Revitalizing Your Phonathon Effort

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Often you hear that "the phonathon is dead"; perceived barriers to bringing in dollars through your phonathon include fewer alumni owning phones, fewer alumni answering the phone, and the difficulty of maintaining an accurate database of cell numbers. Yet a small number of institutions have seen some significant success in approaching their phonathon effort in new ways -- among them, the University of Southern Mississippi.

This week, we turned to Jessica Cloud, who administers a comprehensive annual giving program for the University of Southern Mississippi Foundation, to see what might be learned from the success of her phonathon program.

Academic Impressions (AI): Jessica, thanks for joining us for this interview. How do you revitalize the phonathon effort?

Jessica Cloud (JC): It has to start with the data -- take some time to pull any reports you can and digest that data. Make connections between your policy decisions and the statistics. How can you then change your approach to move those statistics in a favorable direction?

Rolling out new policies at the beginning of the year is best. Old callers can have a re-orientation session where they agree to the new rules and methods. New callers will not know any different. Having strong student supervisors is key to making sure that the new methods are embraced and enforced.

AI: Could you give an example?

JC: Here's a scenario. Let's say fulfillment looked really bad last year. One reason was that credit cards were very low. You know that you only ask once for a credit card and you don’t really discipline (write-up) callers who don’t do it. You have no reward system in place for credit cards.

So, you devise a motivational system with rewards but also give them resources and scripts and practice on how to ask twice for a credit card during every call. Student supervisors enforce the discipline and coach to the method but they also help recognize and reward those who are succeeding. The result will inevitably be higher credit card rates.

AI: Fewer people own phones, fewer people answer them, and it can  be hard to get cell numbers. How do you get around these barriers to increasing the effectiveness of your phonathon?

JC: I have two suggestions: one behind the scenes and one out in front of donors.

First, there are a number of innovative research products that you can utilize to screen your data. If you aren’t doing it already, you need to run your data through “basic research” which means the National Change of Address (NCOA) database, maintained by the post office and a telephone append. If you are already doing that, you can jumpstart your program by putting your donors who had a bad number or disconnect result from the previous year through “advanced research.” This cost a bit more than the basic research but usually has a great return on investment because you are finding lost donors. I am also hearing a lot of good things about the new wireless append products that are out there to find cell phone numbers for lost donors.

Secondly, take it to your donors. Utilize email and mail to improve your data for phone numbers. Institute a policy where you send a “Where are you now?” email to wrong numbers/disconnects as they are generated through the phonathon (daily, weekly or monthly). This email would ask them to reply with their updating contact info. If you cannot do that throughout the year, at least try to do an email blast to all the bad numbers from the previous year once or twice per year. (Make sure your Advancement Services staff is on board before you bombard them with updates.) You can achieve similar results by sending demographic update postcards or online surveys. Some schools even structure these like a raffle and offer prizes to respondees.

AI: I know that your program engages students in the work of the phonathon in a more intentional way than is usual. Could you share some details about your work with student callers?

JC: Career-pathing is so important and it begins in new hire training. Help your students to understand that the skills they will be honing in this job (negotiation, handling objection well, customer service, building relationships, etc.) are highly applicable to many career fields. Also show them how they can grow in leadership within your organization and that fundraising is a career option as well.

Also, your student callers need to understand the statistics about how private giving supports their education. Student callers need to know how many scholarships are awarded each year and what percentage of the university’s budget comes from private giving not only to make good calls but also so that they have a deep appreciation for their job and how it makes the university that they love great.

AI: Let's step back a moment. Could you offer an example or two of what running an effective phonathon looks like, differently than the old-school approach?

JC: The foundation of a successful phonathon is recruitment. You must have full seats to run a successful phonathon. All of the statistics and techniques will mean nothing if you don’t have the staff on the phones to get the calls done. Emphasize recruitment above all and brainstorm every possible way to get students in for interviews. The more students you interview, the more choice you have and therefore better callers.

Once you have full seats, you must not be afraid to discipline and have student supervisors who can coach well and also discipline. If the students repeatedly do not follow your method of making calls, they have to go because they are not fulfilling their job obligation and the university will end up losing money (both that caller’s pay and the opportunity cost from the prospect) as a result.

Show your students that you are investing in them. Make veteran callers mentors to new recruits. Arrange a dinner with the university president for top performers. Write them letters of recommendation when they need them. Let them know their lifetime statistics regularly so that they can update their resumes. Have them help out with recruitment activities when feasible. Survey them regularly and ask them how you can make their work experience more productive and meaningful.