Ditch the Script—and Other Ways to Rekindle Your Phonathon Program

How does the phonathon fit into the new age of fundraising? Does it still have any value? It’s a question that everyone in fundraising has been asking for the past few years—including our annual giving team at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS).

For a long period of time, traditional call centers raised lot of money for institutions. Alumni, friends, and parents picked up their phones in droves, and student callers were able to efficiently read through a script and secure a gift or pledge.

This is no longer the reality at many institutions, but that’s not to say the call center isn’t still a valuable resource. We just need to reimagine its purpose.

Based on what we’ve implemented at HWS, here are three ways to make your call center useful and relevant in today’s day and age.


Less Is More

Traditionally, call center metrics have included number of call attempts as a measure of success. We operate under the assumption that the more constituents we dial for, the more we’ll be able to convert.

This style is dead. Or at least it should be.

Instead of focusing on how many people you can call—or even how many people you can contact—shift your focus to calling and contacting the right people. Who is already answering? Which groups are you already converting? Who needs to be hearing from your students? These are the constituents you should be calling.

Your time and money are too valuable to waste on voicemails. By focusing on the right people instead of calling the masses, you should see a better return on investment and you’ll have happier, more productive callers.

What’s That? Giving Isn’t the Only Option?!

“You only call to ask for money!” Most of our constituents see our number on their phones and think they know why we’re calling. But what if we prove them wrong?

Make general information calls. Follow up on events. Create surveys and perform some market research. Call and say thank you (and not just for making a gift). Ultimately, our goal is to get our constituents to give—and to give often—but oftentimes we’re so focused on immediate gratification that we skip the essential steps in between. Getting a crucial piece of data, making a constituent feel good, and acknowledging that they are partners can make a major difference for future outreach.

Using your call center for more than just solicitations allows for a larger range of positive outcomes (new information, timely thank yous, event follow up versus just gifts), and the more positive outcomes your program can have, the more effective the program will be.

Ditch the Script; Let Your Students Shine

There’s no doubt that our students are our biggest assets. Their stories (and the memories they conjure up) are the reason why most alumni stay involved. So why aren’t we letting our student callers speak for themselves?

Sure, scripts can help keep students on track and on message—but they often lead to less-than-lively conversations. Your students are more plugged into the essence of your institution then you are. Let them take the lead.

At HWS, we avoid scripting as much as possible. Instead, we help our callers understand the major goals of the conversation with a few bullet points and strategies. We want our call center conversations to be energetic, we want our students to have fun, and we want our constituents to hear an authentic voice on the other side of the line. A staff-written script is not the best way to make this happen.

Just remember: Your students want to get involved and feel good about the job they are doing. Let them be the experts on what to say and the stories to tell. The best leaders trust their staff members and find themselves guiding much more than instructing. You shouldn’t treat your callers any differently.

Call centers and phonathons still have a place in modern fundraising, but the days of quick scripts and “dialing for dollars” are over. The institutions that can successfully adapt their caller programs to align with current trends will reap the benefits.

Happy calling!

Josh Foladare is the director of annual giving at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. When he is not helping raise money to make the colleges great, you can find him brainstorming new ways to explain what he does at work to his friends and playing with his two rescue dogs. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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