Telefundraising Finding Ways Around Cell Phones, Avoidance

Jerry is just about to hear how his pitch went with the network executives when the phone rings. He picks it up to find that it’s a telemarketer. He’s busy, he explains, but he’ll call him back later if the telemarketer provides him with his home number. “Oh, I guess you don’t want people calling you at home,” Jerry says after the telemarketer explains that he can’t provide his home number. “Now you know how I feel.”

The popular Seinfeld bit remains relevant 25 years later as telemarketers continue to face an uphill battle in connecting with intended call recipients. In the face of a steady reduction of individuals using landlines, a move to cellular, and regulations requiring permission and disclosure before making a call, it’s harder than ever for organizational leaders to get their messages across. As those trends continue, it has become necessary to both better strategize telemarketing efforts and look to other means of fostering one-on-one connections.

Vicky Barrett-Putnam, senior director of donor development and acquisition strategies for the Sierra Club, has a background in telemarketing and that familiarity and belief has helped the organization stick with the increasingly challenging strategy.

Business information mogul and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg provided the Sierra Club with a grant eight years ago. The caveat was the organization had to build an activist community of 1 million members. In an effort to convert activists to donors, the Sierra Club turned to email, direct mail, and, finally, telemarketing. With an activist file now hitting 3 million, the Sierra Club keeps with its telemarketing efforts, in large part, because they have the numbers, both literally and figuratively.

The Sierra Club, headquartered in Oakland, Calif., makes about 12,000 contacts per month, according to Barrett- Putnam. Language, approved by attorneys, has been included on all forms and petitions for signees to automatically opt-in to receiving calls and texts. Calling for additional gifts has not been as effective as it used to be, but calling has become a means of improving the organizations’ donor base.

From using the numbers provided on forms and petitions, 2.5 to 4.5 percent of those called become monthly donors at an average of $11 per month, according to Barrett-Putnam. These are individuals who had never given before, she said, and who remain on file at an 87-percent clip after one year with 65 percent becoming long-term donors.

Even if an individual declines to become a monthly donor, an additional 7 to 9 percent give a one-time gift of an average of $30, Barrett-Putnam said, describing telemarketing as more cost-effective for the organization than direct mail.

Telemarketing has also brought some youth to the donor file as the typical Sierra Club activist is between the ages of 45 and 55.

The Sierra Club opens calls by first discussing the petition the individual signed, a reminder that adds some legitimacy to the contact, according to Barrett-Putnam. Reaching people — whether it’s due to an overall move to cellular or individuals less likely to answer an unfamiliar number — still is more difficult than in years past. It used to be that if Barrett-Putnam gave a vendor 20,000 numbers to call, 15,000 would be reached. That number might be 10,000 now simply because people don’t pick up. This trend has not impacted the Sierra Club because with 3 million numbers there’s always someone else to call, she said. For smaller operations, the effects can be significant.

For smaller or newer operations, Barrett-Putnam recommends focusing on building the monthly donor file with telemarketing and to insert disclosure language into forms and petitions that authorize the organization to call provided numbers. Consider telemarketing the next time your organization or its mission is in crisis. “If there is an emergency, get on the phone,” Barrett-Putnman said. “It’s going to work.”

A trick of the trade is to schedule telemarketing campaigns from January to February, after the calendar year ends, and July to August, after the fiscal year ends. Those are non-peak months, she said, and call centers are more likely to be able to provide professional callers as opposed to students or temporary workers. Finally, develop a bullet-point script but leave room for organic conversation. The best calls, according to Barrett-Putnam, are the ones that are conversational and get down to why the individual chose to support the organization in the first place.

The success found by the Sierra Club is not universal. Overall performance metrics for telemarketing have been on the decline since the dawn of the new millennium, said Nick Stavarz, president of Synergy Direct Marketing Solutions, LLC in Barberton, Ohio. Much of this is due to reduced file penetration caused by individuals migrating from landlines to cellular.

It is necessary for organizations to now take a more sophisticated, targeted approach. Cultivation exercises such as thank-you calls and incorporating phone calls into a welcoming program have been places in which hopping on the phone has yielded positive results, he said.

Stavarz recommends focusing on individuals who have been phone-responsive in the past and to be careful not to call too frequently, lest the organization be placed on a do-not call list. “People make the assumption that everybody hates telemarketing, but the fact of the matter is that there is a portion of people who appreciate getting a call from a charity they support,” Stavarz said.

That doesn’t mean that reaching those people is by any means easy. The rental list market for acquisition by phone has become much more difficult as compared to previous years in which organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving built their files on telemarketing. Most nonprofits that have kept with a telefunding strategy have done so with numbers that they already have from past donor relationships, and use calls to engage active and lapsed donors. Stavarz added that while he has not seen a significant uptick in phone scams perpetrated by random callers, one could speculate that such calls make it all the less likely that someone will pick up the phone for an unfamiliar number.

Caller fatigue and evolving individual preferences are also factors, according to Randall Anderson, chief operating officer for ListenTrust, a Portland, Maine-based company that provides English and Spanish-language teleservice. Those middle aged and younger are generally not interested in being contacted over the phone and older populations, who would generally be more receptive, have been warned time and time again not to provide credit card information and to be on alert for fraud, making it difficult to make legitimate calls.

On top of that, call recipients are fatigued from election-time robocalls, a side-effect of Federal Communication Commission (FCC) regulations from the last administration that placed some restrictions on calling, but carved out an exception for political campaigns.

In terms of cold-calling, to each their own, according to Anderson. If an organization’s marketing or fundraising team has a quality list and is still able to leverage it, they shouldn’t stop. The world is changing, however, and the evolution of channels is likely to develop more rapidly than the progression from mail to toll-free numbers to online, he said.

“Out-bound is out, it’s done,” Anderson said of telemarketing and telefunding, describing the channel as exhausted. “I’m a call-center guy and I’m telling you not to do outbound, that doesn’t make sense does it?”

Anderson suggested developing a clear marketing strategy to figure out who your donors are, what they are like, and what they look for when called via those valuable one-on-one interactions with out-bounding calling. One necessity is in-coming calls. There needs to be a place for donors to call with questions, Anderson said. There has to be a number to call for donor services and it has to be included in marketing materials to encourage those conversations.

Anderson also suggested being strategic with social monitoring. Think about how for-profit entities such as airlines handle questions, concerns, and complaints on social media. Nonprofits should employ similar social management on Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, Anderson said, and guide those conversations. Similar attention should be paid to emails in an effort to show that the organization is actively involved in responding and addressing questions and concerns.

These new priorities have changed how ListenTrust has operated, Anderson said. Social-response work such as monitoring Twitter for keywords and Facebook and email responses are newer offerings. The company, long focused on providing Spanish-language services, has incorporated English, somewhat ironically, to support a Hispanic market that is both becoming more bilingual and tends to prioritize one-on-one conversations before donating.

Marketing and funding are becoming increasingly individualized, necessitating more personalization. Providing a representative with a script and a “good luck,” doesn’t cut it anymore, according to Anderson. Social media and social response provides opportunities for more niche-marketing.

When it comes to developing a telefunding or general marketing strategy, Anderson recommends not biting off more than your organization can chew, leveraging the expertise of vendors and strategic support groups, and keeping an eye on how for-profit entities are approaching their marketing.

“Stay abreast to what is happening in [the nonprofit] space and for-profit to see the trends,” Anderson said. “A lot of times nonprofits are slower to adopt marketing strategies than their counterparts in for-profits.”