Why are we still hanging-up on the telephone?


Considering the contribution that the telephone makes to the sector, I am always surprised at the lack of content about the channel at fundraising conferences. If you exclude (the rather good session) on mobile and SMS fundraising there was barely a mention of the channel at the IFC this year. Odd when you consider that response rates on the phone eclipse all other channels . And surely there is much to learn from the millions of conversations we are having with donors every year?

Sure it got the odd mention, more so perhaps than previous years, what with SMS and mobile making the channel more exciting and fashionable ,  but really nothing more than a mention here and there.

One such mention came from Stephen Pidgeon, a strong advocate of the phone.  When talking of how SMS Prospecting was changing the fundraising landscape in the UK, he asked the audience how they should follow-up these prospects. His answer of course was “Phone, phone, phone  – always the phone.”  The room was full of people silently nodding along as he spoke.

Then, someone asked a question which went something like this: “…but won’t the phone become over used? Won’t the public tire over the use of the channel?” So, the only question asked by someone in the audience was a negative one.  Great!  This about sums-up what we tend to hear on the rare occasions that the phone is mentioned.

Where are the voices of those using the phone successfully to raise millions of pounds each year? Why are we shy to talk about the amazing conversations we are having with our donors? The Agitator was one of the first to be vocal on this subject, calling the channel the neglected stepchild of fundraising.

Considering that the key themes (all mentioned in Bethan’s blog last week) from the IFC focussed on engagement, emotional fundraising and integration – what better channel than the telephone to demonstrate these things through a real-time conversation?

I probed Stephen Pidgeon to find out a bit more about what he thought about this. He said:

“The phone has in the past been seen by some as intrusive, but now, particularly in the two-step recruitment methods that engage people first, building a relationship of interest both sides, well then….the ONLY media for conversion is the telephone. It eclipses all others…”

Like us, Stephen is excited about how in modern fundraising the channel can be one of our greatest tools.  With regards to engagement and loyalty, he is a great fan of the ‘thank you’ call for example,

“Gosh I would be thrilled to receive one of those [thank you calls]! Telephone will be used more and more as a connection device, thanking, bringing news, asking for more money or money in an emergency.  It’s got to be integrated of course, but then ALL media has to be integrated, most of all social media.”

So we know what we’re putting on our feedback form to the IFC this year – a big ‘yes please’ to more topics around the telephone.

Will our call for 2014 to be the year of the telephone be answered? We shall see.


7 thoughts on “Why are we still hanging-up on the telephone?

  1. So much I could say about this! I can remember these things being said about the phone 10 years ago, and what has happened since? Very little has changed, and I suspect charities have remained fixated on the unit cost of phone conversations with supporters and potential supporters (because you know the phone is an acquisition tool as well if used properly) rather than looking at the cost per donor compared to other channels. The result? Agencies like Pell & Bales, Pure, Gogen, The Phone Room, Listen, who all do superlative work, are forced to compete on cost, and Year One ROI, when in fact the phone should be seen as the strategic generator of lifetime value.

    That excessive focus on cost-management limits the potential of the phone. Agencies can’t allow call-lengths to be too long, otherwise they lose money on every phone contact they make. And squeezed margins mean that agencies have little spare money to invest in research & development, having to concentrate on maintaining throughput instead.

    I have the luxury of running my own call room for the university where I work, and it’s allowed me to do things the way I would have loved to when I worked for an agency. Our callers spend 15 minutes or more on average talking to our donors. Our call-centre software allows us to follow up with a personalised email to them, written by the caller after each call. Just implementing that saw our online given soar by 1750%!

    I have never had a follow-up email from any of the other charities that have contacted me by phone. I suspect that’s because they won’t pay the extra for the time required for the callers to write them – the technical capability has been there for years! And our supporters love them – they send in replies and thank yous for the calls & messages, which we pass on to our students, who feel appreciated and valued in their job. A virtuous circle.

    But only if charities are prepared to invest in what remains the only true way to have two-way dialogue with their supporters.

    • I thought you might be with us on this Adrian! Thanks for taking the time to reply. I agree – we need to be careful as a sector to not overly commoditise the conversations we have with supporters by making it all about price point. (In my opinion this has already happened in donor acquisition across all direct dialogue channels, hence the high attrition rates. We mustn’t let the management of existing donor relationships and interactions go the same way!)

      A fifteen minute phone conversation is worth its weight in gold. Having said that a 3 minute conversion goes a long way too – while we await the sector to acknowledge the channel and conversation as a generator of lifetime value:).

      Now channel integration is exciting and will be accepted more readily than the fifteen minute call. We are integrating email and SMS with great success. I would love to catch up in more detail about the personalised email direct from the caller – with 1750% increase in conversion I am sure I can get the numbers to stack up even if we are fixated with year one ROI!

      • Happily catch up with you about that at some point soon Bethan! I should point out that it was the volume of online giving that went up, the increase in conversion of phone pledges isn’t quite as dramatic as that 🙂

  2. And another lesson in “I am not my donors”. I HATE, HATE, HATE phone calls! Even thank you calls. They’re always an interruption. I growl when the damned phone rings. And call me when I haven’t invited the call? Hang up.

    But as I said, I know I’m not the model. But I do suspect that reactions like mine may color how many of us might feel about it – regardless of its effectiveness.

    • Isn’t good fundraising about ‘interrupting peoples daily life’ – making people stop and take notice, take action?

      I fear you are right though, many a charity struggle to get their telephone fundraising budget signed off because a trustee or board member ‘hates the phone’. People will always have a deeper reaction to some channels over others. Until you call, you won’t know who is responsive or not. ALWAYS ask the donor if they want to take the call, for permission to continue. And manage meticulously donor preferences – always capture if the donor doesn’t liked to be phoned, and don’t phone them again.

      • Oh, I agree. At a past (larger-budgeted) organization, we used both telefunding and telemarketing to great success – largely because it was in-house and our callers were staff members who developed real relationships with people over the years.

        As I said, I know my personal reaction isn’t the one to judge on. I think you caught me after yet another unsolicited phone solicitation!

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