds, with very little transparency, and with MP’s apparently lobbying for a share of the funds.  As Civil Society reporter Helen Sharman wrote in late 2016, “[w]hen an MP writes to the man in charge of the government’s chequebook, seeking preferential treatment for a charity he supports, and the charity then receives a considerable chunk of what is on offer, we cannot help being slightly suspicious that public money is being distributed to charities because of patronage, rather than merit.”  Ms Sharman’s Civil Society colleague Gareth Jones sums the issue up well in saying “the longer the Treasury declines to outline a detailed decision-making process for these grants, the more we will have to infer that there simply isn’t one.  With charitable funding so scarce, it is vital that every penny is directed in the most targeted, effective way. No doubt the vast majority of causes receiving Libor funding (if not all) are very worthy, but do we know that there aren’t other causes that are more deserving?”

In 2006, David Cameron famously used his first Conservative conference as leader to urge colleagues to “let sunshine win the day”.  Will this Government let some sunshine illuminate their decisions around how charity funding choices are made?

Bricks and Mortar

With legacy bequests left to British charities measured in the billions and the value of British residential real estate measured in the trillions, why is high-value legacy fundraising not top of every fundraising directors to-do list?  The estimated value of members of the Sunday Times Rich List has grown from £99bn in 1997 to more than £500bn in 2016.  However, even this astronomical growth is dwarfed by the explosion in the estimated value of British real estate, whose value a 2016 Saville’s research report estimates at more than £6tn (trillion).  To put that into perspective, if everything in the UK were to be sold, it would fetch an estimated £8tn.  In answering the question “where is the money”, the answer, in the UK at least, is clear: “bricks and mortar”.

This is an urgent issue for British charities.  A perfect storm of more activist regulation, stubbornly high attrition/low response rates and a struggling cost-per-acquisition business model mean charity Direct Marketing is both waving and drowning.  Of charities’ existing major revenue streams, only legacies, major donations and ‘mid-value’ giving seem to have any chance of filling the gap left by falling or flatlining direct mail, face-to-face, door-to-door, telephone and DRTV.  And Legacies offer far greater scope for much-needed unrestricted funds than do major gifts, as well as the chance for collaboration between fundraising teams to build a value proposition stretching across the life course.

And crucially, legacies are highly unequal – in a good way.  A colleague recently recounted how a former charity received around 200 legacy bequests each year, with half a dozen accounting for around 40% of the total received – just one or two more of these big bequests would have transformed the charity’s financial outlook.  For a sector populated largely by micro-organisations, many with few or no paid employees, legacies are far more realistic proposition than securing and stewarding major donations.  Substantial legacies are possible for far more people than major lifetime gifts.  Many households in middle-England would never have the means to give a gift in the hundreds of thousands, but far more would could consider a legacy of this scale.
Property wealth is also far more broadly distributed than cash, meaning legacies enable more regional charities to raise big gifts. Many HNWI’s are London-based, however property wealth is far more broadly distributed, meaning charities across the country can seek and secure significant legacies.  The UK, already unequal and set to become even more so in the near future, offers far more opportunities to raise funds from property wealth than cash.  We should recognise this, and act accordingly.

Innovation Means Not Copying

Innovation Means Not Copying: In 1987, a young chef named Ferran Adriá became Head Chef of restaurant elBulli, in the remote Catalan town of Montjoi, 170km north-east of Barcelona.  Over the next 20 years he revolutionised the culinary industry and became a globally recognised star, introducing science to the kitchen, overthrowing almost all gastronomic received wisdoms, and taking the now-famous maxim “creativity means not copying” to thrilling extremes.  Restaurant meals served on roofing slates or sauces made into ‘capuccinos’ are (often unknowing) imitations of Adria’s relentless invention (though few will have the audacity to serve up a box of smoke).  “Adriá once told me”, recounts Oriol Castro, Adriá’s right-hand man, “that creativity is seeing what other people do not see.” “But that it also demands perseverance and effort”, steps in Adrià. “Exactly”, agrees Oriol Castro. “Everyday work is the key. You will not wake up one day and raise your eyes to the sky to find wonderful ideas raining down on you. Everyday work and perseverance will do that.” This echoes Clara Avery, Macmillan’s Director of Evidence & Insight, in her interview with me where she says of Macmillan’s fundraising gains: “where we’ve had success is where we’ve done the basics right“.

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This quote should be displayed prominently in 72 point type in every charity boardroom in the land.  There is no magic to innovation.  While hyperbole has surrounded Adriá since the breakthrough years of the late 1990’s, he and his team’s methods were in fact surprisingly simple, and offer clues for all organisations in instilling innovative practice.  Rigorous record-keeping, in the form of ‘creative audits’ where each dish was photographed at each stage of production and the culinary processes used transcribed, were key, as was the ‘creativity means not copying’ principle.  There was also huge investment in innovation, to the point where the restaurant was closed for 6 months a year to allow the team to explore new processes and create new dishes.  Very few organisations can afford to match this commitment to originality, but then, arguably, neither could elBulli – the restaurant itself turned a meagre profit despite receiving 2m requests for 8,000 available places annually, and was subsidised by other areas of Adriá’s business.  But for Adriá, innovation was non-negotiable.  It also helped that elBulli was a tremendously glitzy loss-leader, building the Adriá brand so that other restaurants and hotels, book deals, speaking engagements, TV appearances and cookware endorsements could underwrite the restaurant named as the world’s best five times.

elBulli was a tiny organisation, created in the vision of one man.  After closing it in 2011, Adria as taken on many grand projects, however progress has been uneven, and it seems that the messy real world may not be the place for his ideas to be put to work (he is also prone to hyperbole, including ludicrous ‘G9 Summits’ and ‘Declarations‘).  Nonetheless, he and his team’s extraordinary track-record of innovation, built with an alloy of practical experimentation, careful information management and extreme ambition, are a study in how innovation happens, and why, counterintuitively, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.
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Safe As Houses?: Red lights seem to be flashing on real estates ‘prime inner London’ dashboard: hedge funds shorted London luxury property developers earlier this year, Savills now forecasts a 9% drop in prime London home prices in 2016, headlines like “London’s Luxury Homes Bubble Loses Air” have begun to appear, and a session at the recent FT Weekend event was called “Has London’s property bubble burst?”.  Increased stamp duty (a British property tax), Brexit and slowing Asian economies are all contributing to the trend.
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British property’s role as a gateway for capital into the EU means the Brexit effect is particularly underplayed.  An anecdotal example is Nine Elms in South London, the largest building site in Europe and home to what the Guardian newspaper recently called the ‘ghost tower’, a skyscraper whose low occupancy is due to majority offshore ownership.  Nine Elms stands out in this Private Eye map as one of the biggest chunks of offshore owned land in London; restricting Britain’s financial ties with Europe will make such projects far less attractive to investors in future, with consequent depressive effects on property prices.  The possible loss of British ‘passporting’ rights for financial institutions will also have a similar effect.  Loss of such rights is specifically mentioned in the (very pointed) Japanese Governments report released just before the recent G20, which says essentially that ‘soft Brexit’/continued access to the single market are essential for continued Japanese investment in the UK.

British residential property is easily the biggest asset class in the country, and therefore absolutely central to national wealth.  There will be significant effects for fundraising, (especially legacies and philanthropy), if property prices cease to be ‘as safe as houses’.

Coalitions: The Panama Papers contains a total of 2.6tb (terabytes) of information. Even before John Doe had delivered the last of it to German journalists Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier, the journalists had realised not only could they not analyse more than a fraction of it but, for very real reasons of risk and security, the work should be shared as widely as possible.  The eventual coalition was made up of hundreds of journalists across several continents, resulting in a number of major scoops and many more revealing insights into the habits of elites across the globe.
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Almost all data generated in recorded history was created in the last 2 years.  Will fundraising researchers follow colleagues in investigative and data journalism in using coalitions to augment individuals’ skill?  And as we struggle to employ enough data analysts, visualisation experts and coders, are such coalitions a way for charities to fill the data skills gap?

Hamlet Without the Ghost: Looking through agenda of previous years fundraising conferences, there is a notable absence.  The presences are also striking: this is clearly a hardworking, dynamic industry which cares about improving its skills base and the techniques and technologies it uses. But the raison d’etre of the industry is often missing.

The omission is money.  While the very name of the industry contains a synonym for it, discussions centered on income or wealth dynamics are conspicuous by their absence in many public discussions of fundraising.  This is especially odd as the landscape of British wealth has changed markedly in recent decades, with many of the gains from major industries like finance, tech and commodities going to a small subset of the population, and huge (current and forecast) increases in insecure work and unsecured debt for many households.  Ironically, these trends coincide with a golden age in the study of the distributional dynamics of wealth, with academics led by Sir Anthony Atkinson, and including Professors Thomas Piketty, Emmanual Saez and Gabriel Zucman bringing serious academic rigor to the field.  Whole new centres of study are opening, such as the recently-founded Stone Centre on Socio-Economic Inequality at the City University of New York, while existing centres such as the Luxemburg Income Study and World Wealth & Income database  expand rapidly to meet demand.  While Philip Beresford, founding author of the British Sunday Times Rich List, was once called a communist for daring to inquire about the wealth of a new list entrant, inequality and the study of wealth are now centre-stage in academic circles.

This is a welcome development.  Without serious, sustained consideration (and operationalisation) of the social dynamics of wealth, fundraising is Hamlet without the ghost, lacking animating spirit and structure.  We know more then ever before about where wealth is, and where it might be. Will we now use this knowledge to broaden the terms of the public debate, to “go where the money is, and go often“?

Philanthropy Studies: if money is power, why has philanthropy not been a more popular field of inquiry for social scientists?  Lecture halls are filled year after year with students of other social sciences, while philanthropy has been something of an orphan subject, struggling to secure mainstream attention.
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This may be changing.  Renowned social scientist Professor Theda Skocpol recently published a clarion call to arms for her colleagues to take seriously a discipline which has traditionally received short shrift from the academy.  Princeton’s Centre on Philanthropy and Civil Society – working at the “intersection of human centered design, strategic philanthropy, and the behavioral sciences” – has a number of  fascinating research themes.  And the UK’s very own Rogare thinktank, (whose Advisory Board I was delighted to join last month) is doing excellent work on the ethical and theoretical underpinnings of this thing we call fundraising.  Long may the growth in this important area of study continue.

Some Thoughts After a Summer of Reading & Watching Films

Numbers Not Words: Towards the end of the film ‘Zero Dark Thirty’, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta (played by James Gandolfini) quizzes his team on the likelihood of Osama Bin Laden being in hiding in the Pakistani town of Abbotabad.  “Is he there or is he not f–––––– there?” he asks. Analysts offer probabilities between 60% and 80%, until the protagonist, Maya (Jessica Chastain), chimes in: “A hundred percent he’s there,” she says. “OK, fine, 95%, because I know certainty freaks you guys out. But it’s a hundred!”

chastainZDT

The scene is notable for the numbers, not the words. Completely unremarked, each person offers a numerical percentage estimate.  This is no accident.  After the 2nd Iraq war, the US Intelligence Community undertook an enormous cross-departmental excercise to improve the quality of its forecasting, which was recognised after the (hugely expensive) war to have been poor at best.  One of the recommendations was to do away with vague, textual predictions (“quite likely”, “probably will happen”, “may not take place”) and forecast using only percentages.  Another outcome of the excercise was the establishment by the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA) of a forecasting tournament pitting teams of experts against one another in a test of forecasting ability.  The shock winner was the Good Judgement Project (GJP), a team of enthusiastic amateur forecasters marshalled by Professor Phillip Tetlock and his team.  Professor Tetlock’s book Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It?  How Can We Know? caused a sensation some years earlier by showing that political pundit ‘experts’ have less forecasting ability than would a monkey throwing darts at a board, ie. that their predictions were worse than random guesses would be.  Professor Tetlock has said that the landmark 20-year study underlying Expert Political Judgement was inspired by a comment from Noble Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman that most experts were no better forecasters than the average New York Times reader.  The GJP team easily beat their higher-paid, better-resourced Government opponents, who have now enlisted Tetlock and his associates to teach them how to forecast future events.

The upshot: anyone with any interest in forecasting should read the Tetlock/GJP work, starting with his most recent, Superforecasting.  The next major gift may just be round the corner, but there are lots of corners and it helps to know which one to take to find it.

Occupy Philanthropy: Malcolm Gladwell’s priceless tweet got me thinking about inequality and not-for-profits.  There is surely a thesis to be written on the fact that the British charities sector is one where 0.36% of organisations raise half all funds, while half of all charities raise 0.57% (chart below is from the NCVOs Financial Sustainability Review).  How can we speak with a united voice with such stark divisions?  And when 62 individuals hold as much wealth as half the world’s entire population, how can causes not popular with the (very) wealthy thrive?

NCVO chart charity size_income

The Curious Case of Building 20:  During World War Two, American Universities were required to join the war effort.  The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was no different, only they had a problem: after all the major departments had been assigned office space in their re-worked campus, an assortment of smaller, less established departments were left.  These included Linguistics, Electrical Engineering various branches of Military Studies and even a piano repair facility.  Eventually, a ramshackle temporary wooden building was constructed to house the departments, designed to last “until the end of the war + six months”.

But a funny thing happened.  ‘Building 20′, as it came to be known, left a remarkable legacy.  Because it was never considered prime real estate on campus, occupants were free to modify the cheap building at will, making the space more comfortable and useful.  The eclectic departments and oddly distributed seating plan meant academics from unrelated disciplines sat close by and were free to share ideas and listen in to their colleagues’ meetings, and the randomised floorplan and single-storey structure made chance conversations with academics from random departments almost impossible to avoid.  Even a walk to the bathroom gave opportunities to bump into colleagues from completely unrelated disciplines, and for new and unexpected connections to be made between subjects, and people.  “Scientists working there pioneered a stunning list of breakthroughs, from advances in high-speed photography to the development of the physics behind microwaves. Building 20 served as an incubator for the Bose Corporation. It gave rise to the first video game and to Chomskyan linguistics”.  By the time it was finally demolished in 1998, the building was legendary for the extraordinary number of inventions and innovations whose origins lay in the shabby building.

Chance encounters between people with radically different skill sets can be hugely valuable, and are almost free for organisations to engineer.  Why doesn’t everyone do it?

Conviviality: How can not-for-profits help their employees be convivial, learn about one another, and turn the walls built by the working world into bridges?  Theodore Zeldin’s recent book is a reminder that work can and must be about more than a trade-off between ‘real’ life and something called “work” we need to “balance” against.  What if charities not only used donations and grants to deliver services, but  connected their supporters with one another, and their employees, building a mass-movement of people with shared interests and outlooks?  The imperative for this was clear as I looked at a poster in Barcelona of a Catalan charity asking for 3 to help an older person escape grinding loneliness.  While whole global businesses were built in the 20th century to fill houses with furniture, driveways with cars and planes with passengers, the third ‘revolution’ (following those in agriculture and industry) may be to fill far more lives with meaningful relationships, and to facilitate the creation of such links (Zeldin’s ‘conversation dinners‘ are one suggestion ).  This in turn could be a chance for charities (and organisations more widely) to evolve to provide not only more meaningful work, but also a solution to some of the biggest societal challenges of the 21st century, including isolation and poor mental health. Karl Wilding’s comment to the Lords Select Committee on Charities that some charities are reimagining themselves as social movements may prove to be very prescient, and not only because charities are seeking greater social proof of their causes.  The post-war model of donations for services is creaking loudly; movements funded and lead by coalition-networks of the interested, willing and able may be the future.  Am I wrong to think that’s an exciting prospect?

A Future To Believe In?: Bernie Sanders has had a busy year.  Two of his notable achievements (other than breaking the internet with a sparrow) were raising almost $230m from 8m donors with an average donation amount of $27, and, in doing so, soundly disproving the notion that low-value fundraising is old news.  Though his tilt at the Democratic Presidential nomination was ultimately unsuccessful, (not entirely due to consummate HRC campaigning), Senator Sanders moved the terms of the political debate by financing his campaign through small contributions from individuals.  This allowed him both to run on previously neglected issues of inequality, healthcare and police reform, political campaign finance and media biases in a way that would have been difficult or impossible had he appealed for major gifts from wealthier constituencies.  He also got political traction against his opponent in painting her as a creature of the Wall Street elite.

 

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Charities take note, especially of Sanders’ teams use of online fundraising, through which they raised the majority of the funds used in his Presidential nomination campaign.  The Sanders case demonstrates that a principled, urgent call to action delivered intelligently to a receptive audience who are asked to support a discrete goal works as well now as it ever did.  It also lends weight to the argument that small donations can have a big impact – a year ago relatively few people outside Vermont had heard of Bernie Sanders; he is now one of the best-known politicians in the US.  Fundraisers can learn much from his innovative, disciplined campaign.

Lastly: States collect revenue through taxes, not gifts; indeed, states who rely on gifts to function are said to have been “captured” by “special interests”, called clientelistic, or even labelled as “failed”.  As James C. Scott’s seminal Seeing Like a State makes clear, states (ie the frequently coercive bureaucratic infrastructures of authority on which nations are built) do this as it is the worst way to collect revenue, except all the others.  Is there enough discussion of the downsides of donations?

#ResearchPride

First, let me thank Helen for taking the initiative to start #ResearchPride (and also defining what should come after).  It’s a great and timely idea – I think for a number of reasons:
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  • Fundraised income in the UK and elsewhere will struggle to grow until prospect research is more incorporated into fundraisers work and until senior leadership take it more seriously as a strategic proposition.  Prospect research’s raison d’être is to help fundraisers go where the money is, and go there often.  Yet, too often we find conference agenda lacking prospect research content, and thought leaders not discussing prospect research.  #ResearchPride is our chance to change this and tell the world how important prospect research is to funding more of the vital work our organisations do
  • We cannot escape the fact that wealth an income in many countries is now more unequal than was the case 20 or 30 years ago.  This means we cannot trust our fundraising approaches to chance.  Those able to offer truly major support are a very elite group – and we must be directed in finding them among our supporter base.  Even a brief reading of the Sunday Times Rich List shows that 2% of the value of members of the list (in 2015 valued at £587bn) would double to amount of directly donated income going to UK Charities.  And the Coutts £m Report shows that the link between wealth creation and philanthropy in Britain is weak to the point of not existing. UK GDP is £1.5trn (trillion) per year, yet £m+ philanthropy is valued at £1.3bn.  The Big Society has failed to budge this trend – while the UK is by some measures the most generous society in the world, prospect research can and should help fundraising be strategically directed toward key areas of potential growth, including high-value giving.  Important within this is ensuring charities change their habit of not asking for enough, again, something prospect research can help to change
  • Researchers give the sector space to consider new ideas and cross-pollinate.  In an industry where the next deadline is never far away, we can also help our advancement offices to lift their heads, take a look beyond within-year targets to scan the horizon for trends and innovations.  In doing so, researchers can enable fundraising to move from being a short order cook to Feran Adria.  As we’ve seen from recent developments in the UK, this is invaluable – a week (or a couple of months) is a long time in fundraising, and inertia is often not an option.  We must respond to events, and prospect research should be central to this response.
  • Finally I’m hugely proud that researchers help to make the most of donor contributions.  The ROI for investments in prospect research often exceed 10:1, a truly outstanding return.  If nonprofits are ever to overcome perennial donor concerns over admin costs and impact effectiveness, prospect research will surely be at the heart of the answer.
I’ll leave it at that.  However, many others have blogged/ tweeted and commented this month as part of #ResearchPride – some of the relevant links are here, do check them out:

Looking forward to #ResearchPride 2017!

Preferences, Hidden and Revealed

That it is possible to choose one thing yet prefer another is a very ordinary idea.  Perhaps because it is so ordinary, choice and preference are often mistaken as the same thing, when they are in fact entirely different.  This confusion has crept into fundraising via the fallacy of ‘revealed preference’ where choices are seen as the enactment of preferences. This makes the idea relevant in several respects:
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First, revealed preference is partly responsible for trapping charities in a low income/low reward/low commitment cycle, the endgame of which were the acquisition-based donor strategies which precipitated last years fundraising crisis.  During the ‘marketing revolution’ of the 1970’s and 1980’s, charities came to see fundraising as a branch of marketing, and revealed preference encouraged them to believe that they were mostly giving donors what was being asked for (choice, remember, here being the enactment of preferences).  But the ‘£3 to save the world‘ business model   (h/t Mark Phillips) has long been deficient, if only because the economics of cost-per-acquisition fundraising have been becoming more and more challenging for a number of years.  However, a revealed preference mindset enabled charities to convince themselves they were selling what donors wanted to buy.  This, in turn, led to an acquisition arms race played out in a war room of ever more elaborate and intricate customer journeys, spanning ever more channels and encompassing ever more consumer insights.  This has not ended well.
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Second, revealed preference encourages the view that as donors reveal their judgement through the act of giving, we should be happy with what is offered and not push the envelope too much.  The customer is always right, and markets incorporate all the information you need, right?  And besides, £10bn-£12bn total donations from the public to UK charities is a big deal.  That’s good going, isn’t it?  Well…yes, but.  £10bn-£12bn is no-one’s idea of loose change, but what’s the comparator?  The UK produces goods and services totaling £1.5trn (trillion) each year; at £734bn, Government spending is hundreds of times larger than charitable donations.  British consumer spending, at £378bn in 2014, is also many times greater.  Indeed, increasing the amount donated by the British public from that spent on cheese to that spent on alcohol would be no mean feat.  Current donation levels make the UK by some measures the world’s most generous nation.  But should we take this to mean the British public have somehow found their natural donation limit?  Probably not.
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Third, many organisations – charities included – now use data analysis to try to understand who is most likely to be sympathetic to their cause in the future.  But donor choices often result from ‘satisficing‘, or muddling through, rather than holding out for perfect.  This is why Steve Jobs famously had no time for market research; as he said, “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”.  Admittedly, qualitative methods are used both offline – in the form of focus groups, donor surveys and capturing other feedback – and online – in sentiment analysis, word clouds, web scraping and other techniques, to counterbalance quantitative methods’ need to extrapolate from past choices.  But quantitative techniques are still dominated by transaction analysis; which is a brake on aiming for ambitious change, as the goal tends to be ‘a bit better than last year’ or ‘a bit better than they are doing’.  Quantitative methods also often do not incorporate granular ratings of wealth or capacity, important as wealth has become more unequal and those able to offer major gifts lie well within the top 1%:
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guardian ons wealth graph
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Finally, and related to the last point, revealed preference can lead to bad strategy.  Availability drives choice – and if the charity you want to support ask for a certain amount by way of a donation, for example, chances are you will anchor your offer around that level.  But this is a choice, not a preference – the supporter is choosing from available options, not those they would most like.  These choices then feed back into available options, and the feedback cycle continues, assisted and amplified by benchmarking, a tool apparently designed to ensure no-one ever tries anything new, ever.  Another facet of this bad strategy is seen the lack of responsiveness to changes in wealth held by Britons.  UK top wealth has grown hugely in recent decades, but many British charities have not aligned their expectation of major giving accordingly.  In a sector where more than 70% of organisations employ two or fewer people this is perhaps understandable.  But a certain lack of ambition holds charities back.  A 2009 Barclays Wealth/Ledbury Research report sums this up in setting the bar for a major gift at £10,000, (see graphic below), even for HNWI’s.  We can and should aim higher than this – indeed we will have to in order to raise more in total than we currently do, rather than cannibalising income from elsewhere in the sector.  Charities represent the best causes imaginable, and should aim to raise more than 0.02% of the money spent each year on consumables.
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Barckays Ledbury graph
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There is urgency in all of this, as marketing becomes more difficult, incomes continue to polarise, the ‘gig economy‘ eats into previously solid professions, the ‘civic core‘ dwindles, and the expectations of younger donors make our existing operations obsolete.  Many charities are pretty good at explaining the ‘what’ of donor behaviour.  However, they are often less good at explaining the ‘why‘.  To get better at this we must escape the trap of believing we can explain behaviour without referring to anything but behaviour, and begin to respect, understand and operationalise the nature and scope of donor preferences, both hidden and revealed.

Craig Linton interview: “the market for something to believe in is infinite”

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Craig outlines his thinking around the recent Rogare/Professor Adrian Sargeant review of relationship fundraising, why the donor journey needs a rethink, and the enormous challenge facing big charities in breaking down silos in order to put the needs of the donor first.  Craig tweets @frdetective, and you can find his blog on the Rogare review here.  The interview is available to download here.

Also, another (Fund) Raising Voices interviewee, Ken Burnett, blogged recently on the relationship fundraising phenomenon his 1992 book began, and why the subtitle is more important than the title.  Ken’s blog is available here; he tweets @kenburnett1.