Light on the Horizon

Posted on 02/10/2016 - by Dan Allenby

Light on the HorizonPhonathons have been a staple of college and university annual giving programs since the 1970s when (as legend has it) Yale University first decided to employ students to make fundraising calls to alumni in a last-ditch effort to reach its campaign goal. Among the many benefits of a phonathon is that it’s interactive, allowing callers to engage (and even negotiate) with prospects in individual and conversational ways.

Because they’re more personal, phonathons tend to have higher conversion rates compared to other appeal channels. This makes them particularly useful when it comes to acquiring new donors or upgrading past donors to higher giving levels. Beyond soliciting gifts, phonathons also have the added benefit of allowing callers to update prospect information and even survey prospects to gather their opinions, preferences, and feedback.

But over the past several years, phonathons have experienced a period of darkness. Contact rates have declined year-over-year for nearly a decade due to the massive migration to mobile communication devices, the waning use of landline phones and a general negative stigma surrounding telemarketing. Today there’s only about a one in two chance that a prospect will even answer the phone when their alma mater calls. This makes the already challenging job of running a phonathon program even harder. Imagine what it’s like to be a caller, spending hours dialing prospects only to have the majority of your attempts met with a voicemail greeting or, worse yet, rejection. For many program managers, it can be difficult to keep callers motivated and retain employees for much more than a few months.

Now, before you dismiss the value of phonathons entirely, keep in mind that there may be some light on the horizon. According to Ruffalo Noel Levitz, not only have many college and university phonathon programs seen a stabilization of overall contact rates over the past year or two, but many have experienced an uptick among one very important segment – young alumni! As one young alumnus noted, he would be willing to answer the phone when his alma mater called simply because, in a world driven by text message communication, “people rarely call him.”

Since recent graduates have, as a generation, not yet experienced telemarketing in the same way and to the same degree as older generations, there may be an opportunity for phonathon programs to introduce themselves to new alumni in a positive way. How institutions decide to handle this introduction will be a key factor in the future of phonathons. When new alumni answer that first call, will it be their alma mater calling only to ask for money? Or will it be something more meaningful, more engaging and more valuable?

Want to learn more? CLICK HERE for AGN’s Webinar on Rethinking Phonathons.

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