Mythbusting and Adjusting to the New Normal in Giving: A Q&A With Steve MacLaughlin

If you work in prospect development, you’ve likely heard of things like the fundraising pyramid or the funnel approach to donor cultivation. On paper, these may seem like sound approaches — but do they provide paths to actual success, or are they pushing us away from reality? At this year’s Plug In to Relationship Management (Nov. 1-2), keynote speaker Steve MacLaughlin, vice president of data and analytics at Blackbaud, a member organization of The Giving Institute, will help us understand some of the most common myths about fundraising and how to adjust to the new normal in giving.

MacLaughlin’s keynote presentation, “Everything We Know About Fundraising is (Mostly) Wrong,” will take place on Thursday, Nov. 1, at noon CT. We spoke with him about the current landscape, what he believes perpetuates fundraising myths, what attendees will take away from his session and more.

The title of your keynote session is “Everything We Know About Fundraising Is (Mostly) Wrong.” What is one fundraising philosophical belief you see as out of sync with reality?

One big challenge to fundraisers is the belief that donors always follow a linear path, from Point A to Point B. In reality, we know that these relationships will often go from Point A to Point K to Point W to Point B. This can often frustrate fundraisers because so much time and effort is put into planning and executing engagement programs. We send direct mail and donors give online. We send emails and donors renew their gifts offline. Why won’t our donors do what we want them to do? Instead, we should embrace the fact that donor-centric relationship building is not (and never was) a linear process. Our focus should be on optimizing the best paths that build lasting relationships with donors.

To what would you ascribe the endurance of fundraising myths?

There are two types of bias that contribute to the continued existence of fundraising myths. First, there is confirmation bias — when we seek out information that confirms our preexisting beliefs or hypotheses. This often leads to finding data that supports our decisions and ignores everything else.

The other is survivorship bias, which is the tendency to skew results after only looking at donors where we were successful, and failures are excluded. This reinforces how we’ve been doing things instead of calling into question the opportunities that were missed.

Have any trends or new information from The Giving Institute influenced what you believe to be the “new normal in giving?” Are there any new reports or information from The Giving Institute that Apra members should be aware of?

One of the biggest trends we’re seeing in our research is that the number of donors has been declining, while giving has continued to grow. This is not a sustainable situation. Nonprofit organizations must dramatically improve retention of existing donors and have a sustainable number of new donors simultaneously. 

What is the risk in adhering to fundraising myths when analyzing data?

As I noted before, one of the biggest risks is only looking for data that supports your current beliefs or hypothesis. If you torture the data for long enough, it will confess to just about anything. Instead, we need to start by admitting that we don’t have all the answers. We might not truly understand why certain things work and other things do not. This is really hard, in part because so many nonprofit professionals are under pressure to hit goals and timeliness and there is not an opportunity to call time out. But sometimes that’s exactly what we need to do.

What can attendees of your keynote session expect to walk away with?

We’re going to talk about some of the biggest fundraising myths and what to do about them. How can we arm nonprofit professionals to myth busters at their own organizations? We want to build confidence and understanding that people can start to apply right away at their nonprofits.

Steve MacLaughlin is the vice president of data and analytics at Blackbaud, a member organization of The Giving Institute. He is also the best-selling author of Data Driven Nonprofits. MacLaughlin has spent over 20 years driving innovation with a broad range of companies, government institutions and nonprofit organizations. MacLaughlin has been featured as a fundraising, nonprofit sector and data expert in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, USA Today, The NonProfit Times, Stanford Social Innovation Review and Bloomberg, and has appeared on National Public Radio.

MacLaughlin previously served on the board of the Nonprofit Technology Network, and is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and events around the world. He also is an adjunct faculty member at Columbia University. MacLaughlin earned both his undergraduate degree and a master of science degree in interactive media from Indiana University.

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