Fundraisers often think in straight lines—in terms of steady, predictable growth, based on assumptions that results for a given approach will be roughly proportional to the amount of time, money, and effort invested. The typical strategy is to pilot a small number of ideas to get a sense of costs and pay-offs, and then scale them up based on what the organization has learned.

However, in a networked world, the assumptions that payoffs are proportional to efforts or that pilots scale predictably are often inaccurate, and nonprofits may need to modify their approaches accordingly. An article in SSIR last month called for charities to bring a more flexible, experimental mindset to their advocacy and campaigning technology. In this article, we call for a similar shift in fundraising. In particular, we believe that many fundraising departments would benefit from abandoning their linear growth models and incorporating more flexibility and potential for collaboration between organizations into their planning processes.

We recognize that fundraising collaboration is notoriously hard. There are very few good examples of charities genuinely collaborating on fundraising at a large scale, in a way that is flexible and responsive to constituent groups’ needs. Every charity has its own supporters, causes, and ways of working. Coordination and managing trade-offs are difficult.

Even the best current examples of fundraising collaboration are typically rules-based and fairly inflexible. For instance, the Disasters Emergency Committee is probably the most successful fundraising collaboration in the United Kingdom. It is a separate entity, with dedicated secretariat and structured internal governance that coordinates joint fundraising campaigns across 13 aid charities (each of which fundraises separately the rest of the time). Membership is strictly managed. Funds are allocated to member charities according to complex formulae. To allow it to move quickly, the Committee’s rules of engagement are also highly structured, and there are pre-agreed conditions for defining a humanitarian crisis. These rules allow the Committee to mobilize quickly. But they sacrifice a lot of operational flexibility and can be off-putting to charities working in other areas that seek to run nimble, innovative social campaigns and hope to scale rapidly and organically through multiple networks and partners.

There are few examples of successful fundraising collaborations that are more operationally flexible. But that may be changing. Four cancer charities in the United Kingdom, each with different values and priorities, teamed up earlier this year on a new collaborative fundraising effort around World Cancer Day (February 4), with joint messaging and commonly agreed rules, but without setting up new organizations or recruiting a new secretariat. For organizations that typically compete for donations, it was a tentative step in a new strategic direction. The media and public responded well to the new approach and show of unity, and over a couple of weeks the collaboration raised more than £1 million.

For the organizations involved, the decision of whether to keep investing in this new partnership now comes down to whether it helps each collaborator raise more money. Can everyone be a winner, or does the burden of managing collaboration make these efforts more trouble than they are worth?

Using a traditional pilot-and-scale mindset, it may not look like further collaboration would be worthwhile. £1 million is a good start, but this year’s effort already required significant time investment and planning coordination among the member charities, and there are a limited number of major cancer charities in the United Kingdom to help scale up the effort. The partners liked the idea of collaborating again but were concerned about whether their effort really could break into the big league of fundraising.

However, these concerns seem less serious and the potential benefits well worth the costs if we analyze the collaboration using network theory, which models connections and growth within social systems.   

To understand why this is the case, let’s first look at a list of recent major UK fundraising days. If you rank them by total income, you see that it is clearly a “winners win big” market, as the chart below shows. The biggest events raise much more money than the medium ones, and hundreds of structured campaigns run by major organizations raised too little to even make our list.

This chart lists the amounts of money raised by 22 major campaign days in the United Kingdom, 2013-15. (Image courtesy of Firetail Research)

Our experience and this chart suggest there’s no reliable, linear relationship between campaign-day success and initial investment or effort. Some campaigns break out from the pack, and it’s hard to forecast which ones will succeed before the event.

Common mathematical principles of network theory can help explain this uneven distribution of success and offer insights about how campaigns can benefit from it. Networks often evolve according to a “proportionate growth” pattern (the bigger you are, the faster you grow) or a “preferential attachment” pattern (new joiners to a network tend to be attracted to the biggest nodes first), leading to “winners win big” effects.

Examining how social networks operate and people interact, we see evidence of such patterns in the relative popularity of individuals, organizations, and platforms. For instance, the more people that join Facebook, the more attractive it becomes to potential new users compared with other platforms. On Twitter, people tend to follow who their friends follow, people they’ve heard of, and people who are famous or considered influential—an approach not so different from how many of us decide which commentators, politicians, or influential media outlets to pay attention to. This tendency results in situations where a few accounts like Kim Kardashian’s have many millions of followers, while millions of other accounts have a few hundred followers or fewer.

Information spreads through these networks in similarly uneven ways. Most people don’t share just any old recommendation. They know their contacts’ attention is a precious resource and they do not want to lose credibility by abusing it. Already-popular messages are less risky to share. Moreover, once a message reaches a critical mass, it is more likely that sharing it in a group will engage someone else with experience of the same topic and generate a more energetic dialogue. At the extreme end, very popular messages become social norms. Wearing a poppy for Remembrance Day on November 11th in the United Kingdom is a good example.

Given all this, it’s no surprise that fundraising campaigns’ success is distributed highly unevenly, as network theory would predict, rather than along the straight lines we draw in our spreadsheets, where proportionally more investment results in proportionally higher returns. The campaigns with the greatest success win big, but it is hard to predict which those will be, and they are statistically rare.

The strategic implication is clear: It is better to have a share of a single breakout idea than to independently advance a handful of average ideas, even if the shared approach takes more effort. And it’s clear that your odds of success increase when you can cut through the background buzz with a “wow factor.” A story of competitors uniting could be one such powerful element. Seeding your campaign with many initial supporters also gives it a greater chance of snowballing. Multiple charities collaborating could attract the different audiences needed to get a fast start to the campaign. As the campaign gains momentum, the participation of enough organizations makes it more likely that remaining ones will join in, too. In short, when you look at social campaigns through a network theory lens, collaboration becomes an obvious choice, although certainly not the only option.

Network theory also gives insight into why flexibility is often a better choice than the highly structured and committee-led process that is more typical of existing fundraising collaborations. To maximize chances of creating a breakout campaign, partners need to decide fast, back winners, and mobilize quickly, optimizing results rather than avoiding risks. Focusing on a medium-sized basket of campaigns doesn’t help when you’re not sure which will succeed. Better to collaborate on a wide portfolio of small ideas, using a more agile approach. That way, if it looks like one idea is beginning to take off, you have the flexibility to shift your budget to support it.

Straight-line, un-networked planning might even be counterproductive. Too much piloting can mute enthusiasm and novelty. Good rules and clear boundaries can provide partners with an initial platform for collaboration, but as the partnership continues to evolve, flexibility and an environment of trust become central to success.

We hope these observations convince World Cancer Day collaborators that it would, indeed, be worthwhile to invest more time and resources in the partnership, and encourage others to develop similar collaborations.