Making assumptions – a fast track for failure

Have you ever, in your first few months of a new job, asked a question and been told, “That’s just the way we do things here”?

Have you ever been the person frantically multitasking to stay on top of things who responded to the keen newcomer, “That’s just the way we do things here”?

I suspect that most of us have been those people at some point. And whilst we can’t spend all our time challenging everything (and I agree that if something isn’t broken, then don’t try to fix it). But what if we’ve made a whole bunch of assumptions about “the way we do things here,” and we’re missing out on a better way?

An assumption is defined as “a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof.”

We all make assumptions all the time. For example, we make snap decisions when we first meet people on what they’ll be like based on stereotypes or past experiences. There’s nothing wrong with this; it’s how humans are wired. But if we are not aware of the assumptions we’re making and testing them to prove them accurate or not – in a fundraising context at best we are not optimising and testing opportunities, and at worse we could end up with some big failures.

Some assumption-busting questions that delegates raised at IFC 2016 in October.

How many assumptions are you making in your organisation right now?

In 2015, Charlie Hulme, managing director at DonorVoice, did a small test. He asked six major international development charities, “What’s the reason donors support you as opposed to your competitors?” He then asked a cross-section of donors the reason they gave to that charity and not others.

None of the answers matched.

If we make assumptions about why our donors support us, we’re simply not able to send them communications that connect with them. We end up with a situation where people give despite charity messages, not because of them. Imagine how more engaged donors might be and potentially how much more they might like to give if you sent them messages that really spoke to their motivations for giving.

 Whether the chief executive likes it is completely irrelevant

 Have you ever been in a situation when a colleague says, “Well, I like it” or “I wouldn’t do it?? It’s perhaps (sometimes) interesting to know their opinion, but in the context of your fundraising your colleague is unlikely to be your target audience. Therefore, whether he or she would hike Kilimanjaro, or wouldn’t go to a coffee morning, or really hates street fundraisers is completely irrelevant.

If we build a fundraising strategy and activity based on assumptions about why our donors give or how our donors would like to support us, or base our decisions on what our internal teams like or don’t like … we are in dangerous territory and run a high risk of failure.

Kodak assumed that digital photography wouldn’t catch on. Kodak was wrong.

7 tips to abolish assumptions and make better decisions

  1.  If you are new to an organisation, you have a different perspective and are in an excellent position to spot that “how things are done here” might not be the best way. Keep asking the questions that challenge “how things are done here.”
  2. If you have been in an organisation for a very long time, take time to listen to the newbies and consider their questions – they probably have a point.
  3. Start to get into the habit of checking with yourself and asking, “What am I assuming here – what proof do I have?”
  4. Test out your assumptions. For example, ask your supporters why they support you and get to know them better.
  5. Test your assumptions in a real environment because what people say and what people do can be two different things. For example, an organisation asked their members whether they cared about celebrity support for the cause. The members said no, that it was the cause they cared about. When a celebrity — rather than the fundraising manager – wrote to them, the response rates went through the roof.
  6. Always remember that you are not your target audience, and politely remind your internal teams including your chief executive of this.
  7. Have an abolishing assumptions session with your team. Spend 30 minutes listing all the assumptions you make in your fundraising and then come up with some ideas about how to test them.

 Good luck – let me know how you get on. If you’d like some help abolishing assumptions, get in touch with me at lucy@lucidity.org.uk.