ProSpeak: A Not-So-Common Understanding of Fundraising and Common Sense
Did you ever have an experience you really didn't understand until years later? Let me tell you about mine.
I landed my first job as a research analyst in a business research company shortly after graduating from a rigorously scientific doctoral program. My first client was a brand manager for a national food manufacturer, and my first professional assignment was a research project to explore how people reacted to alternative forms of a new Chinese fast-food product our client wanted to introduce to the marketplace.
A typically enthusiastic newbie, I jumped into this assignment with youthful exuberance and the desire to demonstrate my skills, which I was cocksure were superior to anything this client had ever experienced before. Harnessing the deep analytical skills my major professor had drilled into me for the last three years, I gathered data to explore our test consumers' attitudes, perceptions and reactions to the newly proposed fast-food prototypes. Quantitative data. Qualitative data. Data from individuals. Data from focus groups. Then, with an enormously powerful computer for that time (40 years ago), I put the numbers through multivariate analyses and skillfully cross-indexed my findings with an innovative qualitative analysis.
Results in hand, I delivered my very first presentation to a client. My boss looked on and provided a masterly perspective on consumer behavior that handsomely complemented my superb, but narrow, mastery of the data. Because this predated personal computers, I had no PowerPoint program to depend on. (How in the world did we do things without PowerPoint?!) Instead, working with handouts, computer-generated tables and flip charts, I spent two hours laying out my findings about the most promising food concept and recommendations about how to take it to market.
Our client was receptive, the meeting ended in a most cordial manner and we were all invited to dinner at a fine local restaurant.
A novice to all this and insecure in my new position, I was overwhelmed by the need for more feedback. At dinner, I leaned toward our client product manager sitting to my left and asked, "What did you think about our findings and recommendations?" "It was excellent," he responded, "although it was all just common sense."
I was shocked. Did he miss the reference to "multivariate analysis"? Was he unaware of the difficulty of marrying qualitative survey data to the numerical findings of factor analysis? Had he failed to recognize my boss's unique insight into the importance of food products on psycho-social interactions? In what possible way were any of these complicated analytical outcomes or detailed recommendations "common sense"?
What is common sense?
Many consulting years later, this dinner conversation finally made sense to me. My first client had paid us a huge compliment, but I was too green to recognize it for what it was.
It's almost common sense to say that common sense seems very uncommon. Sometimes, common sense may not seem very sensible either. But, before we dismiss the idea as totally meaningless, let's see how this term might be better understood.
Think about "common" as meaning something that is widely shared — like a "commons" area in a large building. Think about "sense" as our intuitive perceptions of what something means. In this sense, then, "common sense" happens when many of us share a perception of what something is all about. So, it's common sense that the sky is blue (on a good day), mom is a new baby's favorite person and the earth is flat.
I hope that last statement made you cringe. It's key to understanding the rest of this essay.
What is uncommon sense?
Progress comes to humanity when someone develops an uncommon sense. For example, Christopher Columbus (so the common story goes) came up with a stunning insight, "The earth is round, and therefore, I can reach the world to our east by sailing west."
It took many years and many people in addition to Columbus, but eventually, the widely shared perception about the nature of the earth has totally changed. The uncommon sense, the earth is round, has become the common sense. Children today still initially perceive the earth as flat. But children today are educated about the earth at an early age, and most of them quickly join the rest of us in our common understanding that we live on a giant globe.
Uncommon sense is what research physicists have about subatomic particles, what priests have about God and what consultants (the good ones) have about your problems. These are insights, unique to them, that help them make sense of what they are studying.
We build schools expecting that the uncommon sense held by our teachers can be transformed into the common sense of our population. We build churches in the hopes that the uncommon sense held by our religious leaders can become the common sense of our religious community. And we hire consultants in the desire that their uncommon sense about our problems can be transformed into explanations we can all understand, and thereby take mastery over, in a common manner.
I didn't realize it then, but when my first client told me all our findings were "just common sense," he was confirming we had done our job well. Before we began our work, the recommendations we made were not common in any sense — no recommendations existed and the correct decisions were anything but obvious — which is why it hired consultants in the first place. When my presentation was finished, though, the client's world had gone from flat to round, and like Christopher Columbus, he suddenly had totally new ideas about what directions to take his new food products.
And I have to pay you for this?
The value of common sense is counterintuitive. Have you ever heard a comment like this? "We heard a fascinating presentation yesterday from the most brilliant man — most of us didn't understand a word he was saying." An audience that cannot follow its speaker's meaning may, naively, be dazzled by what appears to be a superior understanding of the world. However, good communications, good teaching and good consulting all rely on one central ability — the ability to present information to people in a way that they fully understand. A person who confounds his audience with his brilliance, whether he is truly brilliant or actually a rambling fool, fails to transform whatever uncommon sense he might have into the audience's common sense.
In contrast, have you ever had the good fortune to hear a complicated scientific finding explained by a popular high-school science teacher, or a complex economic analysis unraveled by a popular news analyst? These communicators are popular because they start and end with their audiences' common sense. They start where the audience is, using familiar ideas that they expand with everyday words, descriptive pictures and insightful metaphors to take their audiences to new levels of shared understanding. When they are finished, their audiences experience the aha moment — "Yes, I understand this now! Turns out that it's all just common sense."
And indeed, it is. What was previously one person's uncommon sense and many other people's common un-sense has been transformed into everyone's common sense.
Objectively, this is enormously valuable. Subjectively, not so much. The high-school science teacher is likely to be popular, but not wealthy. Meanwhile, the scientist who makes uncommon discoveries, but who cannot explain them to anyone else, is more likely to be earning big money in a research lab. But in our business of fundraising, common sense is more valuable than you might realize.
Fundraising as a common sense activity
What is the common sense about fundraising? The average American probably thinks we write letters, e-mails, magazine ads and TV spots to convince people to suspend their otherwise more sensible judgment and impulsively send their hard-earned money to charitable organizations. Many people see this as a dupe. Professional fundraisers, they think, exploit people through guilt, fear, pity and other human weaknesses to get them to contribute to their causes.
Successful fundraising, however, is more likely another example of building common sense. Look at the most effective forms of fundraising — recruiting major donors, winning long-term support from foundations, building a cadre of committed long-term member donors. Where people's weaknesses might result in impulsive, one-time donations, the really valuable donors, who support our causes over prolonged periods of time and with large gifts, are motivated by feelings and ideas that are part of their inherent worldly concepts and value systems. For them, donating is not a fluke; it is part of what they do because they know it is the right thing to do.
Working with the causes we do, we have an uncommon sense of the world's needs — children who are hungry, women who are abused, animals that are mistreated, the sick waiting to be healed, victims looking for shelter.
One way to appeal for support is highly scientific — like data, statistics and multivariate analysis. Prove that we need support. Another way is to appeal to people's fear and guilt — "Isn't it your Christian duty to help these suffering souls?"
But the best way to appeal is to make our causes part of the common sense. In its most successful form, we all know what this looks like. When disaster strikes, everyone knows (common sense) the Red Cross will be there. When Christmas comes around, everyone knows the Salvation Army will have bell ringers with kettles. It just feels right, it is common sense, to donate to these organizations when the time is right.
Like a skillful consultant working for his or her client, your charity is on an assignment for your donors. Your job is to make your appeal part of your donors' common sense about their world.
Start with what they know — our basic human needs for food, shelter, health, love. Explain your uncommon understanding of the needs you represent through stories, pictures and metaphors. Bring your audience to a new level of shared understanding of what these needs are and how they can be met — through your work. Tell the story so well that it becomes "just common sense" to your donors: When this need arises, your charity is the obvious solution to the problem.
When you have done your fundraising really well, your donors will incorporate themselves, as well as your charity, into their common sense understanding of your cause. "I understand this problem; I understand how this charity helps; and I understand the importance of my role in supporting this work." This is the basis for building a community of support, a collection of people with a common sense of your charity's central role in solving an important problem, and their compelling reason for being part of it.
My main message, then, is that fundraising is all just common sense. But I guess I didn't need to tell you that, did I? You probably knew it all along.
Joel Zimmerman is senior nonprofit management consultant at CDR Fundraising Group. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.