There are some important character traits to look for in good phonathon callers. Whether recruiting paid students or willing volunteers, you need callers who are personable, articulate, informed, assertive, trustworthy and, of course, comfortable talking about money. Needless to say, good phonathon callers can be hard to find.
There’s another attribute that, while very important, is frequently overlooked. More often than not, really good callers are really good listeners.
Listening doesn’t always come naturally, which is why it should be should part of the caller training process. Teach callers how ask probing questions and offer them guidelines for keeping their own talking to a minimum. For example, let them know that if they’re speaking more than 30% of the time, the call probably isn’t going very well.
Give them a chance to learn through listening. Invite leaders from around campus (e.g., faculty, coaches, administrators) to talk with callers before shifts or during orientations. This will help them become better informed and prepare them to engage prospects in more interesting discussions.
But it’s not just the callers who should be doing the listening. You should be listening to them too. We’re not talking about listening in on their calls – although monitoring calls has become an effective way for many call centers to evaluate and improve caller performance. No, we’re talking about listening “to” the callers as a way to learn about prospects.
Phonathon callers are on the front lines. They’re in a unique position to hear (first hand) how prospects feel about institution, what things interest them, who influences them, what they’re doing in their careers, and why they’ve decided (or not decided) to support the institution. Sure, this information can easily be written down in contact reports and stored your database. The problem is that, that’s usually where it will remain – sitting in a database, unread and unused.
So make point of listening to your callers. Schedule some time once or twice a year to gather your advancement colleagues to meet with and listen to some of your top phonathon performers. Give the callers a chance to tell stories, address common themes or share solicitation tactics that have been successful for them. Then give your colleagues a chance to ask questions and share experiences of their own.
In addition to being a refreshing and fun break from daily routines, it might even give everyone involved a chance to learn something new.
Michael Jordan, viewed by some as the greatest basketball player of all-time, once said, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
No matter how hard you try, you’re not going to succeed all the time. In fact, 39 percent of annual giving programs report that something went wrong during their last fundraising year. This may raise concern for some, but it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re trying.
What should cause concern, however, is the fact that 84 percent of annual giving programs report that their current year plan is either exactly the same or only slightly modified compared to their plan from last year. While they may be trying, it seems that most are not trying hard enough.
How much has your annual giving strategy changed? Are you sending the same number of appeals, scheduling around the same dates, organizing your prospects in the same segments, relying on the same leadership donors and volunteers? Repeating the same old strategy year-in and year-out might feel safe, but it isn’t usually a very good recipe for growth.
Some of the most important ingredients of annual giving success are creativity and innovation – it’s important to try new things. Don’t be mistaken; you don’t need to suddenly abandon the tactics that are working well, and there’s certainly no virtue in making radical or unfounded changes. But don’t be afraid to add or adjust along the way, either. The fear of failure can often leave programs complacent and unwilling to take risks. Pushing the envelope and venturing into uncharted territories can not only keep things fresh and interesting for your donors, volunteers and colleagues, it’s generally the best way to make progress.
Accept failure. Think of it as evidence that you’re trying, and an important part of program growth. As Michael Jordan might say, it’s OK to lose. When you do, just don’t lose the lesson.
With a name like annual giving, it should come as no surprise that the concept of “year” is an important one to those who work the field. In fact, there are even a lot of ways to use this measure to benefit your program.
One of the most useful functions of a “year” is that it provides a clear deadline. It offers a 365-day timeline – with a defined starting and ending point – between which goals are set and work is done, in order to secure as many donors and as much support as possible. Deadlines, in and of themselves, can be motivating both internally for staff and externally for volunteers and donors.
Take it a step further. The significance of “years” can help annual giving programs connect with and inspire donors. Anniversaries are a good example. Celebrating the number of years that have elapsed since graduation is the very basis for reunion and class gift fundraising – a primary driver of annual fund donors and dollars for many educational institutions.
But even if your institution doesn’t have a formal class reunion program or hold reunion events on campus, there’s still an opportunity to leverage graduation milestones to raise funds. Simply reminding alumni that they have reached a significant milestone can evoke feelings of nostalgia, which can then yield higher response rates when used as part of a solicitation. In honor of the 25 years that have elapsed since your graduation, would you consider joining our leadership gift society?
Anniversaries can also be applied to past giving. Colorado State University wishes donors a “Happy Anniversary” by sending emails letting donors knows that they made their gifts “one year ago this week.” This tactic not only serves as a belated “thank you,” but it’s also a friendly reminder that it’s time to renew one’s annual support.
Some programs use this same tactic to solicit lapsed donors. While annual fund staff tend to be hyper-aware of fiscal year timelines, many donors are not as cognizant. Don’t be surprised if a lapsed donor thinks their giving is current when it’s not. Did you know that your last gift was 3 years ago this week? Please give today and get counted again!
And there are many other ways to make the most of “years” in annual giving, too. Nearly 75 percent of education institutions today have decided to designate a single day – once each year – to celebrate and encourage giving to their institution. More than half of annual giving programs report having a gift society or loyal donor program to recognize the number of years that a donor has given consecutively or cumulatively in the past.
The list of opportunities seems to go on and on, but one thing is for sure: in annual giving, recognizing a “year” can really make a difference.
Lists are a crucial tool in fundraising.
While many in the profession may claim to use lists regularly, the true value of list making and list management is often under-appreciated.
Here are the 4 most important lists that every fundraiser should know, understand and utilize to ensure their success:
- To do lists: These are at the core of every good fundraising strategy. They outline the specific tasks you want to perform today, this year, or this campaign in order to secure the donors, the dollars and the volunteers you need to advance your institution’s mission and achieve your goals. Plan your work, and work your plan.
- Prospect lists: These include the names and other important pieces of information needed to generate appeals, produce event invitations or secure meetings. They help you analyze and prioritize your audience, determine who is most likely to respond, and create personalized messages. The data they contain can be pulled from a variety of sources including your own database, social media or peer referrals. It’s best when they contain information from all three.
- Donor lists: These are also known as “honor rolls” or “donor rosters” and include the names of your current supporters. In addition to being a good means of stewardship, they can also be an important cultivation tool. A self-conscious non-donor who notices that their name is missing from the honor roll may be more motivated to donate next time. Nothing makes an impression quite like the sound of one’s own name or seeing one’s own name in writing.
- Competition lists: These include the names of other nonprofits that qualify as “philanthropic priorities” to your prospects. Knowing which organizations they support can give you a sense of how philanthropic they can be and what’s important to them. While there are a variety of sources for this information, don’t be afraid to engage your prospects directly in a conversation about it. Start by asking them who is on their philanthropic priority list. Then, ask them what it will take for your institution to get on, stay on or move up on it.
In many ways, fundraising is a business of lists. The better your lists, the better your outcomes.
Wouldn’t it be nice if 100% of your donors were happy 100% of the time? If that were so, your annual giving program would surely see lower donor attrition and significantly higher participation rates. Keep dreaming. The truth is that there are going to be times when your team will get a call or an email from one of your supporters with a complaint.
It might be because their name was spelled wrong on an appeal or because they weren’t invited to an important event. Perhaps the phonathon calls them too often or your office under-reported their gift amount on the annual donor report (oh no!).
Sometimes grievances will be legitimate. Somebody wasn’t paying close enough attention or simply made a mistake. Other times, it might be something that’s out of your control. Regardless of the circumstances, it’s generally best to handle it as if the customer (or, in your case, the donor) is always right.
In fundraising, knowing how to respond and what to do when a gripe comes your way is as important as knowing how to solicit a donation or write a gift acknowledgment. “AAA” is a good way to remember how best to react when a donor complains:
- Accept – take responsibility for the issue on behalf of the institution
- Apologize – simply say you’re sorry
- Act – tell them what you’re going to do to fix it
Following these three steps when dealing with a complaint will not only prevent the issue from escalating into a bigger problem, but it may even end up being a good donor cultivation move. Who knows? If handled properly, a complaint today could lead to an opportunity tomorrow.
A common question that event planners face is whether or not to charge for admission. While offering free access tends to drive registrant numbers up, it also tends to result in a lower yield of attendees. On the other hand, charging for events typically results in a lower number of registrants but a higher yield of attendees.
For example, a free event might generate 80 registrants with only 40 of them actually showing up – a 50 percent yield. But if you were to charge a fee (even a nominal one) for that same event, your attendee yield percentage would likely increase even though it might generate fewer actual registrants. This is because the paid event is perceived as more valuable to attendees. They’re invested, which makes it harder to skip if something else comes up.
The same phenomenon can play out in your work with volunteers and donors.
Have you ever found yourself trying to recruit a volunteer to serve on a board or a committee and saying something along these lines? “We’d love for you to get involved and we know you’re very busy. Don’t worry. This won’t require much of your time and there won’t be any heavy lifting.”
When you say things like this, it actually devalues the role you’re asking them to play. Instead, emphasize that the role is important. While it may require a significant commitment of their time and effort, their involvement will not only make a difference for the institution, it will also be a truly valuable experience for them.
Don’t devalue what you need from your volunteers and donors just because it makes asking for it a little more comfortable. Set high expectations. It’s ok if that causes fewer people to respond with a yes. Because those who do are more likely to show up, contribute thoughtful ideas and do what it is you need.
For many, it will make your request even more appealing.
Stanford University announced in an email to its alumni this week (see below) that it will be discontinuing its fundraising calls. The news has already shocked (and even saddened) many advancement professionals who have known student phonathons to be a central component of college and university annual giving programs ever since Yale launched the first paid student calling effort back in the 1970s.
It’s no secret that phonathons have struggled in recent years as it’s gotten more difficult to get alumni to pick up the phone. Contact rates have declined year-after-year for nearly a decade, a trend that has been precipitated by mobile technology and social media changing the way alumni communicate with their alma maters. Today, online donations represent more than half of all annual gifts.
One of the challenges of phonathons is their cost. Compared to other, albeit less personal, print and digital channels, running a call center is expensive. Caller wages, equipment and software expenses aren’t cheap. And while they could once boast impressive dollar totals and high returns on their investment, many of today’s call centers barely break even. Some programs even operate at a loss, only justifying their existence as a necessity for acquiring new donors and negotiating current donors to higher gift levels.
Stanford isn’t alone. Dartmouth College and the University of South Florida have also made decisions to end their phonathons. Dartmouth will be phasing out their program gradually: while it won’t use mass calling efforts to acquire new donors anymore, it will make sure that those alumni who have consistently responded to phonathon solicitations in the past continue to get a personal call from someone at the college.
Reactions to Stanford’s decision have ranged from “Well, they’re Stanford, they can afford to do stuff like that,” to “That seems a little extreme.” Some have even commented, “They’ll be back.”
Whatever the future holds for Stanford, its decision will surely elicit conversations at other institutions about the future of their own programs. For some, it will be business as usual: dialing for dollars. Others will find new ways to use their call centers: to engage and steward alumni, update contact information, conduct research, promote events, secure appointments, or simply to remind alumni that their alma mater is filled with resources, programs and networks that can be valuable for them.
Want to learn more? CLICK HERE to register for AGN’s upcoming webinar on Rethinking Phonathons.
In algebra, PEMDAS explains the correct order of operations within a mathematical expression. It’s an acronym that stands for Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, and Subtraction and it states what you’re supposed to do first, second, third, etc. when trying to solve a complex math problem. For example, 1 + 3 x 2 = 7 (not 8) because you should do multiplication before addition.
A mnemonic to help teach students PEMDAS is “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally.” This fun phrase helps them keep the acronym straight in their heads and remember the correct prioritization.
Setting priorities is also important in annual giving, and there are many tips and tricks to assist you. One is RFM (i.e., Recency, Frequency, Monetary), which can help to identify donors that are most likely to respond to appeals. How recently a donor made a gift, the number of times they’ve given in the past, and the size of their last gift can all help indicate if they are likely to give again in the future. For example:
- A donor who gave last year is more likely to give than a donor whose last gift was many years ago
- A donor who has made several gifts is more likely to give than one who has given only once
- A donor who made a large gift is more likely to give than one who gave a smaller gift
It would be ideal to be able to afford to solicit every one of your prospects often and give them all the same amount of personal attention. Unfortunately, when time and budgets are limited, that’s not possible. Therefore, you need to prioritize.
The real trick is balancing your solicitations – and stewardship – in a way that focuses on your best prospects without ignoring anyone completely. Because you can never be 100% certain who your next big donor will be.
Take a moment to celebrate digital fundraising. There is no question that new media and technology have empowered more individuals and non-profit organizations to go out and raise money. Today’s digital toolkits contain instruments that are easier to access, easier to afford and easier to use than ever before.
Crowdfunding, Giving Days, and Text-to-Donate are just a few of the shiny objects that have caught the eye of fundraisers in recent years. In fact, many of these tactics have already been woven into the fabric of annual giving programs and become key components of their strategy. But nothing digital has changed the fundamentals of what drives successful fundraising. Not one bit.
Just about anybody can go out and ask for money. Just about any organization can try to run a campaign. But building a sustainable fundraising program or leading a successful campaign depends on details like diligence, follow-up, quality, personal relationships and patience. These are the cornerstones of good fundraising. Unfortunately, they’re also becoming increasingly rare.
So, go ahead: embrace digital fundraising. Seek out shiny objects. They will help to keep your strategies fresh while attracting and engaging new donors. But don’t forget about the fundamentals. They may not be as flashy, but they’ll do more to advance your program in the long run than the latest digital trend.
There’s a restaurant tucked up in the green hills of Vermont, not far from the New Hampshire border, that gets it right. As soon as you sit down for dinner, you’re greeted – as you would be at almost any other reputable establishment – by a smiling server prepared to take your drink order. But instead of hearing, “What would you like to drink?”, you’ll hear the same question framed in a different way. Here, they ask, “What would you like to enjoy?”
Asking it this way makes all the difference. Rather than focusing simply on the beverage itself, it prompts the guests to imagine themselves sipping that drink and how doing so will make them feel. A margarita might help someone feel festive. A gin and tonic – sophisticated. A glass of wine – relaxed. An iced tea – refreshed. The way a drink makes you feel is much more important than how it looks or even how it tastes.
This same idea can be applied in annual giving. When it comes to soliciting charitable gifts, there is often too much emphasis placed on the monetary aspects of the potential donation. Would you consider a gift of $100 to help us reach our goal? When you take this approach, you’re really just asking for a donation for the sake of a donation.
Instead, try to focus on what that donation will accomplish and how giving a gift will make the donor feel. Will they feel like a leader? Will they feel like they belong to something important? Will they feel like they’re making an impact?
With this in mind, try framing your solicitation a different way: Will you become a leader in our community and make a difference in the life of a needy student with a gift of $100?