A reliable theory for predicting success.

This week I turned 51. I tend to reminisce on my birthday, and this week I found myself back at the beginning. I entered the world in Falun, Sweden. As a child I could never have imagined the path my life has taken. The notion of change is fascinating. What precisely has brought me to this place in life? Why did I make certain decisions and not others? Why do some changes succeed and others fail?

That's  me in the middle.

That’s me in the middle.

In the nonprofit sector we are certainly in the business of change. I think of the case for support as a change agent. It articulates an argument for the change we want to see in the world. The change may be for better access to local healthcare, enhanced literacy, housing for all, access to education, better care for the dying, sustainable communities at home and in faraway places.

Our nonprofits work to bring about important changes in society, and as we do we hear about campaigns that exceed target while still in the quiet phase, and others–with similar mandates and in equally affluent communities–struggle. Why?

While in grad school I did some research into change. I came across a theory that I revert to with some frequency.

It belongs to the late Kurt Lewin. He was an American psychologist who is well known for his forcefield theory on change. According to Lewin, there are forces at work in favour of a given change. He calls them driving forces. And there are forces at work against a given change. He calls them restraining forces. To driving forces, Lewin assigns positive values. To restraining forces, he assigns negative values. For change to occur, the force that works in favour of the desired result must be stronger than the force restraining it. In the end, the equation provides a reliable indicator of the likelihood of success.

In the charitable sector some of the forces we need to consider include the organization’s strength of leadership, its goodwill and credibility in the community and among donors, the strength of the economy, any competing campaigns, the need, the impact of a donation, etc. These are also elements of the case for support. It is in the realm of the case to identify driving forces as well as restraining forces and to consider how best to arrange and articulate them. What to do with the driving forces is easy. For the most part, they become our key messages. But the restraining forces can’t be ignored. They represent the difficult questions a case needs to address and address well. We need to find ways to turn the negative values into positives. That being said, highly charged negative and definitive elements such as lacking leadership cannot be negated with argumentation and rhetoric. 

The point here is to make sure your case is informed by the driving forces and that you take care to examine the restraining forces and convert as many of them as you can into positives.

If you were to identify the driving and restraining forces that are acting on your fundraising initiatives, what would the list look like? If you were to assign numeric values to those forces, subtract the negative from the positive, what would you net?

Click for more on Kurt Lewin.

Febe Galvez-Voth

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