Learning the Language

By Mark Belcher, Partner

After more than 20 years of working in and with various types of development organizations – higher ed, research, hospitals, etc. – one thing I have come to appreciate is that there is more often than not a considerable gap translating our work into the language of business operations. As is also usually the case, our real estate inside larger enterprise takes up a small corner somewhere on the outskirts of town…we are the minority, in a strange land with a mission that scares some and confounds others.

How do we integrate our work into the larger mission? How do we get the attention of the CEO & CFO? Why is our work important, and why should the institution invest resources into “fundraising?”

Something I hear regularly is: “How do I get a seat at the table?”  

I think the first step is obviously communication.

How do we do that? We learn the language and assimilate into the community!  

Again, let’s consider that we are sometimes a very small part of the larger whole, be it a university, school, hospital, YMCA or museum. In our hamlet, we think of donors, gifts, prospects, stewardship and campaigns while the rest of the town is educating, healing, and providing services. It is incumbent upon us to make the results of our work relevant to management and build an internal case for support, just as we would for our external audience.

Let’s use healthcare to build an example.

Say your hospital foundation generates and invests $5 million every year and that your actual hospital operates at a 5% margin. With some very simple math, that means for every $100 million your hospital makes, it gets to keep $5 million to invest back into the care of patients.  

“So, what?” you might ask.

$5 million isn’t much compared to $100 million. Well, while that might be true, that also means that $5 million from the foundation is equal to $100 million of gross revenue to the system. I think that gets a CFO’s attention pretty quickly!  

Or you might consider that, on the average, each patient generates about $5,000 in net revenue. So again, your philanthropic contribution is equal to another 20,000 patients per year in your hospital, and that’s a lot of “heads in beds.” From there you can speak to comparative ROI and usually you have the best of any department in the hospital.

So, regardless of where you work, spend the time to understand “the business of the business” you support through your development office.  

Then, when you understand what language the rest of the organization is speaking, use their own vocabulary to tell your story and watch the light bulbs start to flicker.

Good luck and thank you all for what you are doing every day to make your communities a better place to live and work.