The myth of the bell curve

We’ve been imprinted from grade school on with this idea that people tend to fall into a bell curve when it comes to almost any performance metric. In a nutshell the idea is this: Few people excel and few people fail.  Most fall solidly in the middle, defining the “c” average.

Following this principle, one might assume that  if you looked at a group of frontline fundraisers you might find one or two standouts and a large majority meeting the basic margins to qualify for success, looking something like what’s below:


WRONG! That chart is a lie. Decades of research has shown that, even when you control for portfolio caliber (ruling out why a business school fundraiser will bring in more than a DO assigned to a university library or why a nonprofit ED will have the highest yield because she has all top prospects in her portfolio) the standard bell curve does not apply. In fact it most frequently looks like this:


Surprised? Confused? So was I.

The more you look into performance data the more it seems like, rather a bell curve, the better model for understanding fundraisers is the 80:20 rule. That is that 80% of success is due to 20% of a group ( side note: a similar trend in gift pyramids is often found as well). Of that 20% in a large fundraising shop you are lucky to have a couple of superstars who bring in the largest gifts and have high success in solicitation.

From a team management standpoint the lost capacity of your fundraisers could be huge, but the burden of improving overall performance with such a high concentration of people with low performance becomes more daunting.  So the question then comes down to – where do you focus your energy on to increase productivity and fundraiser success?  In the next few blog posts I will work to break down this question and its (multiple valid) answers.


3 thoughts on “The myth of the bell curve

  1. Pingback: What qualities make a strong potential development officer? | Targeting Fundraising Talent

  2. Pingback: What We Know About Incentive Pay for Fundraisers | Targeting Fundraising Talent

  3. Pingback: Something Worth Reading: “The Human Capital That Wins the War: Engaged Workers” | Targeting Fundraising Talent

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