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What 19th Century Medicine Can Teach Us About Fundraising Strategy

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I’ve just returned home from London, having attended the bi-annual board meeting of the Hartsook Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy, an outstanding group closely affiliated with the Rogare Fundraising Think Tank at Plymouth University.

One of the topics of discussion was their forthcoming research paper on a strategy for change in fundraising.

It was ironic that my in-flight reading was Steve MacLaughlin’s excellent new book “Data Driven Nonprofits.

Between the outstanding board discussion regarding the new research paper and a key chapter from Steve’s book I felt compelled to share a few thoughts.

Chapter 15 – Future

Let’s begin here with the final chapter of Steve’s marvelous new book. He adroitly outlines how the medical profession and –  more strategically – its medical schools were drastically improved in the early portion of the 19th Century.

Thanks to the breakthrough endeavors of Abraham Flexner the entire concept of medical schools was transformed thereby creating a true body of knowledge based upon proper scientific research.

Steve goes on to state this same type of proven bodies of knowledge have been created for the professions of law, accounting, engineering, science and education.

Yet such a body of knowledge does not exist in the fundraising profession!

He goes on to state his hope for such body of knowledge and proper training programs to be created for professional fundraising in the nonprofit world. Obviously, such research would rely heavily of proper date collection and usage.

Thanks Steve for bringing this message to the forefront!

Executive Summary

The essence of the research paper “Strategy for Change in Fundraising” issued by Rogare is contained in the Executive summary.

Excerpts from the summary are below:

This paper explains Rogare’s Strategy for Change in Fundraising by using critical
thinking to change how fundraisers use theory and evidence to solve the professional
challenges they face.

Sections 1-3 state the nature of the issue we are trying to address and our desired goal.

  • that every fundraiser seeks and is able to use theory and evidence
    in assessing how best to develop not just their own fundraising
    strategies and plans, but also in the way they tackle their profession’s
    major challenges.

Section 4 sets out our Theory of Change.

  • how we get from where we are today to the desired situation.

Section 5 describes some early ideas how we might go about implementing the Theory of Change, including:

  • Refocusing and rebranding the Advisory Panel
  • Providing guidance and direction for the Advisory Panel
  • Various outputs to help fundraisers frame their critical thinking.

Section 6 outlines our desire and intention to monitor our performance in achieving change.

We plan to consult with the Advisory Panel on this strategy. We aim to do this in several parts. We shall first consult during October on the Theory of Change (ss1-4) and refocusing the Advisory Panel (s5a) and aim to implement these changes by the end of 2016. We shall then consult on and develop the implementation (rest of s5) and monitoring (s6) of this strategy early in 2017.

Our overarching goal

Every fundraiser seeks and is able to use theory and evidence in assessing how best
to develop not just their own fundraising strategies and plans, but also in the way
they tackle their profession’s major challenges.


Currently there is no single body of evidence that underpins fundraising (unlike law or
medicine etc), nor informs an entry-level qualification to the fundraising profession.

There is little evidence to suggest fundraisers and those leading fundraising routinely
use existing theory and evidence – particularly academic – in planning, executing
and evaluating their fundraising strategies and programmes.

There is no single set of standards that helps a fundraiser assess how fundraising is
done and its impact consistently evaluated.

Historically there has been no focus on establishing what evidence-based good
practice looks like and where there has been has been evidence-based good
practice, it has not been sufficiently well embedded in training and development.

Therefore, as a profession, there is a tendency to copy the case study without fully
understanding the theory behind the case study that led to its success (the thing that
would make it truly replicable).

This makes it much harder for fundraising and fundraisers to adapt to a new environment when prevailing rules and procedures are turned on their head (because fundraisers mostly copy existing practice rather than using insight and theory). This also makes for a very vulnerable model and profession when established practices break down, as happened in the UK in 2015-16.

Further, those making fundraising policy (for example, codes of practice, or regulatory measures – as opposed to fundraising practice) have rarely utilised existing theory in the development of those policies. Perhaps the best example of this is the lack of ethical theory contributing to codes of fundraising ethics.

The way knowledge is currently transferred in fundraising it is often personality – led, often via presentations, workshops and blogs, with practical ‘tips’ and ‘how to’ training.

These factors lead to the situation where…

Problem statement

Fundraisers do not ask for the evidence or theoretical justifications for the tasks and
roles they are told to undertake…

Or they are not even aware of the need to ask for this evidence…

Or if they think they should ask for it, they lack the confidence to do so in a knowledge – sharing culture that is personality – led and does not encourage a culture of criticism.

However, underlying this is the question: would fundraisers know exactly what
evidence and theory to look for and could they interpret it sufficiently well to use it if
they found it?

Where Do We Go From Here?

Executives and other decision makers of nonprofits engaged in fundraising will need to start asking – if not demanding – to know exactly what a properly-proven body of knowledge says about actions about to be taken and budget dollars about to be spent.

Only when this becomes commonplace will our profession of nonprofit fundraising become as successful and as respected as those in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, science and education.

I hope everyone reading this post helps make this a reality in the future!

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  • Veronica M Johnessee

    I just recently started working for a non-profit and as someone coming from a retail background was shocked at how little they looked at any type of data in order to assist them in realizing is a campaign was worth continuing or producing again. I am partially thankful, after reading this article, that it was not this company alone who has this mindset. Hoping to help make some of these changes within this particular company for the better.
  • Jilla Tombar

    There are now at least 6 master's level programs in the country that focus on Philanthropy & Development. As a result, more knowledge and tracking of data is bound to arise. I attend LaGrange College's program and have researched a lot of literature around fundraising best practices/ controlled studies. I would love to see more undergraduate programs dedicated to the profession.
  • Sophie Penney

    As an administrator and faculty member with Penn State's Certificate Program in Fundraising Leadership I concur. Research is being done and journals are being published that highlight that work, e.g., Philanthropy & Education, but much more needs to be done to identify the body of knowledge, research and study methods, and then teach based on that knowledge. I do wonder where does the CFRE exam fit in if at all?
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