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Author: Ken Mueller
Every new medicine, technology, or treatment approach we rely on today stems from one collective source: research. It is essential to our ultimate health and well-being. Whether it’s learning more about how the body works or finding new ways to combat devastating diseases, research is at the heart of it all.
Unfortunately, there are people both inside and outside the Washington beltway who question the value of medical research or, more to the point, the return on that investment. Funding has never been in greater jeopardy, with continued slashes to the NIH budget and the effects of sequestration inflicting additional damage. As David Firestone noted in his NYT article, it is indeed a “dark time for science.”
An increasing number of talented investigators are therefore competing for dwindling federal funds, putting at risk the next big discovery that could revolutionize healthcare. So it becomes necessary to aggressively seek other sources of support. And those sources center on philanthropy.
Appealing to potential donors requires you to explain research in a different way than you would to peers in the scientific community who review NIH proposals. In essence, you need to migrate from the nitty-gritty details of science and toward more compelling vision stories that show your projects are big, difficult, audacious, and important.
Crafting compelling stories about research is a challenging task, requiring you to shift your mindset on what potential donors need to know to not only get them excited about your work but to throw their financial support behind it as well.
Here are 7 tips on crafting compelling vision stories to potential donors.
- Remember It’s All About Tomorrow. People don’t invest in what has been or what is right now, but rather what will be. This is the chance to share your “big dreams,” if you will. Donors often get excited by these big dreams and visions – even those that seem less like science and more like science fiction. As the multitudes of medical and technological breakthroughs in our history show, with support those dreams and visions are indeed achievable.
- Know Who You’re Talking To. While they tend to be savvy and insightful, don’t lose sight of the fact that philanthropists may not understand science to the depths that you do. Get to know the people you are talking to, their stories and motivations. Magic can happen when a donor’s personal story, life experience, or interests directly connect with a philanthropic opportunity, so tailor your message to strike the right chord. You might not hit the target the first time but with time and care you’ll be to hone in on that bull’s-eye.
- Bring on the WOW! Factor. Getting people excited about your research is often a matter of “getting to wow.” Make your Wow! factor results-oriented, far-reaching, optimistic, compelling, unifying and – most importantly – focused on the potential benefit to people and society. As personal as your research is, in the end it’s not about you and certainly not about your institution – it’s about others. So describe the potential impact – Why are you doing this? Why does it matter? Why should people care?
- Inspire Through Examples and Common Metaphors. Take any examples you have about your research and make them as relevant as possible to the person you’re talking to. And don’t forget that examples that are personal lend credibility and meaning to your vision story. Share your own experiences and motivations for what you do, and be willing to make yourself vulnerable. Use common metaphors when describing your research – metaphors pack a greater wallop than the more detailed, nitty-gritty scientific concepts. So use real-world examples that are easy to potential donors to visualize. Here’s a great example from a Newsweek article about how cancer therapy has worked to kill “good” cancer cells while leaving “bad” ones behind:
The standard practice of giving the maximum tolerated dose of chemo would clear out the sensitive cells, leaving behind a tough nugget of impervious cells, the al-Qaida rebels of the bunch. These previously dormant cells would now pour out of their caves, suddenly finding both space and nourishment to grow. And grow they would, with the barrier of the sensitive cells gone.
- Include Strong Visual Components. Photos, videos, and other compelling images or graphics tend to pull people in and get them interested. Professional-caliber video and photographic production is not required. Short videos, slide presentations, etc. can have just a strong impact provided the messaging is on target.
- KISS – Keep It Simple, Succinct: Strip your research down to its core and let that core shine through. Get rid of the jargon, the tangential, the unimportant. Philanthropists don’t have the same level of education, experience, or knowledge in your area of research and your pitch is not the time to embark on a mission to bring them to where you are. It’s more information than they need, so make it simple. Simplifying research isn’t about “dumbing down”; it’s about prioritization and organization. And keep it brief – if your overview goes more than 4-5 minutes, head back to the drawing board and simplify some more.
- Let Passion and Enthusiasm Become Infectious: There’s a reason you do what you do, day in and day out. Let your motivation and excitement for your research show when speaking with prospective donors. It’s a unique opportunity to show your excitement and passion for your work and its potential impact, to get them excited and passionate about it as well.
In the end, philanthropists approach supporting research with care and consideration, and rightly so. That’s why your stories need to have the greatest impact and influence, and these steps can help you get there.
So . . . ready to tell your story?
Jennifer Long is the communications director at a medical research institute. When she isn’t advocating for research or waxing philosophical to anyone who will listen about the value of science, you can find her immersed in her own writing, anything she can get her hands on to read, and the myriad activities and antics of her two children.
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