Adrian Sargeant argues why getting the right data and researchers is key
The recent Money for Good / New Philanthropy Capital report, ‘Understanding Donor Motivation and Behaviour’ should be withdrawn. It fails to add in any way to our knowledge of either topic and worse, provides ‘information’ that could be immensely damaging to the very charities they profess to be trying to help.
I don’t say this lightly, particularly given the fact that those behind the report are doubtless motivated by the best of intentions and funded by some of the sector’s leading and most innovative organisations. New Philanthropy Capital in particular – are superb at what they do.
But the study they report here suffers from an almost complete lack of any theoretical underpinning, either to the design of the questionnaire itself, or to the way in which the results have been interpreted. Some sections of the questionnaire are as much as 50 years behind currently thinking. As a consequence, from my perspective, the report tells us nothing that we didn’t already know and offers nothing by way of an insight into how to target the higher value donors who form the core of the focus of this report.
To take an example, from the nine items they list on the “factors donors pay attention to” one can see a list of theories that are immediately relevant. They include:
a) Goal-setting theory;
b) Expectancy theory;
c) Theory of Planned Behavior;
d) Classic learning theories;
All of them could be used to inform fundraising and donor behavior if we tested them afresh but not a single one of these theories are tested in their entirety by the 9 items the researchers employ. Instead they ask one question that could relate to one theory and then move on to something entirely unrelated without completing the job. The result is a meaningless amalgam of random statements.
However, the weakest section of the report was that dealing with the segments the authors claimed to have identified of UK givers, namely loyal supporters, ad hoc givers, good citizens, faith-based donors, engaged champions, benefactors and thoughtful philanthropists. These segments, they claim, should allow charities to take a more ‘nuanced’ approach to their marketing.
This analysis too appears not to be driven by theory and seems to have been more of a ‘fishing trip’ with a long list of giving variables being input to the techniques they employed. Rather than focus their segmentation on certain beliefs, attitudes or behaviours and then explore the relationship with giving, everything seems to have been bundled in together. The clue that something may be wrong is that the resultant segments are not intuitive or distinct (e.g. can ad hoc givers not be motivated by faith?).
As a consequence the segments are not in any way helpful for the planning of communication. To take an example they highlight that charities could tag individuals on their database according to what segments they would fall into, yet they offer no insight into how one might actually do that or the utility that might result if one did. Their advice is at the level that women are more likely to be ‘engaged champions’, so could presumably be tagged to that effect on a database. For a typical charity that would label 60% of their supporters as engaged champions. That would patently be nonsense.
The only way that one could use it would be to ask similar questions of one’s database that the authors ask of their survey responders. But that would be time-consuming, costly and entirely fruitless since the authors offer no evidence that such an approach would be a better predictor of giving for a focal charity than a segmentation system based on their prior giving, LTV, method of giving, lifestyles or interests. What is proposed is utterly crass.
The names they give their segments are also painful. They suggest that one cannot give for faith based reasons and be a loyal supporter. And the definition of loyalty appears to be caring. Loyalty is not a function of motive per se. It is a complex amalgam of many other factors none of which the authors appear to have measured.
There are also logical inconsistencies in their segment descriptions – e.g. it transpires that loyal supporters respond to news coverage. Well if they tend to respond to news coverage they are hardly loyal supporters. They also argue that for the segment that ‘cares’ (loyal supporters) there is little opportunity to increase giving. This too is crass. If they care there is every opportunity to increase giving and charities routinely do so. Good luck developing the value of someone that doesn’t care. Loyal supporters are also the best prospects for a legacy!
Perhaps the most painful aspect of the analysis was the authors’ attempt to link their segments to causes, suggesting that ad hoc donors will be drawn to health charities, for example. Really? That, of course, will be news to many of our sectors largest organizations who have worked hard to establish significant regular or monthly giving programs. The variables input to the analysis should have been selected on the basis of theory and then the results linked to specific behaviours of interest. Only then would meaningful conclusions have been drawn.
The report also offers a number of sweeping generalisations that could be harmful if actioned by smaller nonprofits. Fundraisers are advised for example to trumpet the achievements of their organization with the beneficiary group. Well feedback, yes, but we know from professional practice and academic research that this must be undertaken from a donor centric perspective. Following the letter of the advice offered in the report could conceivably reduce giving to a specific appeal by as much as 75%.
Finally, the authors conclude that “our findings suggest there is a considerable opportunity to increase donations, and if charities want to realise this they should invest in tackling the two main areas of underperformance identified by donors: providing evidence of impact and explaining how donations are used.” It seems clear from the design of their questionnaire that this was always what they wanted to be able to say – but even putting that point aside what is offered here could again be misleading. Extant research tells us that lower value donors pay little attention to such information and even if they did would have little understanding of what the figures might mean anyway. Greater transparency without a concomitant educational initiative is doomed not only to failure but to potentially harming giving.
Fundamentally, in my view this was a weak piece of work, which seems to have provided little value to its funders and none that I can see for fundraisers.
Looking to the wider content, in my view fundraising and giving research is long overdue a shake-up. Too much government and foundation money is routinely wasted on weak research that is doomed from the outset not to make a meaningful contribution either to the profession of fundraising or to philanthropy UK. The fundraising sector is perceived as so easy to understand that those with no knowledge of it are deemed fit to conduct research so long as they are supported by an appropriate advisory board of long-standing sector folk. Much better perhaps, to scrap the advisory boards that pervade our sector and to engage specialist researchers from the outset who don’t require the advice! I’ve never understood the logic of advisory boards since the perils of designing questionnaires by committee have long been understood. There is now a fundraising academy and at least one good research agency focused on our domain and such folk should be being utilised. In that utopian ideal one might then engage individuals who understand the theory, understand the current body of knowledge and understand the needs of the fundraisers hungry for the information that will then be provided.
If we begin to employ subject specialists (do I really need to make that argument) we might begin to generate high quality research that would genuinely grow participation in giving, enhance the experience of our donors and begin to develop the quality and substance of philanthropy in the UK.
Why aren’t funders looking for that expertise?
Adrian Sargeant is Professor of Marketing and Fundraising, University of Plymouth and IoF Fellow