Computer Says Yes

In a New York office in the early 1980s, a young currency trader listened intently during meetings of newly formed NGO Helsinki Watch. The meetings were taken up with passionate talk of human rights and the need to expand freedoms in undemocratic nations, vital issues to the young financier, who was born and raised in autocratic, Soviet-era Hungary before coming to the US to make his fortune.

The trader was George Soros, and the NGO later became Human Rights Watch.  In 2010, Mr Soros made a donation of $100m to HRW, the largest in its history.  It was a transformational gift allowing them to expand beyond their traditional base in wealthy western countries, into influential developing nations like Brazil and South Africa.

At the time of his attending Helsinki Watch meetings Mr Soros would not have scored highly on a recency, frequency, value (RFV) giving model, and he would not have matched on a wealth screening.  His gifts became significant only after years – decades – of involvement with HRW and it’s predecessors.  However, during this time, he formed an enduring attachment with not only HRW, but the cause of human rights more widely.  By 2010, he saw himself (and was) an integral part of the movement; rather than just handing over a cheque, he was funding a project with which he was intimately involved.  The question in his mind when making the gift would not have been ‘how much do they want from me this time?’ but ‘what do we want to achieve, and what will it realistically cost?’.  Indeed, when the call came for a transformational gift, Soros actually bargained up, arguing that to achieve their aims HRW needed more than the $50m they thought. The only explanation for this is that he is deeply committed to and trusting of the organisation and their project.

This story matters for at least two reasons.  First, the number of major gifts made in the UK,  including really large ones such as that of Mr Soros, should be growing — but aren’t (indeed, there has never been a nine-figure gift from a British philanthropist to an operational UK charity).  The wealth of members of the Sunday Times Rich List and value of £m donations in the Coutts Million Pound Report bear no relation, with UK top wealth doubling since 2009 but £m gifts static:

Coutts £m 2014
Also, the majority of such gifts are concentrated in a few sectors such as Arts & Heritage and Higher Education, missing other important areas; of 197 £m gifts in the most recent Coutts Million Pound Report, ‘Human Services’ received 10, ‘the Environment’ six,  and ‘Government’ one.  Vital though it is, non-university education received exactly zero £m donations in that year:
Coutts £m 2014 no2
Wealth alone obviously does not predict donations, but the lack of association between the two in this case is worrying, and indicates issues with the nature of philanthropic engagement, and perhaps the profile of philanthropy fundraising, in the UK charitable sector.

Secondly, and relatedly, charities’ methodologies often direct fundraising appeals  toward those supporters giving smaller, regular gifts.  Indeed, this is a striking absence from recent commentary on UK charities; a critical reason some donors come to be contacted repeatedly is that, time and again, transaction-focused methodologies lead back to those giving recently and/or often.  Major gifts result from major involvement and affinity; but transaction-obsession gives no insight into this causal connection.  Seeing gifts as a synonym for affinity is wrong, rather like measuring the number of leaves on a tree to understand its health, rather than the roots.  Confusing the two is part of the reason charities, like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, must run ever faster just to stand still; RFV always reveals the same pond, and often leads to over-fishing.   Success depends upon asking, and acting upon, the right questions, and our current toolkit often leads us to bad explanations, bad conclusions, and, even worse, may even prevent us from asking the right questions.  This matters because, (as Professor Adrian Sargeant and others have proven), “charities exist as an expression of their supporters’ will to make a difference“, so measuring affinity must be the challenge to tackle in identifying those supporters most likely to increase giving.  Recognising this is crucial to identifying those most connected to the cause, and therefore to stepping off the transactional treadmill (or is a hamster wheel?).  Donations are means, not ends in themselves.
red queen
So, what to do?  We need the computer to say ‘yes’, and be right.  That is, a methodology to identify affinity/connection and capacity to give at higher levels.  My suggested agenda for practical, insightful Philanthropy prospecting, and what Adrian Salmon recently called ‘leadership giving‘, is based not only on donations, but also on the range and frequency of touch-points with the charity, such as spontaneously offered comments and feedback, survey sign ups, questionnaire responses, petition signatures, as well as measures of estimated capacity.  Critical to this is the degree of activity supporters show in their interactions and that the fact that in many cases engagement does not take the form of donations.  In thinking about identifiable forms such engagement can take, I often ask myself things like:

Who is responding to more than one in ten appeals? (‘responding’ not necessarily meaning sending gifts)
Which supporters contact us unprompted to update details, chase us to re-send something or ask unprompted questions about our work?
Do we have petition signatories from affluent areas who may want to uplift their giving or become a supporter?
Who donates via active methods, ie internet donations, cheques, telephone calls or mail donations?
Who attends our advocacy events?  Are there repeat visitors?
Which households have more than one family member who is a supporter?
Who is supporting us in memory? Who among our supporters has direct experience of the cause we work to support?
Whose giving is uplifting spontaneously?

These are just examples, the point being that thinking analytically about supporter engagement can be done with some simple data and a willingness to try.  Stuart McCoy’s useful presentation to the IoF Insight group a couple of years ago gives many more ideas for such data-driven prospecting.

Combining measures of affinity and capacity can be done quickly, cheaply and to great effect.  When this is understood, the case becomes clear for fundraising appeals and products designed for those passionate donors and volunteers able to offer support in four, five six and seven figures.  But this is not ‘just ask more’ for the 1%; it is responsible, evidence-based practice that can and should profitably guide donor relationship-building by aligning fundraising with society’s evolving wealth dynamics and supporters’ strength of feeling.  Contrary to recent coverage, it would be hugely irresponsible for charities not to try to understand who may want, and be able to, offer more significant support.  Because, by doing so, data driven fundraising can be a path to growth, for the sector as well as individual organisations within it.  Unless and until charity fundraising aligns better with the social dynamics of wealth, and incorporates insights on affinity and capacity to grow giving at the top, charity secular stagnation will continue.

Change often follows a positive message: Barack Obama did not say ‘No, They Can’t’, and Dr. Martin Luther King did not say ‘I have a nightmare’.  And in a sector forecast to be heading for a £4.6bn shortfall (around a third of current total income) within the next four years, an achievable, sustainable way to grow overall giving through enduring donor relationships surely fits the bill.

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