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The direction of the unexpected.

The direction of the unexpected.

I am currently reading The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb, which had been recommended to me so often in the last four years that for a while I became irrationally opposed to reading it. But after two quarters of intense study of predictive analytics and econometrics, this seemed to be a good antidote.

An antidote to statistics it certainly is. Taleb systematically dismantles most of the suppositions underlying finance and statistics. A dense and sometimes rambling read, it is also practical and thought-provoking and utterly fascinating. I'm only halfway through and already the pages sit well-notated and dog-eared. This is a book I will read several times in a row, and -- friends, be warned -- one I will gift many times. I can't wait to hear what my professors think of this...

Buy it.

There's lots to say about this book, and I'll never fit it all into one post. But let me pass along this succinct bit of planning wisdom I read tonight: "The unexpected almost always pushes in a single direction: higher costs and longer time to completion." 

I've written about this idea before, and we've probably all experienced it. The bill at Costco is always larger than you think it is going to be; it takes twenty minutes longer to find a parking spot than you anticipate. And in the case of fundraising, a program always takes longer to get off the ground than you hope it will. 

Sadly, the counter-measure is not a tighter timeline and fewer resources. It makes sense to plan for things to be a bit more expensive than you'd like them to be. Because, they will be.

Back and better than ever...

Back and better than ever...

Well, without meaning to I've let over three weeks slip by without a single post. I figured it was high time I posted an update lest you all think I was trapped under something heavy (When Harry Met Sally reference, yes you're welcome).

2013 is off to a great start for me, and I hope for you. Lots of more detailed posts to come but here are a few tidbits of what has me thinking and wondering:

  • First meeting of the Invisible Children board last week. What this group has done and continues to do is nothing short of amazing to me; more to come in the next weeks and months. I couldn't be more honored to be a board member.
  • Spending time applying non-linear regression models to fundraising data -- oh dear, this is really more interesting than it sounds. Hopefully I'll have some way to illustrate that in coming weeks! Stay with me people...
  • Speaking of fundraising data, I'm presenting at the annual Run-Walk-Ride Conference again this year. It's become an annual ritual I very much look forward to. If you're going to be down in Atlanta March 13-14, drop me a line so we can connect.
  • Speaking of fundraising data again, Chuck Longfield of Target Analytics/Blackbaud presented some helpfully alarming statistics about donor retention last week at the Nonprofit DMA conference that are worth your review. I say "helpfully alarming" because there have been people in the industry (like myself, ahem) trying to highlight the need for better engagement for years. Seems like no one wants to listen to the idea that engagement is hard work. Twitter is great for communicating but it ain't gonna magically create more donors for ya! Trust me on this. I'm hoping Chuck's presentation will rattle some cages. More here.
  • Switching the subject before I fall off my high horse, we've recently launched the 2013 Muckfest MS, a series of 18 obstacle races. Think Wipeout. With mud. And beer. You need it. Give it a look here.
  • Ulrich Schnauss, who has the best name in music, released his new album A Long Way To Fall today. I love everything he does and would recommend it without question.
  • Speaking of music, am I the only one who thinks the new version of iTunes is atrocious?

See, I'm back. :-) More soon.

Finding needles in the social media haystack.

Finding needles in the social media haystack.

It's a cold, blustery day outside so I'm huddled in my office with a hot cup of coffee catching up on a week's worth of reading. One article at the top of my list this week is  this short piece on Trends and Outliers, the blog of TIBCO's Spotfire data visualization software. In a nutshell, the post outlines efforts by researches to use Twitter information as the basis for predictive models. Professors at MIT have created a model that they say can predict hot topics before they go viral, while a researcher at UC Riverside is building a model that forecasts stock prices based on Twitter chatter about various firms. 

Interesting stuff, with potentially fantastic implications for fundraising. Imagine being able to shift through a pile of tweets to find donors more likely to give at year end. And at the same time, as seems to be the case with all applications of predictive modeling, I see sinister undertones as well. Do we want our global economic health, for example, to be dictated by the whims of millions of Twitter users? Although I guess one could argue that we're not far from that reality already...

In any case, worth a few minutes of your time. I hope you are warm and cozy wherever you are!

Another way to look at Hurricane Sandy donations.

Another way to look at Hurricane Sandy donations.

Figure 1: Disaster giving over the last decade. Click to enlarge.

I wanted to follow on Monday's post about the fundraising results from Hurricane Sandy. If you remember, some observers have commented on the fact that the overall donations generated following Sandy have fallen far short of other recent disasters.

Let's first take a look at the fundraising results we looked at on Monday. Figure 1 shows the results of post-disaster fundraising from five recent disasters: the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Haitian earthquake, the Japan earthquake and tsunami, and Hurricane Sandy. The numbers estimate U.S. private giving three weeks after each disaster.

Setting aside for a moment the tragic thought that there seem to be an increasing number of severe natural disasters, we can see that yes, there does appear to be a downward trend in response. Note that I did not access primary data for the graph, and so there are likely to be inevitable inconsistencies in how the numbers were measured. In fact, I can guarantee we're not looking at a strictly apples-to-apples comparison. But we're interested in order of magnitude, and in that sense we can see that both Hurricane Sandy and the Japan earthquake and tsunami seem to have inspired notably less generosity from the U.S. than the other three disasters.

But is that the whole story? Is giving perhaps related to the overall scale of the disaster?

This is where we find ourselves on tricky ground both ethically and empirically. From an impact standpoint, scale is certainly a matter of perspective. Even one lost home, pet, or loved one is heartbreaking. How can we quantify physical loss and emotional pain? If your heart aches, it aches. 

On the data side, we're on equally rocky footing. I attempted to see if I could quantify the scale of each disaster in economic cost. Given enough time, I could probably find the correct sources and create normalized data -- but I can tell you it does not appear to be an easy task. For example, the economic loss from Katrina is estimated to be far higher than that of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami -- in large part because of the amount of development on the Gulf Coast as opposed to that in rural India. But does that make Hurricane Katrina more tragic?

Figure 2. Disaster impact as measured in overall loss of life. Click to enlarge.

What if we turn to a more verifiable -- and macabre -- statistic: Number of deaths. These statistics are, sadly, very easy to find. And, without sounding crass, they do not need to be indexed for inflation. Figure 2 presents total confirmed deaths attributed to each disaster.

What do we see? Well, we see a different picture. It's hard not to be struck by the enormity of the crises in the Indian Ocean and Haiti. Again, this is not to say that the other disaster weren't crises; our attempt here is to find a way to compare the relative impact. The overall loss of life from the disasters in the U.S. was far less than the disasters in other parts of the world. 

Figure 3. U.S. giving as compared to loss of life. Click to enlarge.

Now let's go back to the giving numbers. We now have enough information to take our data analysis one level deeper. Figure 3 shows a basic scatterplot of U.S. giving as compared to overall loss of life. In this admittedly very small dataset we can see we have two groupings: A linear trend for overseas disasters, and a separate, very steep cluster for the U.S. disasters. 

All of which takes us to figure 4, which shows dollars donated per death. From this graph we can see that on a relative sense, the response to Hurricane Sandy is the most generous by far. It is a grisly metric, to be sure -- and let me say once again that I in no way mean to imply that some losses are more important than others.

What I am trying to do is show that the truth is often in the interpretation. In matters of giving data, as in most things, it is worth doing a bit more digging before deciding you have the whole picture. I don't contend that figure 4 is the whole story, either -- but it is a valuable addition to the discussion.

Figure 4. Donations per death. Click to enlarge. 

For my part, I do not believe that our country is less generous, or less responsive, or weary of providing relief. I believe that people give according to the perceived scale of the impact. At least on this  measure, the response to Hurricane Sandy has been laudable. At a time of political weariness, economic sluggishness, and sustained appeals for help, we continue to respond to the call. 

Is Giving Tuesday a bad idea? No.

As you probably heard if you spend any time online, which is everyone reading this, yesterday was Giving Tuesday, a day created by a consortium of nonprofits to emphasize charity during the busiest shopping period of the year.

Interestingly, in addition to garnering a great deal of attention (and from what I've heard from our clients, creating an actual spike in giving), Giving Tuesday has inspired criticism from some circles as being the exact kind of commercialized, homogenized pseudo-caring it has been designed to counteract. Notably, both Tim Odgen in SSIR and Jeff Brooks in Future Fundraising Now -- neither a slouch in the space -- have written with some cynicism about the effort. 

I agree with the point that Giving Tuesday has the potential to be hollow and trite, and obviously also with Jeff's point that December 31 is already the biggest giving day of the year. Further, there's no denying that Giving Tuesday was a dreamt-up idea, although to be fair it was created by marketers hired by nonprofits, not by marketers.

What I'd offer, though, is that there's really nothing good about the biggest giving day of the year being the LAST day of the year. I applaud any effort to try to shift that giving earlier in the year. I'm not sure I understand the downside.

Further, with the incessant drone of BUY-BUY-BUY that now starts weeks before Thanksgiving and floods every single media channel, I like the idea of trying to mesh in some other message -- if only for balance.

I get the cynicism, I really do. But isn't combatting that cynicism the whole point?