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Magical Thinking…Redux

magic window storybook


I’m crossing my fingers here that this follow-up posting will really resonate with many advancement professionals. About a month ago, this blog featured an article about fundraising ideas so outrageous and/or inactionable that they appeared to come from a galaxy far, far away. We received a great deal of feedback that really brought the point home with examples from the field.

Some of the comments were priceless, including volunteer suggestions such as:
  • “Let’s forget about printing materials and do everything on line to save money… after all, online communications are free, and equally effective, right?”
  • “Why bother with a feasibility study? Everyone knows us and loves us, so why wouldn’t they make a gift?”
  • “So-and-so will donate a brand new car and we can raffle it off and make tons of money.”
  • “We can make up the budget shortfall with a few events.”

Do any of these ring a bell with your experience as well?

You may not be surprised to learn that “magical” or “wishful” thinking has been the subject of scientific neurological research. And, you guessed it, we now know in which part of the brain it occurs. According to researchers at the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences at the University of Geneva, “wishful thinking” activity occurs in the left inferior occipital and fusiform gyri of the brain. The image of the brain below shows these areas “lighting up” when a study subject is given “wishful thinking” stimuli.
From a scientific perspective, wishful thinking is part of the human reward system and is the product of attention bias and social identifications. Attention bias occurs when a person does not examine all possible outcomes when making a judgment about a correlation or association. They may focus on one or two possibilities, while ignoring the rest. Social identifications are the way people derive their identity from the social groups to which they belong, and the consequences for their feelings, thoughts, and behavior of psychologically belonging to a group.
Keeping the above brain scan image in mind, consider this comment from a reader named Andrea about the leadership of one of her organizations. Can you imagine how this board chair’s brain literally lit up when they insisted, “… that all we needed to do was introduce the ability to give online and the organization (sport related) could raise $50 million in no time at all. After all, Obama did it.”

Another reader, William, made a good point about the intersection of innovation and magical thinking. He doesn’t have a problem with out-of-the-box ideas being put forth at board meetings, because in fact, creativity is part of fundraising evolution. He gets frustrated when a board member gains traction for their “magical” idea with a CEO and then the idea gets mandated despite solid evidence that the concept is remarkably flawed. As fundraisers, we must continually remind ourselves and our boards that “non-profit” is a tax status and NOT a mission statement. The litmus test for any fundraising idea is pretty simple. It should produce a positive cash flow and/or have significant image/marketing/donor relations value. In either case, realistic projections on results should always be made before launch so that the idea can be evaluated against expectations.

Your takes:
  1. Understanding the genesis – and biology – of magical thinking may help you address it gracefully.

  1. Magical thinking can become a sport among advancement officers.

  1. Contribute your own examples of magical thinking to this discussion… play ball!

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Have a development, executive recruitment, or campaign strategy or management challenge? Let’s talk! Click here to connect with Rebekah Kaufman, Director of Consulting Services at CRI.