NEW IDEAS: Why fundraisers need to start a journey to an holistic understanding of donors

To better understand donors and build a culture of philanthropy, it’s not enough to think critically. It’s not enough to break out of your silos. It’s not enough to acquire new knowledge in subjects such as behavioural science. Ashley Scott says practitioners need to embark on ‘transdisciplinary’ journey to becoming a more effective fundraiser.

Fundraisers are accustomed to being on the receiving end of tropes about too much spend on overhead, guilt tripping donors, and the conscientious amateur (vs salaried professional). Tropes that have orbited charities as implicit and explicit criticisms of organisational culture and, through inference, their people.

The sector-wide outcome is the emergence of a holy trinity of fundraising regulation, fundraising ethics and fundraiser professionalisation, each with their own prophets and priesthood – naysayers and acolytes alike.

Under this new religion, no one would sensibly make the case that fundraisers have the right to behave unethically, or not be bound by some accountability rules, or not be trying to do the most professional job they can. But neither, in all the religious fervour, is there much that explores what makes a fundraiser effective. And that could be because the institutional manoeuvring by the holy trinity still positions fundraisers at the ‘receiving end’ of a process that (rightly) begins with the beneficiary and ends up with a commandment to ‘go forth and diversify’ the income portfolio.

“Commercial brands have come round to the idea that there is no such thing as customer loyalty any more. Competition and disruptive digital have put an end to that. And, as consumers, what applies to customers applies to donors too. There is no such thing as donor loyalty”.

Is there a different – and equally vital – conversation to be had about fundraiser effectiveness? The hypothesis is that if fundraisers are going to be effective they need two things: one, to be woven more into the fabric of their whole organisation, as part of what is often termed a ‘culture of philanthropy; second, to continually enhance their knowledge and understanding of human behaviour. This means not only being intelligent and organisationally savvy but transdisciplinary

I want to unpack what a ‘transdisciplinary approach to fundraiser effectiveness’ might mean – starting with what is isn’t.

What ‘transdisciplinary’ is not…

1. It’s not qualification and/or accreditation

There are a number of formal routes for developing the skills and competencies that could be associated with becoming an effective fundraiser.  

I’m not sure how easily these routes sit with the wider conversation around diversity and inclusion which has spawned a dialogue on the justification for requiring essential or desirable (graduate) credentials for certain fundraiser job roles. But it does resonate with another trope around anti-intellectualism among fundraisers that Ian MacQuillin identified some time ago as a motif that values ‘just doing’ more highly than (over) thinking.

But, when it comes to intellectual pursuits, the current reality is that the market offers a fundraiser a solid number of options within UK tertiary sector institutions for gaining fundraising qualifications (University of ChichesterSt Mary’s University, University of Kent’s Centre for Philanthropy, and Cass and Business School to name a few). And, there over a hundred similar opportunities in the US (for example the Lily School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, and Columbia University), and Canada (such as Humber College and Carelton University).

“The holy trinity of fundraising regulation, fundraising ethics and fundraiser professionalisation positions fundraisers at the ‘receiving end’ of a process that (rightly) begins with the beneficiary and ends up with a commandment to ‘go forth and diversify’ the income portfolio.”

While some offer post-graduate qualifications, others are professional development offers that sit within a life-long learning agenda.  That being said their curricula are, arguably, more mini-MBAs aimed at management and leadership development rather than fundraiser effectiveness. Although, those that include work-placements or work based projects are clearly concerned with the theory-to-practice dimension. 

Indeed, the curricula of the Institute of Fundraising’s (IoF) Certificate and Diploma are intentionally aimed at praxis (professional practice) which, in an educational context, looks to bring about positive change in both theory and its application in a virtuous learning cycle. So when, say, the latest IoF Certificate in Fundraising offers to ‘look at the science that underpins great fundraising copy’, professionalisation and praxis are synchronised.

2. It’s not emulating our marketing cousins

I have no qualms that these fundraising qualifications contribute to the professional accreditation of fundraisers. Not least because there is a highly functional and longstanding approach to qualification and accreditation among our commercial marketing cousins. Not only are professional credentials well established through the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM), there is also a direct correspondence between university marketing degrees and CIM recognition (there are 11 CIM recognised tertiary sector study centres within a 50 mile radius of where I live – double that if I lived in London). And, you can qualify in various marketing disciplines up to doctoral level. This is the stuff of professional career formation.

The three-pronged debate among fundraisers around the requirement for qualifications and accreditation vs in-house training vs the wisdom of experience is likely to continue. But the qualification and accreditation market place is meeting a customer need, and, in all likelihood, producing more effective fundraisers. But I’m not sure the current state of formal fundraiser education goes far enough. 

3. It’s not just the rise of behavioural science

Neither am I convinced that fundraisers are not interested in academic disciplines that can improve their knowledge and skills. Take one of the mainstream disciplines within marketing, behavioural science (aka behavioural economics in the US), which is in vogue among fundraisers, if the incidence of conferenceswebinars/seminarsblogs, government-sponsored reports (this one is Canadian, though the UK’s behavioural insights team did something similar a few years ago), and academic research on the topic are anything to go by.

In my view, insights from behavioural science are vital to the postmodern, fundraising marketer. And, if you are looking for a very good primer in applied behavioural science I recommend Richard Shotton’s book The Choice Factory.

However, behavioural science is not the only discipline that helps fundraisers better understand human behaviour. And, there are two risks associated with placing too much emphasis on approaches from behavioural science alone. The first is reductionism. This is the idea that if your only tool – behavioural science – is a hammer then every problem looks like a nail and neuroscience the ultimate source of all the right answers. The second is to mistake science for the kind of objectivity that gives you the ‘right’ answer.

Richard Thaler, originator of ‘nudge theory’, criticised marketers for their misuse of his ideas as ‘sludge theory’.

Take, for example, the concept in of ‘nudge theory’ that was coined by Thaler and Sunstein in 2008 and borne of behavioural science’s ‘two systems’ thinking. The idea behind the nudge concept was that people could be encouraged to make right choices without impacting their freedom of choice. Ten years later, Thaler published an article coining the term ‘sludge’ to describe less than benevolent use of nudge practices, and marketers were his primary target.

Similarly, data analytics – big or small – also smacks of objectivity. But those who reflect critically on, say, AI algorithm coding, point out that the coders themselves can inject unconscious biases into their sums that could reinforce stereotypes. It is significant that those on the leading edge of data science are often equally advocates of human creativity and not the algorithm as the essential ingredients of marketing success. 

So, it would be wrong to think that behavioural science is ethically neutral or value-free and merely to do with how our brains work neuro-chemically.

How behavioural science became the go-to among fundraisers and not some other subject area, I don’t know (other than the lure of the seminal concept that humans and, therefore, donors don’t behave rationally). But it does illustrate the facility to adopt and adapt an academic discipline into fundraising practice. 

My case is that we need both more of it and that fundraisers need to be transdisciplinary when it comes to their understanding of human behaviour.

Becoming transdisciplinary

So, what does a transdisciplinary approach to fundraising look like? It may be useful to define terms first.

Not multi- or inter-disciplinary

Anyone who dabbles in organisational development is wont to brandish silo mentality as a bad thing. Organisations that employ personal development instruments, recognise the usefulness of, say, Belbin Team Roles in putting together individuals with different skillsets into successful work teams. 

So, multi-disciplinary approaches (where people contribute from within the boundaries of their own silos) and inter-disciplinary approaches (where people identify and integrate common ways of working across disciplines) are by and large a good thing. But they are not transdisciplinary.

Being transdisciplinary

The term transdisciplinary was probably first used in the medical profession. And medicine provides a helpful analogy for understanding the subtle differences in definition between the terms. A multi-disciplinary medical approach entails different specialists creating separate care plans for patients – it is clinician-centric. So, the treatment of chronic pain through pain killers by one clinician and physiotherapy by another is multi-disciplinary. 

An inter-disciplinary approach to healthcare is patient-centric and different medical disciplines collaborate around care plans. Recent research around the efficacy of a drug for treating the condition Diabetes 2 (developed by dieticians) used in trials (by psychologists) to show how the drug slows the onset of dementia is inter-disciplinary. 

A transdisciplinary approach involves an holistic approach to patient care and may well include other non-clinical stakeholders such as social care agencies and policy-makers. For example, we are aware of the furore created when NICE (the National Institute for Heath and Care Excellence) arbitrates on whether a new drug is affordable by the NHS based on indices of the predicted quality of life for the patient. There are agreed and shared guidelines for patient care but sometimes they break down.

So a transdisciplinary approach looks to create a single, overarching conceptual and theoretical model from a variety of disciplines. Why? Because under postmodernity no one theory, approach or model can make sense of human belief and behaviour by itself. 

My case for this approach among fundraisers goes like this. 

  1. Only a transdisciplinary approach will help fundraisers better understand the human behaviour that lies at the heart of relationship building and motivations to give. 
  2. In our complex world, transdisciplinary approaches to professional work are going to become increasingly mainstream. I know, for example, someone who taught a transdisciplinary master’s degree in creative leadership that integrated a cognitive psychologist, anthropologist, theatre studies academic, business ethicist and international business strategist in the course team. Why? Because they were experimenting with what made for a more effective, international business leader. 
  3. Becoming transdisciplinary is a journey, not an event, and fundraisers haven’t even started it yet.

Where being transdisciplinary helps

The concept of a ‘transdisciplinary approach to fundraiser effectiveness’ is only propositional and requires a lot more thought. But in all likelihood, attention will focus on the social sciences with a dip into neuroscience and liberal arts and incorporate technological disciplines (such as AI), and ethicists. 

The case for the role that behavioural science can play in developing effective fundraising campaigns is already made, and, I’ve written previously on the relevance of different anthropological disciplines to fundraising thinking, particularly donor motivations to give.

Here are some other examples where being a transdisciplinary thinker would help.

1. Theories of change

A few months back I sat with a team of fundraisers in a development charity who were going through a brand refresh. They were animated by the process that was bringing them alongside their colleagues in comms in developing new messages for their donor audiences. I asked how the new messages reflected the charity’s theory of change and it was immediately clear that the theory of change belonged to programmes, and never the twain shall meet.

But theories of change are designed to operationalise visions for solving big, complex issues. They (should) inhere to the organisational values to which fundraisers commit. They should not be just the province of another function.

Theories of change, especially if they are ‘loose’ – that is focused more on post-hoc diagnostics than premeditated measurable objectives – are not necessarily easy to change into gutsy fundraising messages without careful thought. 

Some of the best theories of change I’ve seen are in faith-based organisations that take theological categories and interpret them into practical projects that deliver welfare or relief benefits in the field. You don’t need to be a theologian, but as a fundraiser you might be ‘doing God’ in the boardroom and describing, say, alleviating a medical condition in your elevator pitch to the donor. 

2. Donor loyalty and relationships

A few years back Rogare and partners produced an excellent body of work on the future of relationship fundraising. The field of interest ­– a better understanding of the social-psychological categories in play in the nature of the exchange between a cause and the donor – is full of useful markers for the fundraiser en route to a donorcentric approach. 

Rogare’s meta-analysis also highlights the paucity of research in the field. If fundraisers are going to be more effective there is not only a need for more donor-oriented research, but the research hypotheses and the research methodologies need to be suited to the task, which means fundraisers have to know enough to ask the right research questions in the first place.

Commercial brands have come round to the idea that there is no such thing as customer loyalty any more. Competition and disruptive digital have put an end to that. And, as consumers, what applies to customers applies to donors too. There is no such thing as donor loyalty. Recency, frequency and value calculations are statistical abstractions of donor behaviour that may produce some correlates of giving but do not get to the heart of the complex array of reasons why people give.

Commercial brands have to be customer-centric to work – tick. But the more fundamental shift is that, according to Edelman at least, people buy from brands that fit their personal beliefs, take a stand on ‘at least one societal issue’ and deliver on their promise (the trust quotient).

Superficially, this gives charities an advantage as they have ‘taking a stand on an issue’ built in to their DNA and a mantra for building trustworthy donor relationships. But this a not about a donor’s belief in your cause. It is about how a donor absorbs your brand into their belief system. 

In volume one of Rogare’s relationship fundraising series there is an almost throw-away comment (on p23) that crystallizes the challenge: 

Charities [need] to understand what donors are saying about themselves when they give.”

The likely methodologies that are going to provide that understanding are in disciplines that focus on how people make meaning – which probably means insights from cultural and cognitive anthropological perspectives. To date I haven’t found anything that even hints at this kind of approach.

3. Storytelling

If you are a fundraising copywriter and you want to get your head around how postmoderns engage meaningfully with your words then you might benefit from a post-structuralist primer on story-telling (or discourse as post-structuralists put it). The focus is not just on the reader and their context but the ‘agency’ (see below) they exercise in interpreting what you are writing. To put it another way, you are not writing for some audience segment but for individuals who take the meaning they want from your text, which might not necessarily be the meaning you intend. 

A grounded version of this can be found in the experiment set up by UNHCR in partnership with the University of Florida’s Center for Public Interest Communications. The body of work is essentially post-structuralist in its formulation and looks at the effectiveness of storytelling from the perspective of cognitive psychology.

Being a transdisciplinary fundraiser

Becoming transdisciplinary is a journey not an event. So where would be a good place to start?

1. Get critical

Rogare sets store by the notion of critically-reflected analysis and diagnosis as a means of advancing theory and practice in fundraising. Critical fundraising  is their MO.

Philosophically, Rogare locates its position in critical theory, which has been the predominant school of thought in the social sciences for close to a century and fundamental to understanding the postmodern condition. 

At its most basic, critical theory is founded on two relatively unremarkable concepts about human behaviour. First, that humans have an innate ability to reflect on self-conduct; second, they can exercise agency in respect of those reflections. Put another way, given the space to think, people are able to answer the ‘why’ questions of lived experience; and then work out the ‘what, who, where and when’ of how they act.

Rogare’s position on critical theory is fairly loose. However, a more rigorous and constructive definition that is adopted within the sector could help the transdisciplinary journey as a means of critiquing the usefulness to fundraising endeavour of knowledge rooted in different disciplines. 

To be clear, critical theory is not the ‘overarching conceptual and theoretical model’ itself but a vital building block for the transdisciplinary project and critical reflection a necessary process in its inception and delivery.

2. Fundraiser literacies

Building the knowledge base for fundraising is an ingredient of a transdisciplinary approach. But I propose we stop talking about knowledge-base(s) and start talking about fundraiser literacies (plural because literacy varies across cultures). A knowledge base is about content. Literacy, in this sense, is about how content is acquired, developed and applied purposefully.

We have seen the explosion of interest in behavioural science literacy. There is no reason why this can’t be replicated in other disciplines.

Fundraisers probably don’t need to be convinced about being financially literate if they have budgetary or income performance accountabilities. And, finance is an academic discipline – ask any chartered accountant. 

Also, there is a growing body of thinking among organisational development specialists around how to develop a corporate ethical strategy. It would be hard to imagine formulating corporate ethics that applied internally to the organisation and externally to the audience without a certain ethics literacy to start with. 

But the drive towards greater fundraiser literacies won’t happen in a vacuum. This is where the fundraising industry has a role in advocating for greater literacies in the social sciences of human behaviour.

3. Engage the industry and the Academy

There is clearly a role for tertiary sector institutions – ideally in league with bodies such as the IoF in the UK and the Association of Fundraising Professional (AFP) in the USA, Canada and other countries – in grappling with and advancing a transdisciplinary agenda. Whether the academy is able to respond to this challenge is another issue (that will inevitably have a funding dimension).

Currently, fundraisers only have two main academic journals to turn to – the International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Marketing  and the Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly – as sources of research and case studies concerned with fundraising marketing, whereas our marketing cousins have probably over a hundred that rank higher on the scales that journals are measured on. What are the prospects for a more fundraiser practitioner focussed periodical I wonder?

There are no shortages of fundraising experts to enrich the skills of fundraising practitioners – big tick. The number of fundraising scholars are fewer and farther between, though why this should be is another question. 

Why bother?

Why bother becoming a transdisciplinary thinker? Fundraising practice is stretching enough as it is. And, anyway, we can outsource the ‘thinking’ work so we can get on with the job-in-hand. Fair enough.

The proposition for a transdisciplinary approach anticipates two key outcomes:

  • The antidote to being on the receiving end – that is, the greater integration of fundraiser input across the organisation in pursuit of a culture of philanthropy among all stakeholders
  • More literate fundraisers – the continuing growth of knowledge and understanding as it pertains to effective fundraising

Combined, these outcomes advance the cause of professionalisation and professional development.

In advocating for transdisciplinary approach, I am not saying that fundraisers need more or higher qualifications – although, of course, there is nothing to stop anyone taking up specialist academic study. However, whether you are the IoF, AFP, any other national or transnational sector body (such as the European Fundraising Association) or a tertiary sector institution, I can’t see anyone who does not favour a continuing or life-learning agenda. Just let it be transdisciplinary.

  • Ashley Scott is a consultant specialising in enterprise development in the nonprofit sector in the UK and US.

Other Critical Fundraising blogs by Ashley Scott:

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