TELEFUNDRAISING: It's different for us

publication date: Dec 18, 2014
author/source: Dan Abraham

Telemarketing? Gross.  Everyone hates those annoying calls.  Telemarketers are rude, pushy, and always call at dinner. 

Wow.  Those are harsh, unfair and untrue characterizations – especially for the vast majority of people raising funds by phone for worthy and legitimate charities. Time to set the record straight.

Of course, there are bad apples out there: boiler rooms, scam artists, or just rude and pushy telepests pushing crap you don’t want.  But in our world - the telefundraising for charities and nonprofits world, those bad apples are the exception not the rule. So, like many victims of stereotyping, people who work in the telemarketing field (including those that are politely raising money for legitimate charities) get painted with an awfully broad brush.  This is a problem. 

But it’s not just a problem for people who work in the telefundraising field directly.  It’s a problem for all fundraisers.  We all agree that fundraising programs are most effective when they are integrated and multi-channel.  Many of you agree that telefundraising is an important channel with a role to play in an integrated fundraising program. If you don’t agree with that, keep reading, this article might change your mind.  But, wherever you are on that spectrum, the negative stereotypes associated with telemarketing – and by extension telefundraising – are a problem for you.  Why?  Because that person that thinks "Telemarketing? Gross." might be on the board that approves your fundraising budget.  And when they see the telefundraising budget line, it’s like a pimple-nosed skunk jumped off the spreadsheet. 

Let’s bust some myths:

MYTH 1: “Everyone hates these calls.” 

Incorrect.  In fact, it’s a massive generalization from a small vocal minority that feels that way. Reality is far more nuanced and starts with a question:  is there a pre-existing relationship between the entity calling and the person being called?  If the answer is yes, there’s a good chance the call will be welcome.  If the answer is no, next ask whether the person being called might have some interest in the subject.  Again, the answer will inform how welcome the call may be.

Now let’s consider this from a telefundraising perspective.  Are you calling donors or prospects?  Donors like your charity; that’s why they give/gave you money in the first place and we’ve found that most donors don’t mind being called by a charity they support -- provided the caller is polite, respectful of the donor’s time, and well-informed about the work of the organization.

These are your donors: the heartbeat of your organization. So maybe most of them don’t mind being phoned by your charity and some actually like it.  And, ultimately, the numbers don’t lie: donor response rates by phone are higher than by any other donor channel and the majority of donors (about 80%) do answer the phone. But what about prospects?

Let’s go back to whether the prospect might have interest in your organization. The answer to that question will inform how receptive she might be to a fundraising call. 

  • Some non-donors are close to the organization and can be considered similarly to donors: staff, volunteers, loyal event participants, and individuals who donate to affiliated organizations (like people who donate to their local chapter but not the national organization).
  • The next rung down would be one-time event participants and people who have taken an action on your behalf or subscribe to your newsletter.  These people all have an affiliation with your organization and react similarly to a phone call as a new donor.
  • On the next rung down you’ll find donors to like-minded organizations.  If matched with some consideration, there are some very complimentary and responsive fits in the fairly small universe of telefundraising list trades.  
  • At the bottom of the ladder are the people you have no idea about. This has a name: cold calling.  In my experience, cold calling is virtually non-existent as a viable fundraising approach amongst reputable charities and ethical call centres.  This is also mostly true of rented lists.  People on these cold lists are those most likely to be annoyed by your call but those you are least likely to call in the first place.

In short, a lot more care goes into determining appropriate telefundraising lists than the vast majority of "telemarketing" detractors have ever considered.  The end result is a wide variety of approaches and strategies that minimize calls to unreceptive lists and outcomes that benefit the charity, the donor, and the call centre.

MYTH 2:  “Telemarketers are rude and pushy.”

This is another one of those "wide brush" characterizations that is more likely to apply to cold calling than donor-focused telefundraising.  AFP has a set of ethical fundraising guidelines that apply to telefundraising and a quality agency adheres to these.  The guidelines effectively put premiums on politeness, honesty, and respect for donors.  There is no place for rude and pushy telefundraisers in an AFP-member call-centre. 

On the flipside are high-volume commercial call centres that lack a specific fundraising mandate or ethical standards.  They’re cheap.  They’ll sell anything. And some dabble in fundraising: either for large one-time-gift focused charities that have elevated low-cost over other considerations or, sadly, for organizations that might look and sound like charities but are not registered and basically exist to put a few bucks in someone’s pocket then disappear.  But even legitimate commercial call centres working for legitimate cost-obsessed charities often employ a scorched earth "don’t take no for an answer" approach that alienates donors and trades quick cash for the long-term charity/donor relationship. 

Sustainable charities are not built on small donations from one-off alienated donors – they are built on long-term relationships with loyal donors.  The charity works to build building trust and credibility – measured as donor retention – then to move donors up the giving pyramid from new donor to monthly donor to major donor to legacy giver. A good telefundraising partner wants to take this donor journey with you by identifying opportunities for the effective use of the phone in your integrated fundraising program and then executing those phone programs with you.  This is how a sustainable telefundraising business is built - the same as a long-term donor relationship.

Perhaps it's not so different for telefundraisers after all. Perhaps the truth is that in many ways we’re all the same and, ultimately, we’re all in this together.

This article is excerpted from Dan's chapter on "Telefundraising" in Excellence in Fundraising, Volume Two, edited by Guy Mallabone. 


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