11 Things You Can Do Right Now to Set Your Phonathon Up for Success

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Jessica Cloud, CFRE, is the author of Successful Fundraising Calls: A Phonathon Scripting Workshop, in which she critiques and revises 6 real phonathon scripts submitted by institutions across North America. In this book, you will learn the pillars of writing effective scripts; review sample LYBUNT, SYBUNT, young alumni, and future donor scripts; explore Cloud’s in-depth critique of the samples; and view revisions of the sample scripts.

You can also read more of Cloud’s advice for phonathon managers in these complimentary articles:

A Quick Assessment for Your Phonathon Scripts
How Data Mining Can Increase Direct Mail Acquisition
How Data Mining Can Increase Phonathon Acquisition
Scripting for Acquisition Calls

Here are 11 things you can do right now to set your phonathon up for success this fiscal year:

1. Cultivate your relationship with Advancement Services.

The database folks are crucial allies for any fundraising professionals, but as a phonathon manager you are even more dependent than most other fundraisers upon the cooperation of this group for your success. Good data gives you a head start in phonathon. Bad data can hold you back all year.

I recommend reaching out to gift processing and other advancement services staff now. Start by asking them what they need from you in order to make their work easier and more efficient. Do things their way as a sign of goodwill. Then, bring them cupcakes or doughnuts one day. Make them your allies, and you won’t be sorry you made this special effort.

2. Run a Wireless Append to find cell phone numbers for your prospects.

You need to have allies in the database world because you will need to run data research screenings, like wireless append. If you can find a few thousand dollars in your budget, send all of the records that were marked as “invalid” or “wrong” numbers from last year’s phonathon to see if you can find a cell phone. There are a number of vendors who can provide this service. Just Google “wireless append.”

Over 53% of households nationwide are wireless-only or wireless-mostly households. Finding a cell phone number is the future of phonathon. Any budget you can spare for this kind of research will pay you back several time over. (Here is a blog post with more details on how to do this effectively.)

3. Set up a retreat with your student supervisors as soon as possible.

Create a “brain trust” that includes you and your trusted student supervisors and lead callers. Bring them together for a cupcake-and-coffee brainstorming session. Discuss how they can help you with recruitment and training. What are their ideas for ways to improve coaching and nightly reports?

Also, ask them what they each want to learn about this year while they are working for you. Nothing inspires more loyalty and creativity than knowing that your boss is trying to help you grow in your role.

4. Develop a retention plan for your call center.

You will always need to recruit but focusing on retaining good student callers can change the entire way your call center functions. Make your center a great place to work and it will pay off in the long run. Keeping more callers for longer puts your call center into an upward cycle of positive growth. Suddenly, instead of chasing new hires, you can spend that time on coaching, statistical analysis and creative calling assignments. Then you’ll raise more money for your institution.

5. Know exactly how many students you need to hire and how many applications you need in order to achieve that goal.

Fail to plan and you’re planning to fail, right? But most phonathon managers can’t confidently answer the question, “How many callers do you need to hire?” Don’t guess. Run the numbers.

Figure out how many hours your call center is open per week and how many hours each caller can be expected to cover, based on your attendance policy. Then look at how many returning callers you are likely to have come back to work and see how many more you need.

A good rule of thumb is to multiply the number of callers you need to hire by 2.5 and that’s the number of applications you need to generate. So, if you need to hire 10 callers, you need 25 applications.

Write the number of callers you need to hire and the number of applications you need on two index cards. Put one on your bathroom mirror at home and post the other in your office. Keep these numbers top-of-mind. For the first few weeks of the fall semester, they will drive most of your work. Your only job is to be buried in applications.

6. Revise your scripts. Freshen up the case for giving, ask amounts, and rapport builders.

If you have had the rapport-building question, “Have you come back to campus lately?” in your scripts for 5 years, how much rapport do you think that question is likely to build? Since your prospects have probably heard this several times now, it’s just noise.  Any campus updates or case-building talking points you have used for multiple annual campaigns will also be ineffective. Prospects and donors have heard them before. Your scripts need a makeover.

My book, Successful Fundraising Calls: A Phonathon Scripting Workshop walks you through how to do this. I take scripts submitted by institutions and freshen them up, making them into the most effective version of that script. You can do this too and now is the time.

7. Meet with the Career Center director on campus.

You will get a different kind of student from the Career Center than from anyone else on campus, because students who come to the Career Center are resourceful and seeking out a job. Set a meeting this week with the director of the Career Center. Building this bridge will pay off with hard-working student recruits. If possible, bring a star caller with you who can talk about all the great skills they have developed at the call center. By the end of your meeting, that director should understand that you offer one of the best job opportunities on campus and have a stack of business card with the call center job application web address on them.

8. Make your training manual interactive.

Leave the most crucial information out of your training manual.

Yes, you should leave blanks.

It’s too easy for callers to space-out during training. Make sure you leave out some key information out of the manual and instead put blanks where they can write the answers in. In fact, leaving the info out means the callers MUST write the answers in the manual. Have “quick quizzes” at the end of each section of training to review information. Divide the group into teams and ask them questions in a rapid-fire competition. Whatever it takes to engage them and help them retain the information.

9. Create a new hire test (if you don’t have one already).

Callers will be motivated to fill in the blanks in their training manual because they will need the info to study for their new hire test. If you don’t have a new hire test, create one today. All of your callers are representing not only the institution but they are also representing you. Make sure they know their stuff before they hit the phones. I required my callers to score 80% or better in order to graduate from new hire training and begin calling.

10. Change the way you report to deans and directors.

Don’t just report on dollars and donors to campus leaders. Make sure they know how many addresses, phone numbers and emails you acquired or corrected for their college. Make sure they know how many people you spoke with regardless of whether they gave, as this is important public relations work. Give examples of those major gift prospects who began giving in annual fund or phonathon. Give them a holistic picture of what annual fund provides.

As I argued in this blog, you need to make the case that phonathon is an important vehicle for annual fundraising because it provides:

  1. Lead Generation: To feed the major gift pipeline, generating leads and cultivating donors year to year;
  2. Dollars and Donors: To generate dollars for philanthropic needs of your institution and provide the personal touch that goes beyond other vehicles that retains donors from year to year;
  3. Acquisition: To acquire new donors and expand the donor base, increasing participation in the life of your institution;
  4. Data Enrichment: To regularly update demographic information both through research and direct from the prospects over the phone; and
  5. Public Relations: To foster good feelings among your alumni and educate them regularly about philanthropy.

This five-part story is what you need to be sharing with deans and directors.

11. Eliminate “permission questions” from your call center.

“Is now a good time to talk?” or “Did I catch you at a bad time?” are terrible ways to begin a fundraising call. These are permission questions, and you should get rid of them ASAP.

This idea of permission-based marketing grew out of the email marketing world, and in that arena it works wonderfully. An opt-in distinguishes your organization’s email from spam and promotes high open and click-through rates.

However, permission-based marketing is not well-suited to the medium of phonathon.

I come down firmly against permission questions in phonathon calls. I believe this practice is damaging to fundraising results and is unnecessary. With caller ID and other features, prospects can screen their phone calls and only answer when they wish to speak. Answering the phone in this day and age constitutes implicit permission to talk. If the prospect does not hang up after the caller introduces the purpose of the call, that constitutes implicit permission to continue the call.

I discuss permission questions (and why you shouldn’t use them) in more detail in Successful Fundraising Calls: A Phonathon Scripting Workshop.

If you pursue these 11 items right now, you will prepare your call center to see dramatically improved results this year. You can also visit my blog or get my book for a more in-depth look of what can make phonathon more successful. Please contact me (see my contact information in my bio, below) and let me know how these suggestions work out for you this year. Best of luck!