Using research to generate scientific data for public policy makers has attracted a good deal of attention since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Government leaders at every level make their decisions based on the latest data regarding the spread of the virus, the effectiveness—or the lack thereof—of various vaccines, etc.
We at DickersonBakker firmly believe that nonprofits can improve the effectiveness of their fundraising efforts by using well-crafted research to supplement past experiences and, yes, intuition. But in so doing, we need to develop a healthy respect for the role of science in fundraising.
First, let me begin with an example. In mid-2020 when one study showed fundraisers thought the pandemic would significantly dampen fundraising, we conducted a survey of nearly 1,100 mid-level and major donors to assess how likely they would be to give in the second (and usually most productive) half of the year.
One key finding was that 25% of those surveyed said they would consider giving somewhat or much more in the remainder of the year, while 15% said they would probably give less. Armed with that finding, we urged nonprofits to continue aggressively raising funds in the second half of the year, despite the pandemic.
Recently we were gratified to read a report by another organization estimating a broad array of donors gave 25% more at the end of 2020 than in 2019. That firm used different methodology and survey different donors than we did. Candidly, it’s very rare that two independent studies come up with such a similar finding.
This experience reminds us of the importance of developing a healthy respect for science in fundraising. It’s practically and financially impossible to survey a whole population of donors, so we select a sample to represent the whole. In doing so, we recognize there’s “margin of error” in sampling. Usually, the smaller the sample the less stable the findings will be. Furthermore, in surveys we ask people to recall past behaviors and tell us how they might act in the future. We also recognize that our surveys, while very carefully crafted, are still instruments created by fallible humans.
Looking at the size of a sample of donors and how they were recruited, competent researchers usually state that, for example, they are 95% confident that the findings are within +/-3% range. So, in our study we would state that anywhere from 22 – 28% of the donors would give more at the end of the year.
Here are three take-ways from our research experiences:
- Past experiences and intuition play an important part in fundraising, but both can be colored by the personal perceptions, observations and fears of fundraisers. Research helps you see donors from their camera-angles, not simply your own.
- When reading reports about donor research, always look for a statement of the margin of error. Too often journalists omit that in reports of research projects.
- We are humbled when other studies confirm our findings, but we remain vigilant to ensure our surveys are well-written and administered and that findings accurately stated.
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