June 9, 2008

Man vs Machine, or "Numbers" vs "Guts"

Through my analysis and recommendations for a variety of clients, I have seen first hand the tension and complex relationship of what I like to call the “pre-analytics world” and the “post-analytics world.” This convergence of two almost fundamentally different perspectives on organizational and campaign planning is still very fresh in the world of fundraising. Analytics represents progress to many in our industry—insights and capabilities based upon a new process of information gathering and analysis. Unfortunately, this evolution (or some might say revolution) has been strained at times.

Many appreciate the technical ability and metrical sophistication gained from analytics and modeling. For some, it is difficult to grasp the concepts used and understand opportunities for application. For others, it is difficult to embrace and trust the insights gained.

Provided with a reasonably well-stocked database, I could offer not only predictions on an institution's future, but also “blind” insights and analysis on what has been happening to-date. Without knowing the information, I could tease out the shift in annual fund messaging strategy, suggest which gift officers were performing well and why, and even reveal strategy for prospecting and solicitation. Impressive? Perhaps. But what happened to good old fashion “gut feelings.”

In the example I present, experience, the strongest factor used in “gut” decision making, is completely absent. I have never spent an hour inside the institution whose profile I could construct. I may offer new insights and perspectives—but don’t really know XYZ University like the VP does. The VP knows the shop and the donors, and feels the campaign is a “go” despite the reservations I might provide.

I can understand why a VP might feel hesitant to plan campaign strategy around analytics work he/she barely understands from someone who doesn’t know the institution as well as he/she does. It’s the institution's campaign, but ultimately his/her job on the line. Beyond campaign success, part of that job is also embracing new ideas and technologies. While he/she may never want to have a fully analytics-driven campaign—rejecting these tools may brand you as a fundraiser from the “20th century,” a wholly undesirable title.

What is the future for “gut decisions” in our world? I truly hope they never go away—and I doubt they ever will. All the modeling in the world could never replace a highly skilled gift officer, or savvy VP. Yet these two groups: pre-analytics (gut and intuition decision-making) and post-analytics (metrics and analytically rooted strategy) are more and more seen as clashing, especially when considering the increased respect and weight given to analytics in fundraising.

What can we do to bridge this divide, and to integrate the best qualities both these approaches have to offer?

This article posits a similar question. While the author does not attempt a thesis-like response, she does offer one sobering and often overlooked factor: “You can't predict emotion with a machine.”

Last week's episode of The Apprentice, filmed at Ogilvy, proved that marketing does not come naturally to everyone. Which is why decades of admen have been held in great esteem for possessing an instinctive ability to produce great campaigns. But, increasingly, the traditional reliance on intuition as the basis for a successful campaign is being surpassed by evidence-based decision making and 'creative experts' should be on their guard.

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