A long, long time ago I was a guinea pig in a flight training experiment. The idea was teach budding pilots – I was 17 at the time – to fly first by learning to read the instruments – the altimeter, compass, airspeed indicator, artificial horizon, and navigational beacons.

So I wore this hood which made it impossible to see outside, and learned to fly without ever looking out the window.

As my training advanced I got a new instructor. He was mortified by my habit of never looking out – even with the hood off. He pointed out that out the window was where the world was.

The instruments can lie. And even when they don’t lie, they wont tell you you’re on a collision course with another plane, or about to fly into a thunderstorm, or holy crap just outside is a horizon-to-horizon sunset that will bring you to tears.

He made me learn to fly with the instrument panel covered up. There was no hood for that so he just took a map and duct taped it across the panel. I learned to fly by the sound of the wind rushing through the wings, learned to stay level by looking at the wingtips. And I learned to navigate by picking a barn on the horizon and heading straight for it.

The instruments separated me from the reality that I was flying a little airplane in a big huge sky full of both dangers and wonders.

So here I am a few decades later, haven’t flown a plane in years, but the lesson I learned keeps coming up again and again in my work as an online fundraiser.

What does online fundraising have to do with flying a two-seater Cessna? Turns out a lot.

We online folks have our own instrument panel. We even call it a dashboard, a nice metaphor that makes us feel like we are driving somewhere.

And you know what we do? We tend to keep the hood on. That lets us mistake the numbers on the dashboard for reality. A higher open rate means a message is “better.” Look at the shares on that message! We must really be grabbing hearts and minds now!

We’re in love with analytics. But here’s the irony. They don’t seem to be making us better fundraisers. In fact we’re entering year 10 of a steady decline in new donor acquisition. And the odds of a new donor only giving once and then buggering off – 6 in 10.

Think about it: We have more numbers, more data, more dashboards, more algorithms than ever, and despite that – or maybe because of it – the fundraising picture is getting worse.

The message of course is not to ignore the data.

The message is we have to also look out the damn window.