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How to Know Who You Can Trust for Good Fundraising Advice

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You really want to get your fundraising right. You know what’s at stake: Your cause can be well-funded, or under-funded. You carry the consequences of that around like a heavy sack.

There’s a lot of advice out there. That’s great, but some advice directly contradicts other advice. How are you to know what is right?

You’re not alone. In a survey of the Moceanic community, many people noted that sense of wondering who they can trust …

“I am struggling currently with the overwhelming difference in opinions when it comes to best practice. As a new fundraiser this is very confusing to navigate. It’s great to get advice, but not so great when it directly conflicts with someone else’s advice.”

It’s the Wild West out there for fundraising help. Anyone can say anything. Anyone can write a blog, publish an e-book, or even speak at a conference. There’s no quality control. There’s not even much agreement on what quality is or should be. On top of that, there are sometimes different best practices for different areas of fundraising. And sometimes so-called “best practices” aren’t all that great to start.

It all leads to that troubling sense that anything you read about fundraising could be just wrong.

I’m tempted to say, “Listen to the experts at Moceanic! You can trust us!”

But that’s not what you’re looking for. You want good advice wherever it’s to be found, and there are plenty of others you can trust to steer you well. Anyway, you might be looking for help with something we haven’t talked about. Or even things we don’t know much about.

So here’s a framework to help you discern good advice from not-so-good. 

If fundraising advice is not backed up by facts and/or experience, be skeptical

I regularly read “expert advice” that’s wrong. Things like, “Keep your message short; nobody reads long messages.” Or “Donors don’t care about your fiscal year end.” Or “Address labels will drag your fundraising down to the depths.”

Those are opinions that probably seem correct, based on other things we know about fundraising. But those three are flat wrong most of the time. They may intuitively make sense, but experience largely shows them to be wrong more often than not. 

Look for phrases like “in my experience,” or “we’ve tested this” when someone has a pronouncement about fundraising. Better yet, look for actual test data – especially when someone is claiming something new or unusual. You have a right to ask for evidence when you see claims like these. You won’t always get it, but you might learn something valuable.

Look out for partial data; it’s even more dangerous

I recently saw a breathlessly excited report from someone who claimed to have discovered a whole new approach to fundraising. Reporting a head-to-head direct-response test, it looked like it really was revolutionary – the control treatment was typical direct mail, and the test treatment was meaningfully different. That’s the kind of thing we’d like to know – if it’s trustworthy.

In this case, the report said that the test treatment (the revolutionary one), impressively improved average gift. They showed the numbers – the average gift was more than 50% higher. I’m paying attention now.

What the report didn’t include was the response rate. Why would they not share that? Probably because it wasn’t great. Typically you can purposely trade-off between response rate and average gift. When one goes up, the other goes down. There are times when a modest sacrifice of response in return for a big jump in gift size is well worth it. But to know if that’s the case, you also have to look at some additional test numbers: mostly return on investment and revenue, especially net revenue. 

I smelled a rat; either the report was written by very simplistic and unprofessional fundraisers, or they were purposely hiding important data to make their Big New Thing look more like a winner than it really was. This is often the case when someone really wants some new idea to prove excellent. We all want that. But we usually don’t get it. 

The bigger the claim, the more you should question it

When someone claims to have one solution that solves all problems, your “BS meter” should go on alert. 

In the case above, the people sharing the information wanted to believe they’d discovered something that would turn fundraising on its ear. They wanted it so much, they either got sloppy with the data, or they actively concealed important parts of it to show their discovery as a big thing.

We need innovation and new ideas. A revolutionary change would be welcome. But they are rare. By far, most fundraising innovations are incremental. Not as exciting as revolutionary change, but a lot more likely. And small improvements add up quickly. 

New ideas really do come along regularly. You want to have your eyes open for them. 

If the advice is “only I have the amazing solution,” REALLY question it

It’s one of the basic things we need to do in life, not just in fundraising. Ask yourself “who benefits?” If the person sharing the advice is telling you they have the one and only solution and the only way you can get it is to pay them for it, watch out.

It doesn’t mean they are wrong. It just means that the chance they are as amazing as they sound is not great.

Some specific common red-flag pieces of advice

Here are a few things we see often in the fundraising world that are quite likely wrong:

  1. Direct mail doesn’t work anymore. Switch to all digital.
  2. A flashy new brand will fix everything for you.
  3. This hot new social media platform that’s skyrocketing with young users is your new fundraising platform.
  4. Stop wasting your time talking to elderly people. Get moving with Millennial donors (or younger).

(I could share more, but I’d love to see what you think is in this “red flag” category!)

Looking for fundraising advice you can trust? Join The Fundraisingology Lab by Moceanic. You’ll get the tools, the information, and the supporting community that will take you to new places in your fundraising career. Join the waiting list now and you’ll be the first to hear when the doors open again!

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