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Briefer (or, How to Tell Stories with the Delete Key)

Fri, October 31, 2014 1:44 PM | Laura Parshall

It's Halloween, and in spite of all the ghosts, ghouls, and goblins prowling the streets, the scariest thing a researcher could have to face might be...the Attack of the Fifty-Page Donor Brief! If your profiles are starting to look scary, NEDRA News editor Laura Parshall has some tips on how to make them more manageable.

Briefer (or, How to Tell Stories with the Delete Key)

At the end of September, my office got together to wish a happy retirement to someone who'd been a fixture here for over 25 years. Charlie Carr, who received the Ann Castle Award from NEDRA in 2010, was the principal gifts researcher here at MIT. Over the years, he had come to be deeply familiar with our highest-level donors and prospects, and the stories of their relationships with MIT. It was difficult to imagine the research office without him. It's still difficult to imagine now that I'm one of two people trying to fill the big shoes he's left, as a new principal gifts researcher.

Although I've been a researcher at MIT since 2007, I'm finding that stepping into this principal gifts role is providing me with new challenges and opportunities to learn. One of the biggest changes I've seen with the prospects and donors I research now is that many of their stories are very, very long--much longer than most of the other donors I've researched. Most of these donors have relationships with MIT that span several decades. Some of the relationships have been going on for multiple generations.

I recently had to research a donor who was the third of four generations of his family to attend MIT, and the second generation to be engaged philanthropically with the Institute. When I was tasked with updating our research on this donor, I realized that the summary of his interaction with MIT was two whole pages long. (This was a summary?) Now, even if our office hadn't already been in the process of shrinking down our research briefs, I had to admit that this was getting unwieldy. Sure, there was a lot of history there, but there was also a lot of future interaction ahead, and it was important to make sure there would be room for that. It was also important to make sure that the story of the donor was told in a way that the high-level administrators who visit such donors would be willing to read and able to digest. I'm sure these are concerns that other offices have as they try to make their work processes and products more efficient, and that they are also facing challenges in doing this. Here are some of the steps I took, and the things I considered, in deciding what to keep and what to cut.

1. Look for the themes.
Yes, the first thing you have to do is read the whole profile, even if you've read it many times before. Even better, if you have time, go back and read through the donor's file, or at least the contact reports from development officers. Rather than a timeline of events, try to pick out large themes that recur over the course of the donor's history. Do they repeatedly reject solicitations to name buildings, but instead support scholarships and fellowships? Do they always show interest in certain kinds of projects? Do they insist on only making expendable gifts rather than endowing funds? Do they have specific complaints that they have raised multiple times? These themes show what's been most important to the donor, and paint the big picture of their relationship with the organization.

2. Look at the details.
Now that you've identified these main themes, look at the details. What details do you see that support these main themes? Which ones are important to telling the story? If one of the themes is that the donor's attitude towards the organization has gone from disaffected to very warm, it might be important to note the origin of that initial disaffection (such as a child's application being rejected by the admissions department at a school), and any big events that led to the change of heart. If their support of a particular initiative stems from a long friendship with the person leading that initiative, that's important to know as well. If simply stating the theme would raise significant questions for an unfamiliar reader, including some of those details is a good idea.

3. Don't be afraid to cut.
The rest of those details? All the hemming and hawing about the specific timing of a gift? All the back-and-forth that went into deciding how to allocate it? All those many, many meetings where people met with the donor and they talked socially with only the briefest mention of the philanthropic relationship? Ninety percent of the time or more, you can simply leave it all out. Sometimes, leaving in every detail can actually make the story more confusing, as it can be harder for those big important themes to stand out in a sea of minutiae. I've had some pushback from development officers on some of this, I'll admit: they understandably see each interaction with the donor as important, and don't like seeing anything left out. I try to stick to my guns, though, and suggest that if there are details they feel the person meeting with the donor should know, that they should brief them on those before the meeting. Realistically speaking, five years from now, when this donor has a new relationship manager, will it really matter that the current one met them for coffee and chatted with them about politics after thanking them for a gift?

4. Keep up with it.
Sometimes, when you're on a tight deadline, it can be easy to just tack information from the most recent meeting on to an existing brief. With some of these high-powered donors, though, last-minute meetings are par for the course, and an extra line or two added on with each brief can add up over time. Instead, when you're looking at new information, be ruthless in deciding whether it's important to add to the brief. Does it really add to the story? Does it tell us something important that we didn't know before? Does it mark a real change, or a milestone in the relationship with the donor? If not, it shouldn't be necessary to add it. If you can, try to get an idea from your development officers about which prospects are likely to be visited in the near future, so you can plan ahead and do some cutting-down before the last-minute research request comes in.

The trend toward shorter prospect profiles seems to be a widespread one, and with good reason: they don't take up as much of a researcher's time, and they are more comprehensible for the reader--and more likely to be remembered. As researchers, we love being able to find information, and are always eager to communicate it. Sometimes, though, we have to remember that communicating information is as much about knowing what to leave out, as it is about what to tell.


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