Incentivizing Alumni to Answer Phonathon Calls
There’s nothing more disheartening to a phonathon manager than a center filled with callers listening to phones ring and voicemail greetings. Unfortunately, for many annual fund programs, this is the current reality.
Gone are the days when reaching prospects required little more than dialing. Thanks to caller ID, mobile devices, and the negative stigma associated with telemarketing, alumni (particularly young alumni) are less and less likely to answer when their alma mater calls. Today, the likelihood that a prospect will even pick up is less than 50%. This is troubling because phone solicitations typically have much higher donor conversion rates than other channels like direct mail or email. What’s more is that phonathon programs can be expensive to sustain.
Like a lot of programs, the University of Buffalo had watched its phonathon contact rates decline for years and they were particularly concerned by the low contact rates among their most recent graduates. They felt like they were missing the opportunity to connect with these graduates in a personal way and worried they weren’t making full use of the phonathon center, which wasn’t cheap to maintain. So they decided to test something new.
They sent a postcard to alumni offering a chance to win a gift card for simply answering the phone—regardless of whether or not they made a gift. Their goal was to get more alumni (especially younger alumni) to engage in a discussion, not just respond to a solicitation. They believed that if they focused on connecting with alumni, it would give them an opportunity to update their contact information (paving the way for future communication) and engage them in a personal way. Soliciting contributions would be secondary.
Alumni who received the postcard ended up answering the phone at higher contact rates than those who did not, which allowed the callers to connect with alumni even if only for a few minutes. In addition, alumni who received the postcard pledged at higher rates, even though fundraising was not the primary goal of the effort.
The battleground for each channel has its own unique opportunities and pitfalls, so be mindful of what you’re communicating as well as how you’re communicating it. Cutting through the static to reach your alumni via phonathon requires you to be creative and methodical, assertive and direct. With the right balance, you should find that your alumni will answer the phone.
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