You are here

Learning Money's Language

They say money talks, and learning this "foreign language" creates successful leaders.
University Business, Mar 2005

There's no question about it. In today's economic climate, educational institutions care about increasing the number and size of the donations they receive. For tuition dependent colleges with small endowments, donations may make the difference between operating at a surplus or at a deficit. For more financially stable institutions, donations are often critical drivers behind new programmatic offerings, new buildings and new endowed chairs. It is not surprising, then, that educational leaders spend a significant portion of their time cultivating existing and prospective donors. What is surprising is how little time is spent helping these leaders learn the language of money--a crucial but unheralded tool in successful fundraising.

Money is complex. At one level, it is obviously dollars and cents. It is the currency that forms the basis of our day-to-day activities and enables commence to proceed. But, money is more than that. Money is a language that everyone speaks. It is how we communicate our emotions and values--to ourselves and to others.

While some features of money's language are shared, each of us has our own and very personal money language--a dialect--formed and informed by our particular upbringing, gender, age, education, ethnicity, race, class and religion. These factors, taken together with more generalized cultural and societal norms, form a nuanced money language. But, as ubiquitous as money's language is, most of us do not fully understand "money" when we speak it or when others speak to us in it.

For starters, within ourselves, we commonly do not probe, let alone articulate, what money (or the lack thereof) means to us individually. We may not even be aware of how we acquired our views of money and the extent to which we have commodified our emotions and values. When we act with respect to money, we may not recognize why we are behaving as we do. The consequences of failing to understand fully the richness of money's language are exacerbated when two (or more) individuals are communicating about money with each other--say a college president and a prospective donor. It is highly probable that when we "speak money" to others, they may not understand what we are saying and we may not understand what they are saying. The speakers may be using the same words but those words have different meanings. This is unlike what occurs when two people speak different foreign languages; in that context, the lack of understanding is obvious. But, with the language of money, the use of the same words by different speakers masks profound differences in meaning.

Taken at its most basic level,
fundraising is about storytelling.

For educational leaders seeking donations, it is critical, then, that they learn the language of money. They need both to understand their own personal money language as well as the language of the individuals and organizations from whom they are seeking funds. This is because, taken at its most basic level, fundraising is about storytelling--telling donors a story about why the institution needs their largess and finding the critical links between the wants and needs of both the institution and the donor. To find those links, a leader must understand the donor's money story (what the donor cares about) and then most significantly, translate the meaning of both the institution and the donor's stories into a common, shared language.

Historically, foreign language learning was about vocabulary (what to say) and grammar (how to say it). The goals were quite limited--as were the results. Many new foreign language speakers were "book" smart--they could read and speak correctly but they lacked an ability to communicate feelings and emotions in the foreign language. They could not appreciate nuance and cultural perspectives. In non-classroom settings, the language they had ostensibly learned failed them miserably. This is because what they had learned was the foreign language's outside architecture.

Clearly, outside architecture is a necessary beginning to learning the language of money. Fundraisers obviously need to know the essential vocabulary and grammar of giving--the basic financial concepts related to donations (vocabulary) and the alternative ways the donations can be structured (grammar). But, vo- cabulary and grammar are where foreign language learning starts, not stops. What educational leaders need to learn is the money language's deeper meaning--they need to learn what linguistic anthropologist Michael Agar calls "languaculture."

A key starting point for leaders is for them to gain an understanding their own money languaculture. Leaders need to reflect on how they learned about money, what money messages they carry within themselves and then how they signal, often without awareness, their personal money messages to others. Leaders should consider how money was spoken about and handled in their own families, from where their money is derived (earnings, inheritance, marriage) and how they handle their own money, including with their spouse and children. They should reflect on who influences their money choices both positively and negatively, and what mood accompanies various money activities.

The reasons for this knowledge may be self-evident. When one person asks another for money, he or she is speaking "money." The words, tone and style used in the "ask" all signal something--in the mind of the person asking and in the mind of the person asked. So, unless one truly understands one's own money history, one cannot truly tell an institution's story knowing what one is saying. Consider this example.

Suppose a leader grew up in a family in which money was almost a taboo topic; bills arrived and were paid but never discussed. Even now, money is also not discussed; his children have no idea what the family earns, where the monies go, what debts exist. Suppose the prospective donor comes from a different family background--one where money is regularly discussed. The donor and his spouse share bank accounts and actively debate financial decision-making. When this leader asks this donor for funds, the request, unless he is very self-aware, may be too terse and non-inclusive. The leader may not elaborate on the differing gift-giving opportunities. The leader may rush through his "pitch" and try to move on to other topics with which he is more comfortable (say athletics or the arts), thereby signaling that money is something that is not discussed openly. The leader's mistake is that he never learned his own money language.

In addition to increasing
revenue, administrators will
become better leaders.

This example also demonstrates that knowing one's own money story is not enough: the speaker also needs to be able to know what the listener, with his or her own money language, is hearing. Learning the money language of another begins with learning about the person (or family or organization) from whom one seeks money. Such a donor profile would include information on where the donor has lived and worked since graduation, where else he or she gives money now or in the past, the donor's family situation, what hobbies the donor enjoys, and so on. For alumni, it is important to know their academic interests and achievements, whether they borrowed for their education, and what activities they engaged in while on campus.

But, research alone is insufficient. A leader needs to assess what the gathered facts mean. The leader has to process the information he/she gets and then use that understanding to frame the story the leader tells. Then, the leader needs to understand the answers the donor provides--which will be delivered in the donor's money speak. This task is not simple; it requires a fluency in the donor's languaculture, and there are no dictionaries or textbooks that can serve as adequate guides.

Perhaps the best way of gaining this individuated understanding is by building a relationship with donors. This is because people will be unlikely to share their languaculture (as opposed to just vocabulary and grammar) with a leader they do not know. Culture is vastly too personal to share with complete strangers. Time, experience and failures also help a leader learn to speak the many dialects of the language of money. Consider the potential for disaster for the leader who solicits an immediate cash donation from a wealthy graduate by emphasizing the school's "new" educational mission and its new enhanced institutional goals--signaling how far the institution has progressed in the past two decades. Suppose that the prospective donor has been disappointed in her alma mater of late; she perceives that the institution has lost some of what made it special when she attended and she no longer feels a part of the "new" institution. She senses that her academic interests are not central to the institution. Had the leader known this and listened to what the graduate cared about, the leader might have considered inviting her to campus events and dinners (whether or not she attended) and giving her a means to connect with current students--perhaps through substantive academic initiatives that would engage her. It is from these connections--showing her that there remains a comfortable place for her within the institution--that the leader can facilitate her donating prospectively. Asking her for monies now would miss her money message--which is about giving to that with which she feels a connection.

If money is indeed a language that can be learned, then there is a further significant benefit for leaders who learn it. In addition to increasing revenue, they will become better leaders. William Durden, the President of Dickinson College (Pa.), once observed that the skills needed to learn a foreign language are the ones needed to be a successful educational leader--composing and translating a story, remaining open to new cultures, perspectives and opportunities, and receptivity to change.

I think he is right. Learning the "foreign" language of money will do more than raise dollars and cents; it will also help leaders communicate the values of their institution. And, that is a benefit of unquantifiable value.

Karen Gross is a professor of law at the New York Law School and is president of the Coalition for Consumer Bankruptcy Debtor Education (

Register now for UBTech 2018

Register now for UBTech 2018, June 4-6 at the Mirage, Las Vegas. At UBTech 2018, you’ll network with a dynamic community of higher ed leaders who are shaping the future of campus technology and explore topics like cyber security, distance learning, campus learning space design, communications, personalized learning and more. Your UBTech registration also includes a free pass to the InfoComm exhibit hall.

Register now>>