Why Your Evidence Is Ignored

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” – Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest 

Thanks to the wonders of social media (specifically Darin McKeever’s Twitter feed), I just read a fascinating article – Why Policymakers Ignore Evidence – by Gerry Stoker, Professor of Politics and Governance at the University of Southampton, U.K.

Stoker’s article is meant as advice to other academics. Based on my experiences, I’d argue his advice is equally useful to nonprofit and foundation staff trying to communicate with politicians, donors, and other community leaders. From Stoker’s many points, I’ve pulled out nine questions that could be swirling in someone’s brain when presented with your facts or your proven solution:

  1. Why is this important right now, and more important than other issues?
  2. Why are you bringing me a problem analysis and no solutions?
  3. What are the administrative, financial, and/or political challenges we’ll face in doing this?
  4. How much social and political capital will we burn trying to get this done?
  5. What are the opportunity costs of diverting time and resources to this?
  6. Is the information coming from a trusted resource or ally?
  7. Does the idea match my personal values and world view?
  8. What are the unintended consequences?
  9. Are you communicating to me in language I understand?

If you’re a program officer trying to sell your board on a strategy, could you predict their answers to these questions with confidence? If you’re a nonprofit advocating for a program, how would your city councilors or state legislators respond to these questions?

I see too many of my colleagues get caught up in their causes – in the “rightness” of their ideas and evidence – that they forget to see the world through others’ viewpoints and experiences. Lord knows, I’ve made the mistakes too.

Stoker’s advice is similar to counsel provided by lobbyists and political communications strategists. Fortunately, there are free resources nonprofits and funders can use to be more successful in turning facts into persuasive communications. Two good places to start are Spitfire Strategies, and if you lean more liberal, the FrameWorks Institute.