Analysis and Asperger’s, data and disability: two pleas for the fundraising profession

02/07/2022 | by Martyn Colebrook

I do not fit the stereotypical profile of a fundraiser.

For one thing, I’m a researcher with a PhD, and my daily bread and butter is data analysis; a discipline which I know many view as either dull or uninspiring, or perhaps even intimidating and inscrutable.

For another, I live with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of Autism Spectrum Disorder.

My experience is that charities are increasingly getting better at harnessing the skills of, and providing positive environments for, people on the spectrum - and that they are, slowly but surely, treating insights and research as a more exciting, consultative function.

Nonetheless, there is room for improvement on both fronts - and I hope that discussions at the forthcoming Fundraising Convention can be a catalyst for this.

Insights: behind the scenes but ahead of the curve

It’s widely accepted that managing data is a fundamental part of successful charity fundraising. And it’s also commonly understood that managing data is an ongoing process - there’s always a need to keep, refine, future-proof, update and repurpose, in order for data to remain relevant.

But it sometimes feels like that’s the end of it - that data and research is just an admin necessity, a procedure. Because researchers and data specialists operate behind the scenes, charities do not always make the most of our ability to identify insights and opportunities, and to pioneer and transform.

I know that a lot of people find numbers difficult, and that our discipline may feel impenetrable or mysterious, but we want to partner with colleagues across fundraising, in order to demonstrate what we are capable of.

The breadth of vibrant, novel topics featured in the panels in the Convention’s Insight and Research track is a reminder of what data and research specialists can achieve, if you empower us to make it happen.

Working with Asperger’s

By this point, you may have made the link between my being good with data, and my disability.

It’s often assumed that people with Asperger’s will automatically be highly technical number-crunchers, but it’s not always true - this is a spectrum condition, and there are also writers and artists with Asperger’s. If you did make that association, I don’t judge you for it, but it is a useful reminder not to make assumptions.

You might also assume that my PhD was in something technical. Actually, it was on the Scottish writer Iain M Banks. Again, this may contrast with some stereotypical views of those with Asperger’s, but again I forgive you…(this is actually a joke, but Aspergians are often stereotyped as not understanding humour, so I thought I'd clarify).

Like many with Asperger’s, I went undiagnosed well into adulthood, but getting a diagnosis and in turn being open about it with potential employers has been a game-changer.

Alongside other tendencies and habits, I can struggle with retention of verbal information, to know when someone has finished speaking, and with other soft skills. But these are all things I can work around, and my employers have worked with me to ensure I can perform to the best of my abilities. I’m glad to see this year’s Convention including sessions on diversity and inclusive recruitment, which I hope will give examples of how this all works in practice.

The thing about hidden disability is that you may well have worked with someone with one, without realising it. Or you might have noticed certain traits that appear unusual or eccentric, but not realised what caused it.

I would urge those with a disability, in particular a hidden disability, to be open at work about their disability if they feel comfortable doing so. It will feel liberating, and you will probably find that employers, especially in the charity sector, are more understanding and supportive than what you may have feared. And this can create a virtuous cycle - the more people who are open about their hidden disabilities, the more that others will feel happy to be open.

Martyn Colebrook, Prospect Research Manager, Cancer Research UK and a member of Fundraising Convention board