Preventing Donor “Never Events” by Focusing on “Always Events”

“Happy families are all alike; every happy family is unhappy in its own way.”

That’s the  opening line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and one of the most famous openings to a novel in all of literature.  A solid statement; even though  a bit grim.

Tolstoy went on  to examine relationships in 19th century Russia.  He devoted most of the 800- plus pages to unhappy relationships to prove the point of that first sentence.

The modern day equivalent is that success tends to look similar but failure can occur in lots of ways.  Let’s think about a successful donor relationship and what success requires:

From the DonorVoice Relationship Commitment model these are the key elements:

  • Reliability
  • Reciprocity
  • Trust

And from Self-Determination Theory:

  • Autonomy
  • Competence
  • Relatedness

These are six factors  that determine success and clearly demonstrate an almost limitless number of ways to fail on each.  So how does one operate in this reality without getting defeated?

In the medical field the term “Never Event” was coined to reference shockingly bad events – e.g. operating on the wrong body part.  This term has expanded to mean any event that is unambiguous, serious and preventable.  The list has even been codified and includes 29 such events grouped into 7 categories and as importantly, its polar opposite, antimatter “Always Events”.

How do surgeons prevent operating on the wrong body part?  They  create an Always Event that includes physically labeling the patient and having the patient confirm the marking.

Critical to the medical field reducing error has been a culture that reliably unearths errors and does root cause analysis.  A big part of that quality control movement includes patient surveys as the field evolved from not just trying to prevent catastrophically avoidable medical errors but also catastrophically avoidable patient dissatisfaction.

The medical and healthcare fields learn an enormous amount from their failures.  From this they build up a list of “Always events” to reliably and consistently deliver good outcomes while being culturally attuned to measuring and learning from negative experiences.

How is the fundraising field building up a reservoir of Always Events and Never Events? 

 Are we actively soliciting feedback as a business process?  We cannot understand our business looking only at ‘survivors’ – i.e. the small percentage who stick around past gift one, year one.   All the failure (i.e. attrition) is hiding a lot of really important Never and Always Events.

Is your organization measuring reliability, reciprocity, commitment, autonomy, competence and relatedness and probing on each quantitative measure to get the rich, contextual details?   If you aren’t then your cause and effect is wrong, which means  your Always and Never Events are either limited,  or wrong, or both.



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