Cell Telefundraising

February 15, 2009       Mike Patterson      

Collecting cell phone numbers has been vital for reaching young alums of the The United States Naval Academy (USNA). The challenge for the academy’s foundation is that many alums “don’t, and will never have, landlines,” according to Ginny Joy, USNA’s director of annual giving programs.

Federal law prohibits telemarketers from calling cell phones without a prior relationship. With more than 17 percent of American homes relying on wireless telephones during the first half of 2008, it’s becoming more important that nonprofits gather donor cell numbers. More than 13 percent of homes received all or almost all calls on wireless phones, even if they had a landline, according to a survey by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

Joy said 30 percent of the yearly, unrestricted commitments are raised through telefundraising, whether that number is mobile or landline. “Donors’ wishes are always observed. However many times we aren’t aware if it’s the home or the mobile phone – just that it is their main number,” said Joy. USNA, based in Annapolis, Md., tries to collect all communication methods, including email, physical address and phone numbers.

Just a few years ago, cell phone number scrubs eroded 1 percent or less of file records at InfoCision Management Corp. Now scrubs can reach as high as 4 percent of some file lists, according to Michael White, the company’s chief technical officer.

And landline numbers continue to plummet – with a 1.7-percent increase in mobile-only homes from just the second half of 2007. In some cases, people are even moving their landline phone number to a wireless phone, in a process called wireless local number portability (LNP), making profitable and loyal donors off-limits after the change.

Some organizations with a high average donor age might not be focused on collecting cell phone numbers just yet, according to Kimberly Haywood, director of direct response for the March of Dimes. She explained the White Plains, N.Y. organization’s average donor is age 60. A phone append for the landline can help when some donors come up with a cell phone number. That strategy won’t work if the donor base starts scrapping home phones. “I can see in the future, as cell phones replace landlines as the primary phone, that it’s going to be a big issue for me because I’m going to be upset if some of my best donors start landing on a cell phone list and I can’t reach out to them unless I have permission,” said Haywood.

“In that situation, where we have had a number for a consistent donor of an organization for many years, we call them, they make us aware it is a cell phone and at that point we can then ask for their explicit consent to continue to contact them at that number for the organization,” said Ken Dawson, chief marketing officer for the Akron, Ohio-based InfoCision. “It’s all about planning and making the investment upfront before it becomes a crisis that helps you get through it.”

Telefundraisers are trying to capture cell numbers during inbound calls, asking a donor for authorization to call those mobile numbers and recording the donor’s expressed consent.

“That’s helping us a little bit, but we are seeing a pretty substantial hit in the number as we go through our pre-scrubbing we do during a regular campaign,” said White.

“Once people have made that contact and they want to be a member or donor to an organization, they are willing to give up that information and give consent,” said Dawson. When asking a donor for cell phone consent, telefundraising calls should explain that wireless numbers are protected and the number will not be added to a list that could be sold or rented to another organization. Since the nonprofit would have “exclusive rights” to the cell number, donors might be more willing to give their permission to call, according to Dawson.

Telefundraisers are finding that cell phone calls don’t usually negatively affect giving or response rates, and it might even boost response. “Calling on their cell phones is more convenient and they are quick to respond,” said Thomas Siegel, president and CEO of Los Angeles-based Donor Services Group (DSG).

One of the advantages to collecting cell phone numbers is that most users carry their phones. That makes it easier than trying to catch people when they are home, especially since telemarketers are restricted to call between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. Anthony Alonso, president of Advantage Consulting, in Fairfield, N.J., said nearly 15 years ago the ability to reach people was around 80 percent. Now it has dropped to around 60 percent just to get someone on the phone, according to Alonso.

Cell phone numbers also carry a personal connection element. People anticipate calls from friends, family and the occasional ex – hearing from a donor’s favorite charity might be a little unexpected. “People tend to keep and identify with their cell phones more than they did 10 years ago,” said Alonso. When donors give you permission to call their cell, they are inviting the nonprofit into their sphere of personal contacts. “By all means, it’s a better quality prospect than someone who won’t supply the information,” he explained.

Alonso said he’s recommended for more than four years that nonprofits actively harvest donor cell phone numbers because “there is no real way to get those numbers unless the nonprofit is being proactive in getting them.”

The reality is that “telephone fundraising remains one of the single most effective ways of reaching donors. We have found in these tougher economic times that the results found on the phone are holding up far better than anywhere else,” said Siegel. “I think the phone, when used well, is a very effective means for building a relationship with your donors. Unfortunately, it’s used poorly often and therefore alienates a lot of donors.”

Siegel said auto-dialers have “made the calls faster, shorter with less conversation and more get down and dirty with the ask,” when some donors would rather have a dialogue. DSG created a division just for cultivating dialogue with the donor and recording information about the donor for subsequent calls. “Our basic philosophy is, if you can make a connection with a donor on any level they will always remember the organization fondly,” he said. The division aims to make the conversation three times the length of an average telemarketing call and help increase average gifts.

When asking someone for a gift, InfoCision callers might follow a script with survey questions with multiple choice responses for what the donor would like to see the organization do during the next year. The answers drive the conversation within the confines of the script and those responses can shape future conversations.

“It’s not a generic message – it’s a one-to-one dialogue with that donor and they’ve indicated what they want to hear about and we can continue the dialogue around those means throughout the rest of the relationship,” said Dawson.

He preached multi-channel cultivation and leaving the primary communication channel up to the donor. Just because donors come in through one channel does not mean an organization should assume that’s how the donor wants to continue communicating. “That’s a mistake. I should be given a choice about how I want to continue to be cultivated. I should have a choice whether to opt-in to mail or receive a phone call,” said Dawson.

Haywood said about 10 percent of donors give their email during any given March of Dimes telefundraising campaign – a strategy that she hopes will grow the organization’s email base. Alonso also recommended contacting donors before making phone calls. “It takes away the whole cold call element and hopefully gets people to answer the phone and have a conversation with you,” he said.

USNA sends out pre-call mail pieces to donors that are signed by volunteers, which helps create a connection to the cause. “It not only educates, informs and readies the donor to receive the call, it serves as a wonderful volunteer opportunity for our letter signers and I think it’s as much about results as it is about relationship building all around with our donors and volunteers,” said Joy. The organization also plans to test pre-call emails, which Joy expects will help cultivate younger alumni.

Advantage Consulting sends out a pre-call mail or email explaining to the donor that the company will call in the near future on behalf of a nonprofit. Alonso said the company started sending pre-call emails nearly six years ago and first used it for the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP).

“My concern when we first did that was that people have an easy way to just click reply and say ‘Don’t call me.’ What we found was that the number of people who do that is so minimal – less than 1 percent – that it really didn’t have an impact,” he said.

The emails are less expensive to implement than mail and can help produce a 17 to 20 percent increase in average gift size, according to Alonso. And the emails don’t necessarily need a complex color scheme to be effective.

“It looks like an email sent from one person to another. That’s critical because when people receive emails that look very flashy, it’s nice but people think it’s SPAM,” said Alonso. Instead of throwing pictures and widgets in the email, Advantage tries to personalize the message. “It’s very bland, but it gets read,” he said. NPT