lighthouse counsel logo
How decision science changed my mind about fundraising

How decision science changed my mind about fundraising

May 5, 2023
Karen Kemp

I recently had an opportunity to spend the day with leaders from nonprofits across the eastern United States at Lighthouse Counsel’s masterclass with Bernard Ross.  

Bernard is an expert and thought leader in the field of decision science as it relates to nonprofit fundraising. The author of “Change for Good,”Bernard has spent his impressive career helping nonprofits around the world raise more money and improve their performance. Whether working to save the last 800 great apes in the world, raising funds for France’s greatest national treasure or advising groups like UNICEF and The Red Cross, Bernard is transforming how we approach fundraising using decision science.

As a 35-year practitioner of nonprofit management and fundraising, I was curious whether I would hear anything new. Not only did I learn how little I really know about human behavior, but I also came away with ideas about how to translate for-profit marketing techniques into strategies for making better choices in the nonprofit sector. I am a convert to using decision science to transform how we approach the art and science of fundraising.

What is decision science?

As fundraisers, we need to be able to ask the right people for the right amount of money in the right way. But how exactly do we do that? Many nonprofits are turning to data and analytics, or decision science, to help them make better decisions about the cultivation and stewardship of donors.  

Traditional decision-making theories have relied on the assumption that we are rational animals who make decisions based on facts by assessing costs and benefits and calculating the utility of any option. However, a significant body of scientific research shows this assumption of rationality does little to explain human behavior.  

In spite of the challenges nonprofits are facing in turbulent times, the good news is that committed donors are giving consistently and giving more. In order to build on this philanthropic foundation, fundraisers need to tap into that wonderful spirit of altruism more systematically and scientifically. Decision science offers us the opportunity to do just that.  

By combining behavioral economics, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience, the commercial world is effectively using it to market and sell more products. The public sector is encouraged to make better choices – eating healthy for example – using data driven in large part by decision science.

You may be thinking that the commercial world has lots of cash and expertise that enables it to collect this sort of research, but Bernard shared simple strategies for testing fundraising strategies in affordable ways.

A case in point was an interesting exercise where we were asked to select the most successful direct-mail piece out of eight options that were sent as a test case from a well-known nonprofit. Each option we were shown was unique, including changes in font size, type of envelope, color, empirical data and the case for support.  

In a room full of seasoned fundraisers, all but two of us failed to select the direct-mail piece that yielded the most donations. Was it the one with the most heartfelt message or the one that had the most compelling photos?  No, it was not.  

The one that yielded the most donations was the one that was a unique size with an envelope that opened vertically. And what would you guess came in second?  The mailer with the thickest, highest quality paper.  

As David Jones, vice president of the Food Bank of New York said, “I am not my target audience! Evidence of that is how I guessed wrong on average gift performance in every test case presented.”

In the words of Kerry Meyers, chief development officer, direct marketing, at The Carter Center: “Bernard gave us a rare view into what donors feel physiologically when reading direct mail. The case studies were strong and yielded many new ideas for testing. It was a day well spent.”

If you lead or work for a nonprofit, or you are a nonprofit advocate or policy maker, it is worth learning more about decision science to support your cause and engage more deeply.  

So, whatever your philanthropic passion is, whether the arts, education, animal welfare, the environment or family and children’s issues, you will benefit from tapping into that wonderful spirit of altruism more systematically and scientifically. And the world will be a better place for it.

Interested in learning more?  Check out “Change for Good” and its follow-up, “Change for Better,” both of which are available from any local bookstore or online supplier. There is a special bonus when you purchase the latter – all profits from sale of the book go to Doctors Without Borders.  

Hungry for more insights from Bernard? Check out these episodes of The Beacon Podcast: Understanding Behavioral Science And Its Role In Fundraising and Making The Ask: The Artful Science Of High-Value Fundraising


Karen Kemp

Karen has more than 20 years of experience as a fundraising and nonprofit professional. She served for 10 years as director of development at Darton State College, where she managed the Darton Foundation and led its first-ever capital campaign. She has also served as executive director of four nonprofits in the health, arts and human services fields; in these roles, she managed annual campaigns, capital campaigns, planned giving, board development, special events and communications. Karen is active in community affairs and serves on the state board of the Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault. She graduated from Leadership Albany and has served as state public affairs chair for the Junior Leagues of Georgia. She serves on the board of Family Literacy Connection and is a volunteer with the Atlanta Chapter of the March of Dimes. A former Rotary president, she was recognized with a Martin Luther King Dream Award for her work on behalf of Georgia’s children and their families. Karen attended the University of Georgia and graduated from Georgia State University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Karen’s favorite quote: “Joy is found through living a life of purpose.”