The Value of Influence in a Post-Expertise World

One of the by-products of our digitally-connected age is the waning value of expertise.  The growing understanding today is that the everyone’s right to express an opinion is synonymous with the notion that everyone’s opinion is equally informed.

Medical doctors and research scientists have been publicly second-guessed by celebrities with influence but no medical training – so much so that anti-vaccine movements helped spawn unprecedented outbreaks of whopping cough and measles in California over the past few years.  Fifty years ago it was commonplace for national and international media outlets to invite presidents from our leading universities – Harvard, Stanford, Yale – to opine regularly on the ethical, political, and social concerns of the day.  When is the last time the nation heard from a university president on an issue of import?  And, perhaps more importantly, when is the last time the nation cared to hear from a university president of note?

Today, influence trumps expertise.  And by a long shot.  Instead of training and experience being attributes of advantage, they now can be viewed as hindrances.  Daily, we are blessed by the miracles of science, reason, logic, data, rationality, and yes, expertise.  We send spacecraft to the outer reaches of our solar system because of expertise.  We send messages around the globe at the speed of light because of expertise.  In just a few years, we will most likely have autonomous cars on our roadways because of expertise.

And yet, more and more frequently, we look through lenses colored by skepticism and bias at any presentation of “facts.”  When well-done research is presented that collides with our world view, causes us to re-think a deeply-held conviction, or otherwise makes us uncomfortable, we seek to discredit.  Who says those are the facts?  How was that data collected?  What is the underlying assumption of the researcher?  I’ve witnessed well-educated professionals undermine quality data presented during governing board meetings because they knew how to magnify non-significant concerns with the research itself.

This is an important cultural turn to grasp for those of us in development and advancement work.  As we craft compelling cases for support, what approach will carry more weight and motivate more people to engage?  Are data-rich and research-based arguments more compelling?  Or, are deeply qualitative and values-based anecdotes and stories shared by people of influence more motivating?

A compelling case can be made that we have entered fully an age in which the most important element of our case for support is not the content, not the facts, not the data, but the influence of the messenger.  “The data can be skewed to say whatever they want,” the skeptical public decries.  “The facts are based on the individual’s opinion and political persuasion, not their training and education,” mistrusting constituents howl.  But when we believe in and trust the messenger, the data and facts become of secondary significance.

Not that it hasn’t been important before, but perhaps now, it becomes even more critical to pay special attention to who is signing the direct mail appeals?  Who is serving on the Board?  Who is serving as a campaign leader?   In our culture today, it just may be that the influence of those championing our cause is more important to raising money than the cause itself.

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