Mixing Art & Science

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on June 28th, 2012 in Thoughts & Commentary

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A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the art and science of fundraising.  But the truth is, that so much of what we do in the nonprofit sector – particularly when it comes to managing and governing a nonprofit – is a mix of art and science.  A lover of art and a scientist at heart, I believe in the power of knowledge based on research, rather than based on what we want to be true or think is true or my experience of one or two or five says is “true”.  Equipped with that science-based understanding of things, we can then each apply our own, subjective art going forward.

Several pieces of research recently caught my eye because of the art/science tension, Dr. Laurie Paarlberg, Public Administration faculty at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, conducted research on giving habits of residential transplants to the Wilmington/Cape Fear region of North Carolina.  To no great surprise, Paarlberg found that, for whatever reasons, the newcomers, particularly those originally from urban areas, weren’t engaged in their adopted communities and, therefore, were not as likely to give to local nonprofits.  The next part of her findings, though, is where new lessons might be learned from the science.  She concluded that newcomers emigrating from the Northeast and other parts of North Carolina were more likely to continue their philanthropic activities by giving to organizations “back home,” while those emigrating from the Midwest were more likely to give -both money and time- to organizations in their adopted homes.

If you just read that last paragraph and have found yourself dismissing it, saying that your organization doesn’t operate in a community with lots of transplants, you missed the boat!  The above research is just one more piece of science that proves what we all “know” but far too often ignore:   all donors are not alike; what motivates and compels people to give varies greatly.  Therefore, to assume that one size approach to fundraising fits all is foolish—and wasteful.  A savvy fundraising organization is going to understand just who is in their actual and potential donor pool and craft different approaches for different groups.  That is where the art comes into play.

Another recently released research study, conducted by Cygnus Applied Research, Inc., looked at 708,000 American and Canadians donors.  Many interesting findings came out of this research, such as the fact that “reducing or eliminating support to charities that over solicit” was one of the top two answers respondents gave when asked how their giving has changed over the past five years.  Another goodie:   40% of respondents said that over the last five years, their giving has shifted to follow the mantra “give locally.”  But my personal favorite:  36% have shifted, over the last five years, to “give more generously” to nonprofits that actually measure the impact of the work their donated dollars support and communicate that information!

How do you take what science has taught you, combine it with the art – tools and skills of development, understanding of people, etc. – and spin it to meet your different target audiences?  For example, if you were trying to woo a group of transplants to become donors, it wouldn’t be good art to start by making an ask.  Far better to begin the slow process of letting them get to know you and transferring their interest (and loyalty to) in similar organizations “back home” to you.  For example, do you ask your donors (current, lapsed and potential) what they like and don’t like when solicited and amend your approaches accordingly? Do you really measure the impact of your work, as opposed to simply bean counting, and let donors know the results? If you aren’t using the science it doesn’t matter how pretty your art is, no one is likely to buy it.

Yup, it is a lot of work.  As more and more academic departments focused in some way on the nonprofit sector crop up, which is happening, there is going to be more and more research on the habits, facts and figures of the sector.   (After all, most academics want tenure, which means research and publish.) Over the decades, much of this research has become more practitioner friendly—looking at practical questions, reported in accessible language, with statistics that don’t require a Ph.D. to understand—dealing with the real world issues of boards, executive directors, development staff, other senior managers, etc.  We all should be reading, assessing and incorporating what’s relevant into our work, mixing it with the cultural trademarks of our organization, our environment, our weltanschauung. 

In other words, we need to be our own alchemist and mix science and art.



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