In The Numbers Game the authors analyzed soccer teams and determined it’s a weak-link sport, the path to success comes not from investing more in top players but shoring up your weakest ones.  Basketball is the opposite, a strong-link sport, you need a superstar or two to have any chance.

Science is or should be a strong-link game, only the best ideas matter, there’s no point trying to fix much less replicate the bad ideas.

A lot of systems – engines, rocket ships, mobile phones – are weak-link systems.  Any small problem can cause the whole system to crash.

I’d argue fundraising is playing a strong-link game in a weak-link world.   Fewer and fewer donors and the only saving grace is those left are giving more.  The “strong” outliers, the most committed, the wealthiest are propping up the system.  It’s the 80/20 phenomenon on steroids.

But we have a weak-link problem, massive donor churn in year one and more specifically, in the first few months.  We see this month 1-3 play out in living color with sustainer payments but make no mistake, those same dynamics and causes are playing out in single gift world, we just don’t see it and admit it until they’ve ignored us for 24 months and found themselves in the lapsed bucket.

And yet there is a weakest-link plan, it’s just not working as evidenced by first-year retention staying the same at best, and often, getting worse.

This chart is from a single charity, but we’ve re-recreated this many times for many charities and almost always see the same pattern.

The sector seems to have decided that a solution for our weakest-link problem is more stuff.  The slope of the curve is kinda staggering.  There are myriad reasons for this but here’s a couple to consider:

  • All those welcome/nursery journeys – we fill up the days and weeks with stuff.
    • We don’t have the commensurate internal meetings, brainstorms and redo’s and re-think’s for the 5-year journey.
  • Over time your best donors – i.e., the ones who stick around – opt out of a lot of stuff.

The other trend is what’s reported in the text box.  The more stuff option is not helping the cause. In any given year, the correlation with outcomes we care about and the number of pushes is negative.

Is your strategy a strong-link or weak-link one?  The choices one makes are very different depending on the answer.