The steep cost of unwarranted confidence

I’ve been asked to address nonprofit boards quite a few times to tell them “how fundraising works.”

It’s been an eye-opening, sometimes disturbing, experience.

Let me say first that people who serve on boards should be recognized for the service they are doing. They don’t have to do it. And most are generous donors to their organizations.

But there seems to be some kind of connection between board membership and unwarranted confidence in one’s knowledge.

Here’s what I mean:

Virtually every time I’ve spoken to a board, they tell me one (or both) of the following facts about fundraising:

  1. “Everybody hates underlining (or letters more than one page long, or pictures of sad children, or courier font, or any of a number of common direct mail tactics). We’ll raise a lot more money if you just won’t do that.”
  2. “People here in Springfield (or NYC, or the West Coast, or the UK, or New Zealand, etc.) are different, so you need to approach fundraising differently for us.” This one is often a follow-up to the first, a way of saying your knowledge may be good elsewhere, but not here.

I’ve given up on asking them how they know these facts, because there’s never a factual answer. Just impressionistic factoids like, “Everyone I know thinks so.”

Both of those widely believed “facts” are provably and always incorrect. The only person who would believe them would have to be someone who has never engaged in fundraising.

Like most board members.

There’s nothing wrong with being ignorant about something. We’re all incredibly uninformed about a wide range of topics.

But most of us, most of the time, know better than to opine on those things we know nothing about, much less make decisions based on their lack of knowledge.

It’s hard to argue against ignorance. Facts don’t carry much weight against it.

But facts are what we have.

So when you’re in this place, be equipped with facts. Pile the facts up. Appeal to authorities — there are a lot of them.

You may get through to someone’s common sense that can override their unwarranted confidence.

What’s even worse than the overconfident board member is the overconfident ignorant staff member. There are many of those too. And they have no excuse. Operating in their own profession, they don’t have the facts. They follow their hunches and ignore a body of professional knowledge.

With them, the appeal to facts can be even more pointless.

Our job: Keep working to get stuff right. Keep telling the truth. Keep trying to win people over.

That’s how effective fundraising can spread.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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About the blogger

Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.