A hair-raising fund-raising story
This story begins with a post I read on LinkedIn. The article in question is trying to raise money for a conservation organization. Among several dubious claims, one stuck out. According to the author, for “approximately $12M a single donor could have protected, in perpetuity… trillions of microbial species.”
Well, I’m not a soil scientist. However, I’ve studied biodiversity since the mid-1980s. So I know that we understand microbial biodiversity too poorly to make such a claim. The writer is not a soil scientist, either. But that lack of expertise did not stop him from making this dramatic claim. I commented on his post that there is simply no agreement among biologists about the number of microbial species. In support, I found a Nature article that says, “estimates for the total number of microbial species vary wildly, from as low as 120,000 to tens of millions and higher.” Millions, maybe. But trillions? Who can say? Indeed, biologists can’t even agree on how well Mayr’s definition of species applies to microbes, and prokaryotes in particular. (See e.g., Konstantinidis, et al. 2006). The writer simply has no justification for stating that a donation could save “trillions of microbial species.”
Nevertheless, the writer insisted that he was correct in his use of that unverifiable number. I beg to differ. Any time someone uses an exaggeration, hyperbole or invented data to bolster a cause, particularly when trying to raise money, their motives are suspect. In the old days, such a person would be called a snake oil salesman, a charlatan, a conman or any number of other derogatory names. I avoided such epithets. Instead I tried to present my case rationally, from a scientific standpoint. To no avail.
The writer made several other claims that I could challenge. For example, the claim that $12M could protect 11 million acres of “life-essential ecosystems.” I have helped to manage a small conservation non-profit called SavingSpecies for the past seven years. We focus on buying cheap, degraded land in high biodiversity areas of the world. The cheapest land we have been able to purchase was in Ecuador at just over $400 per acre. That land was infertile and eroded former cattle pasture. When we bought it, the land was not good even for that any more. So quite how the writer proposed to protect “in perpetuity” land comprising “life-essential ecosystems” for $1.09 per acre is a complete mystery to me.
The corrosive effects of fake news
Dubious claims such as these benefit no-one. Indeed, it’s a sad commentary on our times that we’re swamped with “fake news.” Look no further than Washington DC. You can see the corrosive effects of false and misleading information. For those of us who are in the fund-raising business, it’s more vital than ever to keep our facts and figures straight. Yes, there’s lots of competition for the donor dollar. But that does not justify using hyperbole. Bending facts, fudging figures, massaging data–these are the tools of hustlers and swindlers, not respectable fund-raising enterprises. Here’s why you should stick to the facts.
- Exaggeration or dubious claims do your enterprise more harm than good.
- Such claims damage your own credibility, and that of organizations for whom you’re working.
- The claims of other hard-working fund-raisers and conservationists can also come under suspicion, particularly among non-experts.
- You provide opponents of conservation with ammunition to use against conservation in general.
- When donors give to causes based on exaggerated claims, and their expectations aren’t met, they will likely give their future gifts to unrelated causes.
Read up, stand up, and speak up
So, my fellow conservationists and fund-raisers, I implore you (1) to carefully read through claims to ensure that they are based on fact and are verifiable, (2) not to share or like any content that has questionable data, and (3) to call out the perpetrators when you encounter them. Otherwise, we risk being tarred by the same “fake news” brush that plagues other realms of the media. And that jeopardizes the entire donor-funded conservation enterprise.
Konstantinidis, K, Ramette A and Tiedje JM (2006) The bacterial species definition in the genomic era. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 361(1475): 1929–1940. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2006.1920