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How Many Kinds of Phonathons Are There, Anyway?

December 6th, 2010

Doris* trained her new committee members to get comfortable speaking to donors by starting them talking on the phone. She wanted them to have repeat exposure for the practice, so she designed a thank-a-thon, and it was very successful!

After Doris’ committee spent time – together – that week, chatting with donors to express their gratitude for gifts already given, it was a much smaller step later that year to have them back when it was time to call other supporters and ask them to give or renew to the organization. By then, the committee members had more knowledge of the organization and its mission, so that they could converse, rather than sound scripted or fearful.

Eventually, the most talented of the volunteers moved up to join the board and accompanied her on donor visits. However, this was not only an excellent way to start them in training, but also to reach out and touch more donors than she possibly could herself – both by thanking them and later by soliciting them!

Ethan* also ended up holding an atypical phonathon . . . by accident. While he was discussing what event he and his committee could put on next season to attract donors, learn about his organization’s mission, and ultimately give to the cause, nobody could reach consensus on the type of event that would be best.

After several more suggestions, it became apparent that most people agreed on two things:

●      The committee members were very supportive of the mission and would encourage their friends and associates to attend, contribute, etc.
●      These were extremely busy, professional people, who had full calendars, and a high attendance at any one function seemed unlikely.

Some suggested conducting a non-event, which would pay respect to people’s lower budgets in a tight economy, but it was decided that losing the personal touch would hurt the bottom line.

During the week of the phonathon, Ethan not only invested in dinner and prizes for the committee members, but he backed up these efforts with an email appeal and a direct mail piece.

Similar to software used during a marathon by individual runners, each volunteer was given temporary accounts, so that they could either send “Thank You” or “Sorry I Missed You” emails to their contacts, and it integrated with the organization software – yet it bore the name of the recipient’s friend, [johnsmith@company.org]. Because the software was accessible and user-friendly, a great many (new) names and contact information were entered into the database during this event.

Direct mail follow up also brought in a good amount of donations after the event. Either after voicemail was reached, or the constituent replied, “Send me something in the mail,” a form was filled out (and data entered into the system) and mailed with a return envelope.

Ethan says it worked out so well, the committee has decided to repeat their peer-to-peer call-a-thon for the following year.

There are also non profits that have established annual (or ongoing) phonathon events, either with paid or volunteer workers. They call current and lapsed donors, as well as non donors, and consider phonathon simply just another part of their Annual Giving program.

Fiona* takes phonathon very seriously, and has made several changes to her event that have paid off well over the years.

“For one thing,” she says, “I noticed that getting the donor to commit on the phone with a credit card right now was crucial, rather than sending them information in the mail, and hoping they’d come through. Even if they intend to, people forget. Also, our average credit card gift on the phone is higher than the gifts by mail.”

Fiona was already giving incentives to the phonathon workers for gifts acquired at $X amount or above, but she changed the incentive plan to credit card gifts only, and saw a drastic difference – within a year, the percentage of gifts on credit card had doubled, as had overall income!

Some additional factors most likely helped, she believes. For example, Fiona paid close attention to the script, encouraging callers to ask, “WHICH credit card would you like to put this on?” instead of “Would you like to put this on your credit card?”

By the same token, when asking people to contribute, Fiona would have callers mention two suggested amounts, based on giving history, followed by “HOW MUCH would you be able to contribute?” rather than “Would you be able to contribute?”

Fiona also took care to have callers track and/or verify all contact information and follow up with a direct mail piece, either thanking people or allowing them to pay by mail. She took it a step further than simply sending a reply envelope, however, and included a trackable hyperlink, encouraging people to donate online. She had also researched and learned that her online gifts were larger than those by mail.

While the nature of phonathon has changed, and no two events are exactly the same, this event still has a place in many non profit organizations. It’s simply important to adapt it to your needs and schedule, rather than dismiss it with entirely negative connotations.

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