It’s one of my favourite ever TV comedy scenes.
“OK, one last time.” says Father Ted to Father Dougal. They’re in a small caravan in the Irish countryside. He’s holding some small plastic toy cows.
“These are SMALL. But the ones out there are FAR AWAY… Small… far away… [Dougal continues to look confused]
Ah, forget it!”
Here’s the clip for you to enjoy.
Yes, I know that jokes become less funny when you explain them, but here goes, because it’s important for this blog.
Dougal is misunderstanding perspective. He thinks that the toy cows are as big as the real cows because they are right in front of him. And while we might laugh at Dougal’s stupidity, something just like this happens a lot in the charity sector.
It’s called recency bias. It’s our tendency to think that trends we’ve observed in the recent past are more likely to happen than they actually are.
In short, we think our toy cows are the size of actual cows.
I’ll give you an example. In the days and weeks following the London bombings of 2005, I convinced myself that I was much less likely to be killed in my seven mile commute if I ran home instead of taking the tube.
The truth is, of course, that the recency and immediacy of what had happened had inflated the probability in my head, and I was in fact much more likely to be run over  while trying to get through Camden in the rush hour, for example. So I got back on the tube.
This is recency bias in action. It’s a known factor in the financial sector as a bias that can cloud an investor’s judgement. But I’m writing about it here, because I feel strongly we need to call it out when it happens in the charity sector.
Recency bias in target setting
You’ve just won a big corporate partnership, that looks set to bring in a good amount for your charity over the coming year. Well done! But when it comes to setting your budget for next year, don’t then over-estimate the chances of repeating the trick quickly just because you’ve pulled it off. So many charities make this mistake.
Firstly, your most important task is to make a success of the partnership you’ve won. And secondly, you mustn’t forget about the months and possibly even years you spent identifying, planning, pitching, and eventually winning that account.
Fundraisers – don’t be so affected by recency bias
And in my journey around charities, I’ve observed something that concerns me. Fundraisers are swimming in turbulent waters, psychologically. It’s such an up and down profession. We’re buoyed by recent successes, and left deflated by perceived recent failures.
Think about managers doing performance reviews, for example. They need to move away from just focusing on “what’s happened lately” – for good and bad – and look at performance across the entire period.
See the bigger picture
Let’s take inspiration from The Wonder Stuff.
Damn blast, look at my past
I’m ripping up my feet over broken glass
I said, Oh wow, look at me now
I’m building up my problems to the size of a cow
The size of a cow
We fundraisers need to be more sanguine, and try not to be so buffeted by recent events. Let’s call out this bias. Stay calm. Be strategic. Don’t be overly buoyed by success or overly beaten up by the “no”s.
Let’s think of the bigger picture, remember why we’re doing it, and coolly focus on what will work over the longer term.
Or we’ll end up “building up [our] problems to the size of a cow”.