Adding Facts to Anecdotes, the Importance of Data

  • Published September 18, 2020
  • / By Alan Watkinson

We hope that you have had an opportunity to read through the report on the recent survey which we undertook in partnership with Educate Plus. The fact that 88 schools participated was enormously encouraging; it was the biggest cohort of responses in such a survey to date. Thank you very much indeed if you were able to participate. We hope that all schools find the survey findings insightful and helpful.

It was good to see so many people join our webinar panel discussion of the survey and its results last week. There were several important points raised during the discussion and from questions put to us during the webinar, and we wish to address them here.

A key point which perhaps needs clarification is that information and data in the survey is exactly that: the responses which the 88 participating schools provided. These responses represent what the participants have done and seen, and what they were feeling and were finding from their own perspectives at the time of the survey. The responses and data do not necessarily represent the considered viewpoint of either Educate Plus or Marts & Lundy.

A good example of this pertains to perceived fundraising outlooks in 2020 and 2021. The survey results tell us that 18% of schools this year anticipate an increase in money raised compared with last year, and 43% anticipate a decrease. For 2021, the figures change with 40% expecting an increase over 2020 results and 21% anticipating a decrease. These are, of course, just feelings and anticipations, and we are unaware how much analytics was involved in the preparation of the responses.

What we do know, however, is that data from research post the last major world crisis, the GFC, tells a different story. Marts & Lundy research showed from a survey of 400 institutions that those who did not maintain connection with their donor constituents took three times as long (up to five years) to regain their donors and achieve their pre-crisis goals than those institutions which stayed in touch and continued their programs, including invitations to support their cause. On average, they were back on target within 18 months.

Research of the literature in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the USA provides a similar set of conclusions. We are very grateful to Dr Alexandra Williamson from QUT and Dr John Godfrey from John Godfrey & Associates for bringing this research to our notice and allowing us to reference it:

The impact of recessions on fundraising: A systematic review of the literature | QUT ePrints

While it appears that in the first year following an economic crisis philanthropic support generally holds up well, that support is likely to soften in the year(s) following, until a steady state is re-established.

All of this goes to prove how important obtaining data is, because otherwise we have to rely on instincts and anecdotes which may well prove to be unreliable – and not the solid foundation on which to base strategic decisions.

The date from this survey can serve two very important functions:

It can validate what you have been doing and your plans for the future by comparing you with the other 87 schools in the survey. If the majority of schools are doing the same as you, and the results indicate that this is being successful, then you strategy and choices are, to a certain extent, already being validated.

It can provide the basis for reviewing your current plans and strategy. If you seem to be at odds with the majority of schools, the data provided can help you refresh and perhaps even alter some of those plans. This is especially helpful when seeking support and investment for next year, and when managing upwards.

Let’s look at some specific examples…


Unsurprisingly, the survey showed a marked increase in the use of digital technology during this period with 64% increasing their use of virtual meetings, and 52% reducing their use of printed materials. This sounds logical as we have been coming to terms with a world of non-personal contact for the last six months. There has also been a 50% increase in making phone calls to donors and community members. What the results do not address, of course, is whether this is the best balance of communications.

With severely constrained travel, people are at home much more than usual, and are being bombarded by digital communications from any institution or retail store they have ever been in touch with. Digital overload is an issue. Phone calls always seem to be welcome because they are more personal, and the recipient can control the length of call – a good feeling! But people also have more time to read printed material, and to put something down and come back to it later. It can also be easier to share within a household or just to have lying on a coffee table. So, this is good time to think about your audiences, and segment them carefully. Not all older people dislike or respond negatively to digital information, and not all young people reject snail mail or printed materials. Researching and responding to the preferred means of contact is a very good way to hit the right note with your community segments.

Many educational institutions have experienced a downturn in their international student community. For some, future international enrolments may be uncertain. Yet, it is important to remain in contact with international families who have been supporters of your school either as strong advocates or as donors. They are a very different segment, and it will be important to recognise and be sensitive to their local circumstances in their own countries and not just reference what is happening at your school.

Two basic principles apply to communications at the moment. With so much digital information flooding the cloud and with everyone trying to be in touch, the first principle is  to find a way to be memorable – and that does not mean being corny or kitsch. Communication needs to be genuine and meaningful, and must be part of your overall communications plan. The second principle is to try and put yourself in the recipient’s shoes – even with a wide segmentation of your community. What would you prefer to hear, or read, or view if you were in their position? It’s hard because you already know what you would like to get across to them; but a little bit of research (again), testing with different audiences, and discussion can open up many possibilities.


The survey results show that 51% of schools are adjusting their fundraising targets in 2020, with 71% doing that by program (39%) or overall target (32%). Only 7% of schools responding to the question said that they are adjusting targets by individual fundraiser (compared with 31% in a similar survey in the USA).

It is quite understandable that schools would consider adjusting targets given the uncertainty of the times. Now in Australia there is a big division between Victoria and the rest of the country and New Zealand (34% of responses came from schools in Victoria) – though the survey was conducted prior to the Stage 4 lockdown. What the results do not show is the basis upon which these adjustments are being made. In a small office with one or maybe two fundraisers, reducing targets by an overall amount makes sense, but with a slightly larger office, how is the load spread across the team? What measures are being used to forecast the adjusted targets?

This is where data can help again. This is the opportunity to review the KPIs and metrics around fundraising, based upon the previous three years of performance. Even a basic review will reveal trends and patterns of fundraising activity and success within and across a team, and from your donor constituency. From such a base line, it becomes easier to adjust targets especially after discussion and consultation with a number of trusted and carefully selected existing donors around their own circumstances and philanthropic inclinations.

46% of schools stated that they were not thinking of adjusting or introducing new metrics within their office, so the inference is that the majority of schools are making adjustments. The key ones identified were increased meaningful contacts (which needs to be defined by individual school, perhaps) versus personal visits (22%) and increased stewardship of major gift prospects (26%). This is an important development at this time. Fundraising is about raising money for the school and its needs, but within that brief, the measurements which lead to meeting targets need to be varied and trackable. If all that matters is for a fundraiser to reach a specific target, then if a big gift comes in, is there much of an incentive for that person to keep working hard for the rest of the year? When the cash target is just one of a number of measurements, it creates a culture where all work towards fundraising goals becomes valuable. Creating metrics around moves management (identification, qualification, cultivation, asking, securing the gift, stewardship) helps fundraisers to build a real pipeline for the future success of the school. In times of crisis and uncertainty, it also spreads the load by focussing on the genuine building of the pipeline rather than creating excess pressure to bring in a short-term cash gift, possibly at the expense of a long-term relationship.

Using the data with your leaders

Educational leaders like to make decisions based upon data and evidence. As you plan for the remainder of 2020 and look forward to a new kind of world in 2021, you can assist leaders by drawing upon the information in the survey. Schools will be facing serious budget decisions, but you will be wanting, almost certainly, to maintain your current budget or even consider an increase to support your activities. 53% of schools which responded to the question are cutting back on programs, with 61% of those same schools reducing events and 61% (logically) cutting back on travel. By focussing on other programs which can benefit the school and its long-term engagement plans – as we have mentioned above – and investing more in those programs, you can help leaders build stronger community support and a strong pipeline for the future. 61% of schools reported that they have experienced no staff reductions and this is a powerful way of stressing to your leaders that now is not the time to think about cutting back. If most schools are continuing with the current office staff and adapted programs, your school will be losing ground if cuts are imposed.

You should be able to report on how you are going to measure activity and the effectiveness of your team through the refreshed KPIs, and in this way you can help to manage expectations of your Head of School, Board members and Fundraising Committee members. The survey results, as stated before, can validate to them all that you are doing, or show them the ways in which you will be improving your performance and measuring it.

In the same way, you can use the survey results and data with your team to help build agreement around properly calculated targets and goals, adjusted and potentially new KPIs, and realignment of some priorities. Sharing the data with your team and discussing its implications is an excellent way to increase understanding of the roles that each person plays, and the importance of their interdependence.

Professional Development and Mutual Support

The value of being a member of Educate Plus was highlighted by the fact that 91% of schools responding had signed up to a webinar, podcast or SIG hosted by the organisation. Comments about the quality of these events were very positive with the content being helpful and timely. It was therefore a little surprising that 42% of schools responding to the question said they would be unlikely to attend the Conference in 2021 – although at the time of the survey, the date was to be in April rather than in September 2021, as it is now.

56% of schools said that they had not sought any external support or assistance, including the Educate Plus mentoring platform, and yet the appetite for the online offerings would tend to suggest that such support might be welcome. Planning to invest in attending the Educate Plus conference will be useful because of the value of learning from leading experts in the field, as well as strengthening your own professional network. Reaching out to establish a mentoring relationship can provide an excellent means of testing ideas and strategies as well as enhancing your own personal and professional career development. Taking advantage of free consultations with experts during this period of uncertainty is also something worth considering.

‘No man is an island…’ said the great poet John Donne. We are all adjusting to new situations, testing ourselves and our plans and assumptions, and thinking about how we can cope with a world that is being radically changed by circumstances outside our own control. Doing this on one’s own is incredibly hard work. Sharing the burden with colleagues, friends and trusted advisors helps to spread the load and create strong, strategic decisions.

A final word

Remember that data and evidence are your friends but remember too that you have to understand the data and use it to support your own proposals and positions. Do not simply present data to your leaders or colleagues and expect them to reach the same conclusions as yourself. Help others to interpret the material and show how it supports good planning for the future and strong decision making.

We are heading in the right direction now, but the road ahead is not necessarily going to be a straight one. Planning for contingencies is important, and so is making sure that your support team is in place for when the road develops unexpected twists and turns, and you need that support. So, keep in touch with your networks, your colleagues, your friends … and with us. We are always keen to hear from you about how you are doing, what is happening at your school, and what challenges you are facing. We are here to help in whatever ways we can in your philanthropic journey.