Is it time to foment a language revolution?

Years ago when I managed our Phonathon program, our calling software presented student callers with “prospect” records. We used scripts, but I encouraged our more experienced callers to regard them as guides only. For the rest I said, “Please, if you go off-script, do not ever say the word ‘prospect’ during a conversation!”

Whatever the giving level, there’s an external and an internal language, and it’s about time we brought them together. Because the internal language is making us feel like liars when we communicate about what matters.

Acquisition, prospect, moves management … There will always be shop talk and lingo which of course we keep separate from how we communicate with supporters. There’s an economy of language at play: “Prospect” can be shorthand for “prospective donor,” which is inoffensive.

But I worry that the terms we use create a divide in the mind of a frontline staff member who is most effective when bringing their genuine self to the conversation but carries in the back of their mind an entirely different understanding of what the objective is – based on the language of the profession, reinforced by operational processes. The cognitive dissonance is a hindrance.

How can we expect frontline staff to believe in what they talk about with donors if in the back of their mind they are under the influence of some alien calculus?

As an Operations leader I feel our processes and systems – including the calling software I trained callers on a decade ago – are perpetuating an unhelpful mental divide. What if we used the same language internally as we do with our supporters?

Gift compliance and the “yes, we do that” advantage

When a request comes to your team to enable a giving arrangement that seems a bit exotic, is your response “Yes, we do that!” or is it “Uhhhh – is that legal?” Are you ready with a mechanism to make a business transaction happen, or will it take six months to wend its way through Legal and Finance because it’s something you’ve never done before?

Changes in tax regulation, succession in donors’ family businesses, financial and estate planning … these events open up opportunities to work with donors with ability to make significant gifts, if we’re ready. A charity sophisticated enough to work with donors and their advisors on creative giving strategies will attract money for their mission before it flees elsewhere.

It’s great if you’ve had the experience of taking six months to enable a novel gift arrangement. You’ve learned something new, and the next time will be that much easier. But can we get out ahead of some of these opportunities?

There’s an element of competitive advantage: You want to be known in your donor community as a charity that can do things, and do them quickly.

This is not about fundraisers promising donors the moon and then politicking it through gift administration and compliance. (Which can work but is just as likely to lead to frustration, embarrassment, or worse.) It’s actually the opposite: It’s about developing the processes and mechanisms now in order to make those infrequent but high-value complex gifts possible later.

Development naturally leads the way in this area, and Operations is the key partner. But we can be proactive as well. Staff in gift administration and compliance can explore emerging approaches to enable future opportunities, working with internal and external experts in legal and finance.

New ways come with new risks. Taking the initiative gives us the luxury of time to deal with them.