How researchers get heard

Research Authority: Make Them Subjectively Competent

The best fundraiser I’ve known is a scientist, and he’s the best fundraiser for two reasons: 1) Donors love talking to a world-class scientist as opposed to a professional fundraiser, and 2) he quickly makes the relationship about the donors — their interests, their curiosity, their knowledge, their empowerment — rather than his expertise.

One habit of his I’ll never forget: He sends new papers to donors with little cover notes on why they might find the research interesting and inviting them to converse with him afterwards about it. Name another researcher who does that.

Of all the words we use to describe what researchers should do for the rest of us — “educate,” “advise,” “be an honest broker,” etc. — “empower” seldom comes up. “Invite” comes up even less. The research expert stands apart from us, oracular, an unbridgeable gap between our ignorance and their deep knowledge — no matter how much information they give us. Even when they seem to make us smarter, we somehow never attain “smart” — except, perhaps, in fleeting and condescending relationship to others.

But as Kevin Schulman of DonorVoice points out, that kind of one-way relationship with expertise actually decreases donors’ willingness to give to a charity. It decreases their affinity for the cause.

What matters for trust and affinity, Schulman argues, is not the donors’ objective knowledge (their actual competence, which increases based on how much information you give them) but their subjective knowledge (how competent they feel). You can make them objectively smarter and subjectively dumber at the same time, all while moving them farther away from you.

There are ways to boost your audience’s subjective competence (see above) that aren’t “dumbing things down.” Then again, as Schulman notes, “How often have you sat through a research or data presentation, followed the charts and reams of data that has led to no change in behavior?”

Boosting objective competence at the expense of subjective competence is a huge, hidden flaw of so much research communication. Think about the use of “efficacy” vs. “effectiveness” in describing the results of the vaccine trials, for instance, which infantilized all of us.

Takeaway: Are you educating? Informing? Pronouncing? Or does your communication boost subjective competence as well?And how do you know?