Paying Attention To Causation

The conventional wisdom is simple.  Higher self-esteem will lead to better life choices and results.

So, we tell our kids they have “gifts” and are “special” even when they are not. (Ever watched “American Idol” when a horrible teenaged singer is confronted, quite possibly for the first time, with the assessment, “wow, you just aren’t any good”?)

We give every kid on the baseball team an “Excellence in Participation” trophy. (What does that trophy even mean, anyway?)

We teach our kindergarteners’ songs entitled, “I’m so special.”

All in an attempt to inflate self-esteem.

But the conventional wisdom is wrong.  To be sure, there is a correlation between self-esteem and achievement.  We just have the causation backwards.  Higher self-esteem doesn’t lead to better behavior, choices, or life outcomes.  Choosing to behave better, making the best possible choices, and achievement lead to higher self-esteem.  So says 30+ years of research.

Similarly, in development work today, I see a number of instances in which our causal thinking is backwards.  We understand there is a relationship between two situations, but we sometimes get the relationship backwards.  Below are 3 examples of how we get causation wrong in development.

  1. Board membership will lead to major gifts.  This is a classic reverse causation.  Institutions will give away a Board seat to an individual with high financial capacity in the hopes that a major gift will follow.  It rarely does.  Instead, the more accurate relationship is:  Major gifts lead to Board membership.
  2. Honoring someone by naming a building, an endowment, etc., will lead to major gifts.  Typically, donors only make major gifts in honor of someone whom they have chosen.  And, almost universally, neither the individual being honored nor their family, will make a major gift to support the honor.  Instead, the more accurate relationship is:  Major gifts lead to honoring someone.
  3. Crafting a compelling case statement will lead to more donor engagement.  This faulty thinking is sneaky.  We spend huge amounts of resources crafting print and digital vehicles to “tell our story” and engage more donors.  Instead, the more accurate relationship is:  Engaging your donors leads to the crafting of a compelling case statement.  Ask questions about what they want for your institution and authentically listen to their answers.  What drives their philanthropy?  What impact would they like to make through their giving?  What is their vision for the institution?  When you start to understand your major donors’ answers to such questions, you can begin the creation of a compelling case statement.

Causation can be confusing.  But understanding causation correctly can be the difference between development success and failure.  It’s one thing to recognize a relationship.  It’s something entirely different to attach causation to it.


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