So long, and thanks for all the cash

So, telephone fundraising is dead, then? Bummer.

I began my fundraising career on the telephone, working for the Labour Party in the early 90’s (seemed like a good idea at the time). Back then the phone was this new, shiny thing in fundraisers’ hands and it was so thrilling to be calling people who were passionate about the same things you were passionate about, exchanging views, ideas and – most of the time – finishing with them making a positive decision to support. It was fun being part of the telephone team. As Eddie Izzard (big Labour guy) so rightly said, ‘We were young, we were wolves, we were crazy’.

I remember the last day of calling in the ’97 election campaign, about a week before polling day. We called back the highest-value people who had already given twice during the six-week election campaign (top of the donor pyramid, though we didn’t know it then) and asked them to match their highest-ever donation, right there and then, on their credit card. The call team were mostly terrified but one of the team didn’t get phased by amounts. She called 30 people in one evening session, about 3/4s said yes and she raised over £100,000 on her own – one lady gave £30,000. The atmosphere in the room was utterly euphoric. That’s the great thing about telephone – you’re getting an immediate, direct response that lets you know immediately and precisely how people are feeling about you and your proposition.

As I moved on in my career, the telephone was a key part of how we communicated with supporters. For national charities like Shelter, YMCA and Prostate Cancer Charity, we had whole programmes of cash to regular gift conversion, upgrades and donor care. The latter was very important – we were making enough money overall to feel confident that just spending some money to say ‘thank you’ to our best supporters was worth the investment.

Agencies sprung up and flourished. In Brighton alone there were two massive telephone agencies making millions of calls a year between them. Both have now folded in the last year. Hundreds of jobs gone, millions of charity supporters not getting the chance to talk to someone.

And it was greed, of course. Agencies needed the calls. To get the business, they had to deliver success. So, the calls got more intense and persistent, callers were whipped harder and harder into signing up that regular gift, a donation; not to take no for an answer.

So here we are now with a massive channel to our donors closed down. Or is it?

One of our clients did something brilliant a few years back. They created their own in-house telephone team, comprised entirely of volunteers. This team of 8–10 people would come in for a shift during the evenings of the first week of every month (in the fundraising office, where the desks and phones were clear by 6pm) and they would be asked to make ‘soft’ fundraising calls. They called event participants, chasing sponsorship. Reactivated lapsed regular givers. Made simple ‘thank you’ calls to their best and most long-standing supporters with no ask in sight. Their first campaign was to chase up Gift Aid declarations from their best donors – they made £44k in three months.

I’ve been banging on to our clients about following this model for years now – but it’s a pain to set up, look after the volunteers, write scripts, fulfil the call etc. and so precious few have. But I think it’s never been more important than now, with the new fundraising regulations looming over us all, to get back to thinking about how we actually communicate with those that give us their money. The big national charities are going to invest hugely in social media, television and ‘broadcast’ communications. Throw enough mud etc. But for smaller charities without those budgets, there’s actually a chance here to gain an advantage.

You can still call – if you check against MPS, and soon FPS first. One of our local charity clients recently held a telephone day during a campaign and got all the FR team and the SMT to make calls to explain the campaign to their best supporters. They weren’t really looking for donations – but still made over £4k on the day.

We recommended to another client that the CEO and the trustees pick up the phone to thank in person the best responders to a recent appeal – and they did (we nearly fell off our chairs when we heard). The feedback was brilliant. The trustees made five or six calls each and they loved talking to someone else who was also passionate about their ‘little’ charity. The feedback from donors was universally, ‘I can’t believe a trustee called me to say thank you. Wow’.

It’s really clear to me that we should still be using the phone to talk to supporters – it’s not off-limits at all. We just have to do it the right way. And, we have to use the phone as part of a careful, considered and planned cycle of communications that leaves our supporters crystal clear that we love them, treasure their support and are totally ready to be responsive to their needs. It’s still good to talk.