Surprising fundraising insight from Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein is justly famous for his brilliant work as a theoretical scientist. His theory of general relativity fundamentally transformed science’s understanding of the origins, laws and mysteries of the physical universe. But we at SOFII believe fundraisers can learn a lot from his genius too.

Written by
Sarah Bond
June 02, 2011
Some notable words of wisdom often attributed to the venerable Albert Einstein, showing us that physicists might have more in common with fundraisers then we think.

Since he received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921 for his services to theoretical physics, as well as scores of other awards and honorary degrees, Einstein has become synonymous with the concept of genius. But perhaps less well known about the great man of science are his musings on some of the more philosophical nuances of life.

Einstein found himself to be sympathetic to the ideology of the socialist cause and, in line with this, believed in the importance of the community. In his essay Why Socialism? Einstein writes, ‘Man can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only through devoting himself to society.’ Giving back to society was something Einstein held high on the agenda and his incredible scientific legacy has certainly done that. As fundraisers the work you do every day leaves a legacy in the same way, not only directly helping those in need but also enabling others to help in their own way, spreading the spirit of a shared responsibility. We think fundraisers and Einstein have more in common than meets the eye and have picked out a few words of his which goes to show that Einstein can be useful in all of our lives.

‘The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.'

Einstein in a lighter moment.

We at SOFII have never been ashamed to champion plagiarism as a constructive, perhaps even essential, part of successful fundraising. SOFII founder, Ken Burnett, wrote a piece, ‘Why should God have all the best ideas’, explaining why he thinks great ideas should be shared.

Learning from and using what has already been shown to work well increases the chances of your success and we all know that there are far too many obstacles in achieving a successful response without adding any unnecessary ones of your own.

So, we have it on good authority that creativity is a collaborative thing. All new ideas are never quite new; they are referenced from all that we, wittingly or unwittingly, see around us. For Einstein and scientists the world over, the race to publish the next new idea often required 'borrowing' someone elses diligent research to bolster their own theory. But, were I to dare to critique Einstein’s pearls of wisdom, I might just add that whilst borrowing someone else’s slam dunk of an idea should not be seen as morally questionable in itself, passing it off as your own, with not so much as a whiff of acknowledgement, most definitely should be. If you've not managed to do as good as, if not a better job, by plagarising a fantastic idea and adapting it to your own particular requirements, then you shouldn't have copied it in the first place. And, if you did do it justice then admitting you had a little help with the concept will only add to the many credits your campaign will deserve.

'We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we had when we created them.’

The problem of getting people to part with their cold, hard, cash is an occupational hazard and enduring conundrum for fundraisers. We know that people’s attitudes to giving have changed dramatically over the last few decades and we often hear that favourite buzzword ‘donor fatigue’ bandied around a lot too. But it’s unfair to assume that donors are tired of giving, they’re just tired of being asked for the same thing in the same way again and again, as if this should in some way inspire them anew each time.

So, we must seek out new ways of engaging donors according to the conditions of today, not only in the way we do it but in how we ask too. Bob Levy, a well-respected copywriter and consultant for nonprofits tells us the same thing in his article, ‘Words count’, where he warns that following a set process will no longer produce a predictably positive result.

Einstein once said that he might try something 99 times and only on the hundredth attempt would he get it right. Unfortunately, fundraisers don’t have the luxury of endless trial and error, the pressure is to get it right first time; the good will of the donor might not stretch to a second chanceand a donation. But taking on the challenge of finding ways to engage the donors of today is the only way to progress successfully – and don’t forget you’ve always got SOFII to help you find out what other people have been trying and whether or not it’s worked.

‘Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.’

You only have to read Jeff Brooks’ ‘stupid ads’ to see that fundraising doesn’t seem to have escaped this less than flattering evaluation.

In an attempt to bring something new to the public – a public apparently crippled by aforementioned ‘donor fatigue’ – some charities seem to be hell-bent on producing the most shocking and unfathomable campaigns to secure, if not people’s money, then certainly their attention – just not always in a good way. Take a look at 10:10’s video campaign and Amnesty International Poland’s poster campaign for prime examples of where the desire to shock the viewer has left the fundamental rules of fundraising lying lost and forgotten in the box clearly marked COMMON SENSE.

Just as Einstein surmises, this kind of stupidity, despite often setting out to be altogether cleverer than anything that has gone before, is infinite. There will always be the campaigns that you can only cringe at, but perhaps it is best to take a leaf out of Einstein’s book; to reflect philosophically on our inevitable stupidity and be truly grateful for all the times that it isn’t us making the mistakes.

‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’

Einstein may have been a genius, but we have to disagree with him on this one, at least as far as the finer points of fundraising are concerned. Imagination is a worthy commodity for fundraisers as they strive to find creative new ways to engage and inspire donors but, as Chuck Longfield tells us in his article ‘Data is gold’, knowledge can be a far more effective tool.

Knowing your donors, who they are, why they give, when they give and how they give is more valuable to your organisation than trying to think of a clever and wonderfully creative initiative to attract those unknowns for their first donation. Knowing how to hang on to the donors you’ve got, by understanding what turns them on – and more importantly what turns them off, is a far safer way to secure your income.

© Sarah Bond, 2011

About the author: Sarah Bond

Sarah Bond

Sarah Bond is a former SOFII editorial assistant. She is now senior communications & fundraising manager at the Malaria Consortium.

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