Retaining Student Phonathon Callers
Running a student phonathon is hard work. But soliciting donations night after night as a caller can be even tougher, especially for new students who are learning how to be successful on the phone. Many college and university call center managers report that retaining callers is one of their biggest challenges. In fact, it’s not unusual for programs to have more than half of the students quit by the end of each semester. With turnover so expensive, it’s crucial to create a call center environment where students can refine their skills, feel supported, and enjoy going to work. Doing so will not only cut down on staff attrition rates, it will also ensure that your program is productive.
The phonathon program at Wheaton College has found that the key to success lies first and foremost in making callers feel like they belong to a team—before they’re even taught how to use calling software or read from the fundraising script. Their phonathon team model, which has been in place for the past 10 years, continues to result in pledge rates above 55 percent and delivers more first-time donors than any other solicitation channel at the school.
Wheaton’s student callers are assigned to work the same nights for the entire semester so that groups are consistent and can develop strong relationships. More seasoned callers are given the opportunity to apply for the role of team captain; if promoted, they lead a team of 4-6 callers. Team captains work with callers both in small groups and one-on-one to teach them how to improve their calling skills. This coaching is a critical component of Wheaton’s program, helping to distribute the burden of training and management to prevent phonathon manager burnout.
New callers begin by reviewing the employee handbook and caller training manual prior to their first shift. After that, the team format becomes the primary channel for training. During the first night of each semester, the caller groups are asked to come up with a team name and perform a skit based on that name as a way to promote corporate identity. Nightly games and incentives are customized so teams have to work together, and the captains can use these opportunities to focus on developing certain team dynamics. Additional training activities continue to highlight the Phonathon Center’s central themes: unity, growth, fun, and relationships. These values are what prepare callers to have honest and authentic conversations over the phone.
According to Mark James, Wheaton’s phonathon manager, caller training is designed to rely on firmly-established team dynamics in order to teach strong fundraising fundamentals. As part of the pre-calling preparation each night, teams take time to meet together and discuss their calling assignments, as well as review various strategies to help them succeed, such as creatively navigating tone during their conversations instead of simply going through the various options presented in the script. These team discussions build the confidence of the callers so they are comfortable with resolving challenging situations and gaining the trust of their donors.
In addition to strong fundraising results, caller retention is high. Last year, Wheaton saw a 60 percent retention rate of recent hires, and a 9 percent absenteeism rate throughout the semester. On average, only three employees will quit before the semester ends. By developing people, Wheaton is not only creating a stronger call center, but also cultivating its next generation of donors and advocates.
The more confident and comfortable callers feel with each other, the more confidently and comfortably they will be able to communicate their experiences and requests to donors. By investing in caller teams, you can focus on relationship-building tactics that also translate to donor conversations, helping to provide a basis for a lifetime of support—from student callers and alumni alike.
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