Beware the Fundraising Survey

A donor's present self and future self do not always see eye to eye.

My kids would say sometimes I don’t listen. And sometimes, I don’t.

I watch. For example, my kid says, “I will mow the grass and be most happy to receive the modest stipend you offer for this effort, dearest mother.” But after nightfall the grass is uncut. My little survey failed to deliver accurate information. You are thinking, “Your kid is lazy.” And, yep, sometimes that is so.

But what really happened is that his Present Self answered the question to the best of his ability. “Not a terrible chore and I need the money,” he thought. But his Future Self, who got signed up to mow the grass, did not buy in. “I’m tired. I don’t want to take another shower. I don’t want the money that badly.” Those are effectively two different people with two different sets of circumstances and two different decision-making data sets that led to two different outcomes.

While having a barbecue in the backyard with uncut grass is not a tragedy, planning an event based on information collected in the same way can be.

A while back I was at a conference with lots of really smart people in the peer-to-peer fundraising industry who were sharing ideas with great value.

But I kept hearing some phrases in the room that made me wince: “Our fundraisers don’t think …” and “Our fundraisers don’t want …” and “The feedback I get is …” I interpreted those phrases to mean, “We asked them, and this is what they said, so we took action based on their answers.” They were typically talking about Present Self answers.

If we make decisions and plans based on those answers, we are most often surprised and disappointed when the surveyed group does not behave as expected. And, in a worst-case scenario, our “survey” is actually composed of taking phone calls from a few incredibly vocal advocates for the way things ought to be. Reacting to that sort of data is like taking the average height of a basketball team composed of one 8-footer and four 5-footers. That data set does not tell a true story, and if we plan and make decisions based on it, we fail.

Future Self is noble, looking forward to losing weight, curing cancer and feeding the hungry. Future Self is all about "what I'm going to do" and responds that way: "I will raise $5000; I WOULD pay $1000," "I CAN recruit 10 people," "I don't need recognition," "Of course I will participate again next year," etc.

Present Self gets stuck with the bill. Present Self is the one Future Self signed up for the walk, run or ride of choice. Present Self has a work project due, is suffering irritable bowel syndrome, has a hangover and was just recently victimized on some other front by Future Self. Present Self is angry, resentful, unappreciated and tired. Present Self says, "I'm bagging it."

Why is this sort of "would you …" surveying such a poor source of good information? As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert explains in his book "Stumbling on Happiness," it is easier to remember the past than imagine the future.

Add our well-documented bias for optimism, and resulting information collected from Present Self-friendly surveys and anecdotal conversation is almost worthless. If unrecognized as unwieldy, this collection of information — I can't call it data … it hurts too much — is dangerous to your chance for success.

Highly skilled HR professionals never ask an interviewee, "What would you do in this situation?" The best HR people say, "Tell me about a time when this situation happened to you."

The discussion around Present Self/Future Self is not new nor hard to understand. But the discipline and insight to realize when we are collecting and/or relying on Present Self information is hard. It's hard evaluating what you currently collect to see what you have that is more worthy data. Likely you have sources of info that are better than Present Self information that hits you in the face daily: registration reports, inbound call records, income records, redemption records, donor records, retention records and more.

If we ask people what they WOULD do, what they WOULD prefer, how they WOULD behave, we will not get good information, although you may get the answer you want. Present Self surveys are a failure at best and an effort at subversion at worst. This happens often at budget time, setting up revenue scenarios that are completely unrealistic.

Present Self surveys' best use is for when you are looking for something to test. An idea. Because that is all you're getting: a highly optimistic, noble thought.

So, if you can't plan based on Present Self's answers to questions, what info can you use to plan how to best address your volunteer audience? Two things: data from the past and study of how humans behave. Data analysis gives you a great idea of what will happen in similar situations, and social science helps you understand why those things happened in the first place. With that information, you can make plans that are likely to work and predict fundraising revenue that's likely to happen.