Call on me

Tony Charalambides, MD at Listen, tells us why telephone fundraising is one of the most effective channels for HEIs looking to raise funds

Although donations to universities have risen – £774m in 2011-12, up 28% in two years – universities have also seen their first real-terms cut in income. This squeeze will mean fundraisers will need to work harder – and smarter – to find new people who will give funds and keep them flowing.

The telephone is one of the most effective channels that universities can use to do this. It allows fundraisers to have a direct, two-way conversation with supporters and alumni. Getting it right is critical – but it is also easy to get wrong.

Here are some tips to ensure – in basic marketing speak – that you have the right message for the right market at the right time.

The right message

In any fundraising call, content is king. Universities fundraise for a wide range of goals – scholarships, sport, travel grants and teaching to name a few – and with a little planning, research and training the telephone can be made to work in support of all of them. Avoid scripts that are too wordy or that lack a particular focus. An appeal for a specific fund or research project – something that can be brought to life with some well-chosen examples – can often be more effective than a general ‘catch all’ appeal for general funds. That said you may wish to preface this focussed appeal with an introduction to why universities need and deserve charitable funds – that universities stimulate economic growth, invent new technologies, that the cure for cancer might be found on a university campus etc…

When conveying a particular appeal, carefully chosen stories and examples can make all the difference. If you are raising money for a hardship fund or a bursary, a good case study of a student or students who have benefitted can really ‘bring home’ what an appeal is about.

Do not play down the urgency of the appeal. It is inevitably going to be difficult to tug the same heart strings as a charity might be able to for hungry children in a war zone, but the case should be made for why funds are important now.

The right tone

To pitch the message more effectively, be conversational and personal. The telephone lends itself to the art of good conversation – so make the most of it! Many alumni will welcome a fundraising call and enjoy the opportunity to catch up with news from the university.

Almost half of donations to UK universities currently go to Oxford and Cambridge. This is quite revealing. Could it be the collegiate system encourages more loyalty towards an institution or indeed greater affection? In any case, fundraisers should tap into these attachments and keep the call as personal as possible. Fundraisers should address the recipient by name and have other salient information such as the course they studied and when they attended at hand to help build a rapport during the conversation. Regardless of whether the telephone fundraising is being carried out by current students or professional fundraisers, conversations should be treated as opportunities to share personal memories and potentially swap experiences of university life – rather than just going straight for the ‘ask’.

Just as more interest can be generated for specific causes, rather than general ones, there are other ways to win hearts and minds. Although people like to feel special and be addressed personally, by the same token people never like to feel alone. Consider alluding to how many people have already signed up to support and how much has already been raised – whether that’s in general or people from their department or year group.

Fundraisers should be prepared for the occasional call that doesn’t quite go to plan. Some potential supporters may have concerns or objections to giving that will need to be dealt with in a sensitive and diplomatic way. This means listening first and speaking second. Consider preparing a list of ‘difficult questions and answers’ in advance and rehearsing these through role-play in training sessions.

Be flexible. If the financial ask has been exhausted, in the right circumstances consider making a non-financial ask. In a campaign conducted by Listen for a London university, those who didn’t wish to donate to a professional mentoring scheme were later asked if they would consider becoming a mentor. Such a method can end the call on a positive note and if done well should prove to be the beginning of a supporter journey. This is called the ‘momentum of compliance’ – the notion that if one positive action is taken a person is more likely to take another one in future, increasing their likelihood of becoming a donor at a later date.

The right people

Even the best laid plans or carefully-honed script can come unstuck if the wrong people are doing the talking. One option is to use a professional fundraising agency that can call alumni and solicit donations on your behalf. Agencies have a wealth of experience of different types of fundraising appeals. The best will have spent years honing each element of how they run appeals and will know what works and will apply this knowledge to get the best results.

Some universities will prefer to run their fundraising ‘in house’ with their own students making calls, with training provided by a fundraising agency or in house. In either case universities should try to identify the students or other members of staff who are best suited to the telephone. These will be the people who can have a genuine warm and sensitive conversation – and who can improvise and deviate from their scripts in an appropriate manner when necessary.

In a 2013 campaign by Listen, professional fundraisers were used alongside student fundraisers and the results compared. Although there were benefits to using student fundraisers – they knew the university and it added a level of authenticity to the call – professional fundraisers proved more effective in bringing donors on board. While university students converted 4.7% of those called into donors, with an average gift of £79.38 and first year return on investment (ROI) of 0.58%, professional fundraisers converted 22.1% of prospects, with an average gift of £86.72 and first year ROI of 2.95%. This is not to say that using an agency will always generate better results than existing students as there are many successful in house fundraising operations across the country but it is worth considering both options when planning a campaign.

The right market

The success of your campaign will also largely hinge on the strength of your data, so keeping good records is very important. In seeking new supporters you may wish to pick your calling cohort by faculty or – by profiling those in fulltime work with a minimum income threshold. If you subscribe to the idea that those with greater attachment will be more likely to give, then consider prioritising people who were active members of the university community– student reps and student’s union members and active alumni groups, if you have this data available. Otherwise it is often the case that ‘upgrading’ existing supporters can be more fruitful – active givers, one off cash donors or lapsed donors may be amenable to upping their existing support or renewing it if lapsed.

Despite the roots of private funding for higher education emanating from the UK, we significantly lag behind the US in soliciting donations – colleges and universities across the pond raised $30.3bn in 2011. One secret of their success is to approach major donors, with many universities relying on a small number of big donations. The telephone can be a key in nurturing these relationships, but the amount of time until the ‘ask’ will inevitably be longer and potentials should be researched and profiled in advance. For key major donors, you will no doubt want to consider nurturing a more ‘special relationship’ and ensure that any call is followed up with face-to-face meetings.

What next? The right data

The outcome of each call should be recorded immediately and accurately. In particular, fundraisers must take great care to respect people’s wishes and preferences if, for example, they have asked not be called again. The details of past donors, alumni and anyone else being contacted should be checked and updated frequently to make sure that the right people are being called and that people who have asked not to be called again are left alone.

Conversations with potential supporters can be a mine of useful information. The interests and preferences of the people that your fundraisers speak to can be noted and used to determine the direction of future fundraising activity – not just over the telephone but across all channels including direct mailing and e-communications.

Of course, the importance of data capture and protection cuts both ways – and can potentially be a source of difficulty as well as opportunity. All the hard work, creativity and effort that fundraisers put into their work will unravel if the people that they are calling do not have confidence that their details are being handled carefully. For this reason, all fundraising teams, large or small, must be trained on the importance of data protection, and robust systems must be in place to ensure that data security is guaranteed.

Tony Charalambides is managing director at Listen, an award-winning telephone fundraising agency working with clients in the university and charity sector.