The Power of Numbers. Or Not.

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on July 11th, 2008 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

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Juggling Numbers

I believe in the power of statistics. But I also believe that statistics can be manipulated. They can be manipulated by the method of their collection and by the method of their presentation. And while both bother me tremendously, it is the latter that worries me the most, as the naïve reader/listener may be easily duped. And once duped, bad decisions may follow.Take, for example, the following. Ted Hart has been tracking online giving since 2001, when a mere $550 million dollars was given online to nonprofits in the United States. In 2007, that number had jumped to $10.44 billion, which was itself a 52% increase over 2006’s figure of $6.87 billion. That sounds huge, right? (And that is how many sources have portrayed it. Could those sources be online giving consultants and companies?) You read this and if you are a nonprofit without online giving capability what are you to think? Run out and get that capability? Maybe.Maybe? What nonprofit doesn’t want a chance at a piece of that $10.44 —and clearly growing—billion? Well, let’s read another set of statistics. According to the folks behind Giving USA, that $10.44 billion represents only about 4% of total household or individual giving in 2007. But according to the Philanthropic Giving Index (Center of Philanthropy, Indiana University), nonprofits have been having increasing success in gaining access to online dollars: in 2001, less than 10% of nonprofits surveyed said they were successful in internet fundraising; by 2007 that number had more than doubled to 22%. (Keeping the statistics theme going, what if I had simply reported that between 2001 and 2007 the number of nonprofits reporting successful Internet fundraising programs had more than doubled? That leaves quite a different impression than what I wrote, or if I had written, “Less than a quarter of the nonprofits surveyed had successful Internet fundraising programs.) So, cutting to the chase: in 2007, less than a quarter of nonprofits had improved success in gaining access to the less than 4% of the total household or individual giving done via the Internet.What is my point in all of this? Well, I think I actually have two. First, online giving is not a silver bullet! It will not save you from a floundering development strategy built on traditional methods. It is merely one of many options that should be part of a strong, diversified development strategy that is carefully designed and regularly monitored and re-evaluated. Second, before you let statistics lead you down any path, make sure you have the full statistical picture, and not just what the author wanted you to hear.

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