Are you biased against fundraising?

By Cindy Wagman, President and CEO, The Good Partnership

As a professional fundraiser, I’ve spent the last 20 years introducing myself at parties and events, often to the following reactions:

  • “Wow! That must be a really hard job. I could never do that.”
  • “It takes a certain kind of person to work in the nonprofit sector.”

Or the worst:

  • “I have no money—sorry.”

(As IF I walk around asking random people for money all the time. Ha!)

Fundraising is the “F” word of our sector

Most people fall into fundraising reluctantly. Some end up loving it, but the majority of reluctant fundraisers stay that way: always reluctant, putting it off, and finding reasons why they should focus on other things besides fundraising.

What we fail to acknowledge is that despite our reliance upon it, our sector is biased against fundraising. In fact, so is our society as a whole. 

So, the question becomes, “How do we overcome this bias so that we can raise more money and make a bigger impact in our communities?”

Let’s start by learning what we’re up against.

What are biases and how are they formed?

A bias is a normal cognitive process wherein our brain makes a decision based on previous experiences or beliefs. This is a safety feature that evolved to ensure we don’t waste time deciding about things we’ve encountered before.

The problem is, once formed, a bias guides our thinking even if it’s wrong — if that original decision was a misstep in thinking, assessing, recollecting, or other cognitive processes.

In these cases, our brains will help us make quick and efficient decisions, but they are capable of distorting information to support these decisions. As a consequence, those decisions are flawed.

Biases are formed based on repetitive experiences in our lives. The more something gets repeated, the more our brains automate those thoughts or processes. The more our brains automate, the more entrenched that bias.

What biases are common to the nonprofit sector?

If biases form through repetition, it makes sense that some of the messages we hear continuously about our sector can start to feel like the truth:

  • Overhead is bad — money needs to go to programs/clients.
  • We shouldn’t get paid well — it’s taking money away from the work.
  • We don’t know anyone who can donate — donations that are celebrated are only the big ones.
  • Fundraising is like begging — people don’t inherently want to give.
  • It’s rude to talk about money — therefore fundraising is rude.

On top of the deflating financial messages common to our sector, there are additional, more universal biases that negatively affect our fundraising efforts.

Common Universal Biases

Negativity Bias

One pattern that shows up consistently in our neural networks is a tendency for our brains to overemphasize the negative and underemphasize the positive.

As humans, we are hard-wired to fixate on the negative. And what you focus on is what gets amplified. Consider this:

Perhaps you send an email to your 1,000-person donor list. As a direct result of sending that email, 10 people donate and one person responds by saying, “You email me too much.”

That’s a massive positive — but guess which outcome you’ll fixate on more?

Your mind will spend more time mulling over that one negative comment until it far outweighs the success you had. You may start doubting yourself: Do I send too many emails? Am I over-asking? Yikes, people are going to start unsubscribing.

You might have just raised $1,000, but that one negative response gets amplified in your brain. Sound familiar?

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation Bias means we overemphasize information that supports our existing beliefs.

When asked directly, most people will say, “I’m not a good fundraiser.” And at that very moment, their brains will be searching for evidence to support this belief —and will ignore any evidence to the contrary.

I’ve done fundraising audits for organizations that insist their fundraising is terrible, but when I look at the numbers, this claim is absolutely not true.

From the outside, I can clearly see their success. Yet the individual has distorted their interpretation of the data to reinforce their belief that they’re bad at raising funds. They only see failure.

Status Quo Bias

With Status Quo Bias, there is little to no growth because there isn’t a deep desire for change; it is safer to do what has always been done or stick with a decision that was made previously.

This happens EVEN when the cost to change is small and the importance and benefit of that change is high.

I see Status Quo Bias in organizations all the time. Consider:

  1. The organization that holds out hope for an underperforming fundraising tactic. They choose to continue with a fundraising event that doesn’t net enough money and never has. Yet in lieu of redirecting that time and energy toward a more productive tactic, they insist that next year’s event will somehow be more lucrative.

  2. The organization that resists changing outdated systems or processes. A full-time admin spends 90 percent of their time performing tasks that could be automated, but the organization doesn’t like investing in technology. Even if the admin then could redirect their time to programming, fundraising—or anything that contributes more directly to the mission, they’d still resist the added cost.

Getting around your biases

At the end of the day, fundraising biases are not serving our missions. It’s important to learn which ones getting in the way of your fundraising and then retrain your brain to think differently.

My favourite antidote to biases that are in the way of fundraising success is to counter those entrenched assumptions with fresh research. I like to suggest meeting with donors and getting to know their motivations for donating. Learning the stories behind their support can help undo the bad programming and teach our brains that fundraising is safe, appreciated, and even rewarding.

If you would like to continue learning about Fundraising Reluctance, join Cindy Wagman at an upcoming Laridae Community Learning Event.