Avoid Bias and a Cookie-Cutter Approach With Research
Expert research is essential for a nonprofit to achieve its potential.
A major fundraising campaign should be driven by needs and validated through insight from key stakeholders. However, the success of such an effort is directly tied to the strength of the research and how it’s used.
Likewise, effective strategic planning is tied to the use of that research, as well as an effective and unbiased facilitator.
Campaign Feasibility and Planning Studies
When companies test products among consumers, they don’t have a company representative in the room. And in public opinion polling (i.e., political polling), the person asking the questions doesn’t tell the person being polled that a representative of the company or campaign is listening in on the call. Such tactics are used to avoid bias.
The same general principle applies to fundraising. The research elements of a campaign planning study — personal interviews, focus groups and surveys — should be conducted by a neutral third party, with a guarantee of confidentiality.
I’ve seen some consulting firms bring along the CEO, which is a surefire way to stifle open discussion and breed bias. Some practitioners will recommend that an organization conduct its own interviews. But what this yields isn’t research — to the contrary, it’s cultivation at best, and too often it results in a one-sided conversation.
Over decades of conducting studies, I’m amazed at what prospective donors will share if they trust you and know you sincerely want their opinion. Even board chairs will share concerns over an organization and the CEO that can prove invaluable.
In addition, effective study interviewers should be good listeners and good observers. They must know when to dig deeper, how to discern common themes and trends and craft strategy. Not everyone has these skills. I always have more than one consultant conduct interviews to prevent bias and enable collaboration on the conclusions and recommendations.
Engaging in a campaign feasibility and planning study is a powerful step for an organization, and it requires a CEO who is willing to be vulnerable. Too many CEOs avoid a study because deep down they don’t want to know — and don’t want their board to know — perceptions, questions and suggestions from some of their best friends.
Strategic planning for nonprofits is very different from that used in for-profit businesses. A nonprofit operates under a public trust and receives tax benefits in return for fulfilling its mission. Therefore, in nonprofit strategic planning, it’s essential to have a research phase to take the pulse of all of your various constituencies. It’s also vital that the leadership engaged in planning receive background information — facts — so that decisions aren’t made in a vacuum, based only on their opinion/experience or that of just key constituencies.
As in the study process, it’s important that nonprofit strategic planning be driven by an independent party. Too many CEOs try to drive the process themselves because they know what they want in a plan. Leadership should be engaged and have a strong voice, but not controlling.
The CEO of a client needing strategic planning told us he wanted us to recommend reducing the size of the board so he could control it better. Of course, strategic planning requires collaboration and consensus, not satisfying the wants of one person.
Bias also occurs when planning facilitators share their opinions and guide the organization. An even worse scenario is when a consultant shares what they’re doing — and being paid to do — for similar organizations.
Unbiased research and third-party facilitation are vital components of essential nonprofit processes. Without them, plans become cookie cutter and are left to the whims of a few key stakeholders.
Looking for Jeff? You'll find him either on the lake, laughing with good friends, or helping nonprofits develop to their full potential.
Jeff believes that successful fundraising is built on a bedrock of relevant, consistent messaging; sound practices; the nurturing of relationships; and impeccable stewardship. And that organizations that adhere to those standards serve as beacons to others that aspire to them. The Bedrocks & Beacons blog will provide strategic information to help nonprofits be both.
Jeff has more than 25 years of nonprofit leadership experience and is a member of the NonProfit PRO Editorial Advisory Board.