Sum Your Butts to Save Your Fundraising


A few months ago I shared the story of how Ashley and I once failed so miserably at making butternut squash soup that we didn’t try again for over 10 years! To make a long story short, we both have an aversion to the flavor of ginger. Yet somehow, we failed to realize that the amount of ginger called for in this particular recipe would cause such a stew.

I used the story as a way of explaining the difference between strategies and tactics, and to introduce the idea that despite having a perfectly solid strategy and tactics, many people still lack the confidence they need to successfully reach their goals.

As promised then, I’m following up with a report on a second attempt at butternut squash soup–and an explanation of how to develop confidence that your strategy and tactics will work.

When Planning Is Not Enough

Let’s cut right to the chase: Our second soup endeavor was much more successful. The image above is of me preparing the squash, and I can assure you, there was no ginger in sight!

In the case of this second attempt, confidence came easily. We knew exactly what the problem was and how to fix it.

Of course, it’s not always so simple. Consider a fundraising campaign or a new event. These have many more–and often more complex–variables.

Whether you’ve conducted the same project a few times before or you’re working on something new, you make a plan for each effort (I hope!). At the very least, your plan should spell out how you intend to achieve your goals, and the tactics you’ll use to be successful.

Once that’s in place, you're all set, right? Not exactly.

Having a plan is a huge step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. You have to be confident that your plan will work.

Sum Your Butts

Short of having a crystal ball, you can never be 100% confident in a plan–there are simply too many variables outside of your control–but the idea is to get as close as possible. So how do you do that?

Sum your butts.

This phrase is one I came up with; it comes from a line of questioning I direct to clients when they’re planning a new campaign. It originally referred to estimating the number of guests expected to be in attendance at an event or performance (a.k.a. butts in seats) based on observing how specific promotional tactics had worked previously. Despite its origins, the concept works equally well on non-attendance efforts too.

The academic term that underlies this concept is called “inductive reasoning.” It means seeking to derive strong evidence of something based on specific observations.

For example, if the same bird lands on your windowsill every morning for three weeks, through the use of inductive reasoning you can be reasonably–though not absolutely–confident that it will do so again tomorrow.

Applying this logic to fundraising can help you predict success and determine whether you’ve planned sufficiently to meet your goals. In other words, a little more forethought can help you gain confidence in your plan.

Gain Confidence Through Inductive Reasoning

The process is simple, and requires nothing more than asking yourself whether the goals you’ve set are reasonably achievable based on specific observations of elements of your plan.

Let’s say you’re planning a new event and need to attract twice as many guests as you ever have before. Do you use the same tactics you’ve always used, cross your fingers, and hope for the best? Of course not.

What about your next fundraising appeal? Are you confident that continuing to do the same thing you’ve done before will raise 10%, 20%, or 30% more money than last year? I hope not!

Odds are, you have a standard set of tactics you use for events and appeals. It likely consists of some combination of email, postal mail, telephone, social media or traditional media.


To determine whether your typical approach will be successful, you need to review each tactic and ask how many butts in attendance or dollars in donations each is likely to yield. Base each decision on your previous observations of that tactic in similar circumstances, and then add up the results.

When considering new or unfamiliar tactics, you can ask others in your network or do a little digging online. Just be sure to adjust your expectations downward the further you get from personal experience.

If, based on your research and past observations, the sum of butts or dollars across tactics is equal to at least your target number, then you’re in good shape! If not, then you should add more tactics or plan to execute the same tactics in a more effective way (a huge topic we’ll have to save for another day).

Use this same technique to evaluate each new tactic or approach until you become sufficiently confident that you’ll meet or beat your target. Depending on your level of confidence, you can aim a lot or a little higher than your goal to increase your odds of success.

Deceptively Simple

What I learned on that fateful day over ten years ago is that following a recipe is such a simple concept, and had become so brainless an activity, that I had completely failed to consider the potential of each ingredient to make or break my meal.

Almost every week, we encounter nonprofit fundraising or marketing teams who make similar mistakes with their planning, and face worse consequences than having to toss out wasted ingredients.

Don’t make the same mistake when conducting your planning. While it’s simple to fall into the trap of thinking you’re already doing it or that it’s too much work, inductive reasoning is important–and ignoring it can have disastrous results.

And remember: Taking a little time to sum your butts just might save yours!