Voice of the Beehive

Which charities make the biggest impact? Which will do the most good with the grants they receive? Which causes are the most in-need in a given area, and which projects have helped them the most? All questions that grant-makers ask when looking to disburse funds, and all questions for which supporting evidence is far more difficult to find than should be the case.

Perhaps not for much longer. Rachel Rank and her colleagues at 360 Giving are changing the way we access data so that data about charitable grants is simpler, more accurate, easier to access and faster to work with. 360 Giving (and sister organisation Beehive Giving) are bringing the concept of an ‘open data standard’ to the third sector – and not before time.


Recent publications using the standard mean “[m]ore than £10bn worth of grants [have] been published to the 360Giving Standard with the addition of nine more grantmakers in the last two months”. And with recent editorial contributions from former-NCVO data guru David Kane, CAF’s Rhodri Davies and others, 360 Giving also features high-quality content. Meanwhile, the format itself helps grantmakers and those aiming to create beneficial social impact to make decisions based on evidence and, crucially in these austere times, clearly highlights need in local areas to better target scarce resources.

What’s not to like?



Turning the geek factor up to 11 for a moment, there are some interesting possibilities for mathematical techniques used in technologies like predictive text to be used to assess fundraising interventions.  Ever since an influential 1948 paper by Claude Shannon – “the Father of the Information Age” – so-called ‘Markov Chain’ models (a variant of which is  ‘Markov Chain Monte Carlo’, or MCMC) have been “widely used in speech recognition, handwriting recognition, information retrieval, data compression, and spam filtering”, as well as ‘Natural Language Processing’/word prediction, by assigning probabilities to ‘state transitions’, ie the probability of one letter or word following another.  Using such chains to predict which fundraising interventions are most likely to lead to a gift would be a huge boon for the industry, leading (in theory at least) to far more efficient donor journeys and more granular understandings of business process value.  So, who wants to Run DMCMC?


Imagine an ant crawling along a beach, left and right, forward and back, up and down, as it navigates home. It’s chosen path looks something like this:

Ant walk pic

The route is complex, but the complexity is a product of the environment, not the ant, whose decision-making power is minimal.  The example is abstract but relevant for people, too: “human beings, viewed as behaving systems, are quite simple. The apparent complexity of our behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which we find ourselves.”

The question of how to navigate complex environments using limited decisionmaking capacity and incomplete information is at least as relevant for organisations as it is for animals.  As a fascinating recent post [login required] to the Prospect-DMM email forum suggests, the answer may lie partly in the use of ratios, which offer an elegant, contextualised ways to cut through bewildering amounts of information.  Simple, powerful metrics to use in fundraising could include:

  • Last five years giving/lifetime total
  • Responses/contacts
  • Number of appeal/number of gifts
  • Cost of appeals/lifetime donations

One obstacle is not being able to integrate or even extract information from our database systems to begin with.  Recent news that insurance giant Aviva has made great strides in integrating database systems to the great advantage of their business raised a thought which is highly relevant for many charities: are we prisoners or masters of our IT/database systems?  And, when techniques like database screening may be restricted or even off-limits in future, can we afford not to try to mine other data for insights?

Weapons of Math Destruction

If, as the ICO believes, the British public would experience “substantial distress” in learning their data had been processed in a wealth screening, the public will surely be distraught should they ever read Cathy O’Neils 2016 book Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy.  The many ways in which mathematical models and algorithms – the so-called ‘WMDs’ – are used to make crucial decisions relating to the public realm and, increasingly, private lives are as worrying and widespread as they are opaque and unaccountable.  Across vital issues like criminal justice (where court decisions increasingly use automated quantitative modelling and scoring), access to credit, finance and education (where credit scoring and rating of teachers increasingly rely on WMDs), jobs and employment (where a missed payment could mean being overlooked for a job interview) and even the feelings and emotions we experience (thanks again, Facebook), WMD’s are in wide and growing use.  This largely unseen trend is worrying as WMD’s inevitably contain errors and anomalies which, if not caught, can have significant effects for those affected by their scores or results.  Even worse, WMDs can have pernicious effects when they run perfectly – many contain implicit value judgements which end up disadvantaging poorer groups, or, in the case of aggressive advertising, are designed to target these very people.  Yet all too often WMDs’ methods and results go unchallenged.

O’Neils Mathbabe blog is an engaging mix of political commentary, engaging geekery and knitted hats – well worth a read.  And both are valuable and timely in helping us to understand – and hopefully better manage – our algorithmic overlords.

Where is the Money (Going to Be)?

In No Country for Old Men, menacing assassin Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) shuns Woody Harrelson’s frightened offer of help to find a satchel loaded with millions of dollars.  “I can find it from the riverbank”, a terrified Harrelson pleads at gunpoint, “I know where it is”.  “I know something better”, counters the icy Chigurh, “I know where it’s going to be”.

Chigurh Hotel Scene pic

As fundraising researchers, we spend a lot of time focusing on where the money is.  But do we spend enough thinking about where it is going to be?  The scene is a reminder that to prospect by relying on companies or sectors enjoying current success (as a way to assess employees’ affluence) is to miss a trick.  Do we prospect often enough by trying to predict which sectors will become successful in the future?  It may sound like a fool’s errand, but understanding which sectors and products are on a strong growth path and likely to experience an uptick in growth – wearable tech, virtual reality, voice recognition technologies and peer-to-peer finance come to mind – would be a boon for prospect research.  Intelligence on mergers & acquisitions, IPOs and other comparable ‘liquidity events’ is equally valuable (lookin’ at you, Aramco).  Such horizon-scanning need not be resource-intensive and is par for the course for many investors and businesses – for very good reason.

Calling Bullshit

How to call bullshit in the age of Big Data?  There is now a whole course designed to do just that, and it is the best thing ever (no b*llshit).


Marianne Pelletier interview: the power of understanding donor engagement


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Following on from our first interview last year, it was great to speak with Marianne again. She highlights the importance of linking fundraising staff, operations and analysts to instill an evidence-based culture in your team, as well as the importance of being targeted in fundraising activity to raise funds efficiently.  Measuring engagement also comes across clearly as perhaps the major recent trend in understanding donor motivation.  We face a marketplace of donors who often feel bombarded by requests for support so being targeted, in order to build stronger relationships and get the best ROI, is a major challenge for charities.  Marianne gives some practical ways we can achieve this, and raise more in doing so.

The interview is available as an audio file here: https://soundcloud.com/benrymer/marianne-pelletier-fund-raising-voices-interview-part-2


There are some really long words in the English language.  Maybe the best known is antidisestablishmentarianism. Another is the is the Welsh town name Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyllllantysiliogogogoch.  And the film Mary Poppins gave us  supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (even though the sound of it is simply quite atrocious).
 white bar padding space

Another, more prosaic, long word is ‘disintermediation’.  A financial term, it simply means ‘cutting out the middle man‘.  Since the credit crunch, the finance sector has embarked on an enormous round of disintermediation, driven by the need to cut costs. While fundraising is yet to follow suit, we may not have long to wait. One example is GiveDirectly. Founded in 2008, GiveDirectly uses ‘unconditional cash transfers’ (translation: giving people money) to communities in Kenya and Uganda to alleviate poverty, boost families’ income and facilitate entrepreneurialism. GiveDirectly use ‘randomised control trials’ (RCT’s; translation: testing if an intervention works by using it on one group but not another comparable group and recording the difference in outcomes) to understand the effectiveness of their work. They claim impressive results, and that cash transfers are very effective in poverty reduction. Others disagree, arguing other interventions including affordable irrigation and micro-credit should be prioritised.  We don’t yet know who is right, but we do know that disintermediation is real and here to stay, in some form or other.  The debate matters for fundraising, whose traditional model is donors gifting money to organisations to do work.  But what if an authentic ‘100% model’ is possible?  (you may already have guessed, but I’m skeptical of Charity:Water’s claims to have achieved this already – I love their website as much as the next person, but there’s no way they have no overheads) .  What if 100% of the donation really could go to the ‘work’?

One way this could happen is by connecting the funder directly to the projects via peer-to-peer or peer-to-business (P2P or P2B).  The Internet makes this more and more possible, as Uber and AirBnB, among others, remind us. A question for fundraising is whether it will embrace the trend to disintermediation or resist and turn to ‘antidisintermediationism’?  Certainly, ‘delayering’ should not be a surprise.  Basic scenario planning or SWOT analysis reveals that peer-to-peer is fast emerging as a rival technology, not least because the traditional donor-led model makes it difficult to effectively scale-up promising ideas, and can be an enabler for ‘founders syndrome’. And beyond P2P, alternative finance channels like crowdfunding and variants of ‘impact investing’ are to the fore, as seen in the recent Cambridge University and EY report on European alternative finance (see Chris Carnie’s recent blog for more on this, and a write up of the recent European Venture Philanthropy Association conference in Madrid).  My takeaway is: start planning for a world with less passive donors and more active investors.

While this change will undoubtedly be disruptive, it could have upsides. Fundraising could seek funds from the capital markets directly, (as Scope have already done) making scaling-up easier; it could evolve its management structures to enable greater varieties (and quality) of governance; it could access more diverse mixtures of funding in order to spend to invest, which could in turn mitigate the endless chase for unrestricted funds which grant-makers and donors alike are often loath to commit; and it could use the greater plurality of funding to develop new types of projects not possible with the traditional binary restricted/unrestricted funding mix.  It could also perhaps encourage a more long-term outlook in developing donor/investor relations. I sensed exasperation in some of the comments of Higher Education attendees at the recent NCVO Fundraising summit, perhaps baffled that a crisis has arisen when most HE institutions have in fact never stopped building long-term donor relationships.  Moving the focus from donations to investments would change charities outlook fundamentally.  Disruptive, yes.  But also potentially desirable.

The Internet has revolutionised many industries, (just ask Borders) and is likely, in time, to revolutionise fundraising. P2P/P2B, crowdfunding, alternative finance and impact investing are exciting or frightening, depending on the viewpoint. But while I’m no gambler, if I had to bet I’d say that to cling to the warm blanket of familiar practice – ie antidisintermediationism, resisting inevitable technological change – would be potentially very damaging for fundraising, if not simply quite atrocious.

Computer Says Yes

In a New York office in the early 1980s, a young currency trader listened intently during meetings of newly formed NGO Helsinki Watch. The meetings were taken up with passionate talk of human rights and the need to expand freedoms in undemocratic nations, vital issues to the young financier, who was born and raised in autocratic, Soviet-era Hungary before coming to the US to make his fortune.

The trader was George Soros, and the NGO later became Human Rights Watch.  In 2010, Mr Soros made a donation of $100m to HRW, the largest in its history.  It was a transformational gift allowing them to expand beyond their traditional base in wealthy western countries, into influential developing nations like Brazil and South Africa.

At the time of his attending Helsinki Watch meetings Mr Soros would not have scored highly on a recency, frequency, value (RFV) giving model, and he would not have matched on a wealth screening.  His gifts became significant only after years – decades – of involvement with HRW and it’s predecessors.  However, during this time, he formed an enduring attachment with not only HRW, but the cause of human rights more widely.  By 2010, he saw himself (and was) an integral part of the movement; rather than just handing over a cheque, he was funding a project with which he was intimately involved.  The question in his mind when making the gift would not have been ‘how much do they want from me this time?’ but ‘what do we want to achieve, and what will it realistically cost?’.  Indeed, when the call came for a transformational gift, Soros actually bargained up, arguing that to achieve their aims HRW needed more than the $50m they thought. The only explanation for this is that he is deeply committed to and trusting of the organisation and their project.

This story matters for at least two reasons.  First, the number of major gifts made in the UK,  including really large ones such as that of Mr Soros, should be growing — but aren’t (indeed, there has never been a nine-figure gift from a British philanthropist to an operational UK charity).  The wealth of members of the Sunday Times Rich List and value of £m donations in the Coutts Million Pound Report bear no relation, with UK top wealth doubling since 2009 but £m gifts static:

Coutts £m 2014
Also, the majority of such gifts are concentrated in a few sectors such as Arts & Heritage and Higher Education, missing other important areas; of 197 £m gifts in the most recent Coutts Million Pound Report, ‘Human Services’ received 10, ‘the Environment’ six,  and ‘Government’ one.  Vital though it is, non-university education received exactly zero £m donations in that year:
Coutts £m 2014 no2
Wealth alone obviously does not predict donations, but the lack of association between the two in this case is worrying, and indicates issues with the nature of philanthropic engagement, and perhaps the profile of philanthropy fundraising, in the UK charitable sector.

Secondly, and relatedly, charities’ methodologies often direct fundraising appeals  toward those supporters giving smaller, regular gifts.  Indeed, this is a striking absence from recent commentary on UK charities; a critical reason some donors come to be contacted repeatedly is that, time and again, transaction-focused methodologies lead back to those giving recently and/or often.  Major gifts result from major involvement and affinity; but transaction-obsession gives no insight into this causal connection.  Seeing gifts as a synonym for affinity is wrong, rather like measuring the number of leaves on a tree to understand its health, rather than the roots.  Confusing the two is part of the reason charities, like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, must run ever faster just to stand still; RFV always reveals the same pond, and often leads to over-fishing.   Success depends upon asking, and acting upon, the right questions, and our current toolkit often leads us to bad explanations, bad conclusions, and, even worse, may even prevent us from asking the right questions.  This matters because, (as Professor Adrian Sargeant and others have proven), “charities exist as an expression of their supporters’ will to make a difference“, so measuring affinity must be the challenge to tackle in identifying those supporters most likely to increase giving.  Recognising this is crucial to identifying those most connected to the cause, and therefore to stepping off the transactional treadmill (or is a hamster wheel?).  Donations are means, not ends in themselves.
red queen
So, what to do?  We need the computer to say ‘yes’, and be right.  That is, a methodology to identify affinity/connection and capacity to give at higher levels.  My suggested agenda for practical, insightful Philanthropy prospecting, and what Adrian Salmon recently called ‘leadership giving‘, is based not only on donations, but also on the range and frequency of touch-points with the charity, such as spontaneously offered comments and feedback, survey sign ups, questionnaire responses, petition signatures, as well as measures of estimated capacity.  Critical to this is the degree of activity supporters show in their interactions and that the fact that in many cases engagement does not take the form of donations.  In thinking about identifiable forms such engagement can take, I often ask myself things like:

Who is responding to more than one in ten appeals? (‘responding’ not necessarily meaning sending gifts)
Which supporters contact us unprompted to update details, chase us to re-send something or ask unprompted questions about our work?
Do we have petition signatories from affluent areas who may want to uplift their giving or become a supporter?
Who donates via active methods, ie internet donations, cheques, telephone calls or mail donations?
Who attends our advocacy events?  Are there repeat visitors?
Which households have more than one family member who is a supporter?
Who is supporting us in memory? Who among our supporters has direct experience of the cause we work to support?
Whose giving is uplifting spontaneously?

These are just examples, the point being that thinking analytically about supporter engagement can be done with some simple data and a willingness to try.  Stuart McCoy’s useful presentation to the IoF Insight group a couple of years ago gives many more ideas for such data-driven prospecting.

Combining measures of affinity and capacity can be done quickly, cheaply and to great effect.  When this is understood, the case becomes clear for fundraising appeals and products designed for those passionate donors and volunteers able to offer support in four, five six and seven figures.  But this is not ‘just ask more’ for the 1%; it is responsible, evidence-based practice that can and should profitably guide donor relationship-building by aligning fundraising with society’s evolving wealth dynamics and supporters’ strength of feeling.  Contrary to recent coverage, it would be hugely irresponsible for charities not to try to understand who may want, and be able to, offer more significant support.  Because, by doing so, data driven fundraising can be a path to growth, for the sector as well as individual organisations within it.  Unless and until charity fundraising aligns better with the social dynamics of wealth, and incorporates insights on affinity and capacity to grow giving at the top, charity secular stagnation will continue.

Change often follows a positive message: Barack Obama did not say ‘No, They Can’t’, and Dr. Martin Luther King did not say ‘I have a nightmare’.  And in a sector forecast to be heading for a £4.6bn shortfall (around a third of current total income) within the next four years, an achievable, sustainable way to grow overall giving through enduring donor relationships surely fits the bill.

Lucy Gower interview: “You can’t do good innovation without insight”

Lucy G

Lucy is an innovation expert who works with charities to improve their ability to innovate and raise funds.  She tweets at @LucyInnovation.

Lucy makes the point that innovations are unlikely to give returns within financial year; so the pipeline of new innovations needs to a) be well populated and b) have a multi-year strategy/budget.  The challenge isn’t to not ‘fail’, it is to make your innovation process robust enough to withstand ‘failure’, for senior leadership to make failure something people are happy to discuss and mull over, and to spread the attitude that discussing failure is not a bad thing.  It is the case though that we become invested in our ideas, and sometimes lose our willingness to accept that something isn’t working.

Every charity wants to innovate.  However, leadership and culture are critical.  A culture of innovative practice doesn’t come about without examples from the top, especially as it can be difficult for more junior staff to say “that project I worked on absolutely tanked” if they are worried that it will be perceived badly by their superiors.  The whole organisation must be behind a change to innovative practices or it is likely to fail.  We discussed the example of shoe company Zappos, who pay staff to leave if they are not happy.  As founder Tony Hsieh says in a fascinating article about his sale of the business to Amazon, “I believe that getting the culture right is the most important thing a company can do”.

For prospect research and insight, its interesting to consider the role of “translators”.  These are the people in organisations who draw out the narratives from information and present the story.  For researchers, this is a key skill, and is really important in modern, information-rich/time-poor organisations.  And Lucy is clear that “you can’t do innovation without insight”.  Building and using a base of evidence for new products and projects, and evaluating existing work, is absolutely essential in the innovation process.  While “creativity means not copying“, creativity and innovation rely on learning from experience and incorporating this learning into future work.