Wednesday, October 15, 2014

In Desperate Need: Translators

As an undergraduate at the University of South Carolina (Go Gamecocks) my first major was genetic engineering. After discovering that Calculus 4 and the laboratory life weren't for me, I changed my majors to foreign languages, with the goal to one day be an international translator. Well, although I don't do that for a living, my translational skills are not lost nor do they go unused on a daily basis.

I find that one of the most essential positions for fundraising success is someone who can translate the communications between fundraisers and those that help make them successful. I'm talking reporting, advancement services, donor relations, research etc. I think there is a fundamental difference in the way these two groups of people talk about donors, data and its impact on fundraising for the organization. 

Let's take a look at this relationship and communication dynamic. Paint with a wide brush with me and allow me some grace here:
Fundraisers, for the most part are extroverts, building relationships and working in the cerebral space of relationships. Our data folks, are introverts by nature, and they work in the process oriented space and the cerebral space of data's impact on the greater picture. Often times, fundraisers struggle with the ability to communicate to the data folks WHAT they need and WHY they need it. Data folks are concerned with outcome of the data and ensuring that its value is not underestimated. Thus, the role of the divisional translator becomes inextricable from the operation. Someone who can understand the delicacies of fundraising and as I say "speak geek" and understand data. 

This is an art and a science and can be found in folks in all types of roles. I'm a hidden data nerd. Data drives everything I do and informs many decisions for me. It is helpful that in alumni and donor relations I can balance the relationships with the data.

Here are some tips I have learned to help the translators:
- find a common vocabulary and set of definitions, what's a non donor to someone is not to others.       This is ESSENTIAL
-  explain the use of the data and the need for it, WHY do you want the report and HOW will it be used once provided
- appreciate that data doesn't just arrive at your feet, it takes work, time and effort just like cultivating a gift does, and sometimes just a long
- understand that both individuals have unique skill sets and that's ok. A database manager may shudder at the thought of asking someone for money and a fundraiser may get nauseous at the site of a query. 
- work together for the common good and try to find points of mutual understanding in order to better serve the one population we all share: donors

What are your thoughts on divisional translators? Who serves in this role in your organization? What tips and tricks do you have to add to this list?


  1. 10 votes for Prospect Managers, the office bridge-builders! We must, or we wouldn't last a day. (We all know the angry PM stereotype: good at data but "bad at people". Run away!) Good PMs love clean data but also care about fundraisers & seeing them succeed. I think there are two types of PMs: desk jockeys vs. those who get up to visit fundraisers in their offices, on their turf, regularly. Doing #2 gets you the results you want: respect for your work & fundraisers who use the data. Bonus: you get invited to more happy hours. Just sayin'. A lot happens at those happy hours. (AJ Wiley)

  2. Lynne, you are right on target, as always. I am a 'translator' for our office, and have spent a lot of time investigating processes in order to understand and explain them, and how they impact other things, to both the Development Officers and Fundraising staff and to the Chairs and fiscal administrators on the academic side. Understanding how various systems and processes work, and either work together where they intersect (or clash disastrously), is key to getting things done.

    And yes, I have learned (to my great joy) that when I sit down with the truly technical person who is actually going to build the report I am asking for, that talking about what I think I need and want to accomplish lets her ask the questions, and raise relevant issues, that I didn't know existed, and when answered, makes the reports more robust and accurate, and helps make them useful not just for my office but for our division and other areas across campus. Taking the time to explain what you are doing (or trying to do) is deeply respectful, and allows technical people to bring their specific skills and knowledge to bear on your project, to do it right, and usually to do it better than you imagined--let them help... the payoff is huge. I have found this is also true for subject matter experts in any system or area. Fay Lauro.