I've been traveling around to various campuses and conferences the past few weeks discussing phonathon and where we are at this point in its history. As I review results from around the industry, it continues to strike me how there is very little room for error if an institution wishes to have a good year and achieve its goals. Programs cannot just plug in computers or print cards and start the money machine. It takes thoughtful planning and higher rates of efficiency than ever before to realize success. Contacts and participation are down noticeably on most campuses, and in some cases significantly. Now, more than ever before, phonathon is a game played at the margins. The small things we might have let go many years ago that impact our results will now make or break a campaign. And I'm not exaggerating when I say that phonathon managers must review every last detail to ensure a successful campaign. I wrote about this in my book last year. It's worth another look. Here's an excerpt from The Phonathon Manager's Planning Handbook on this very subject.
Phonathons on college and university campuses have been around for many years now. Some are manual programs that utilize paper cards; many others have become automated and aided by computer software programs in the last 10-15 years. In either case, databases have been called through on an annual basis, “picking the low-hanging fruit” to identify new donors, reacquire lapsed donors, and retain current donors. Undoubtedly, this is a positive for annual giving programs, as building a foundation of loyal donors is important to the financial well-being of a college or university. However, as a result of the past success, phonathon managers in more tenured programs find it difficult to see large gains in donors or dollars on yearly basis as the continual cultivation of alumni means that most nondonors have heard several solicitations in the past. This is consistent with the economic theory of diminishing returns, which states that increases will likely happen over time but at a decreasing size. Most successful phonathon programs will indeed be able to perennially improve their results, but they do so by recognizing this philosophy and learning how to take advantage of opportunities for marginal gains.
Knowing that the phonathon game is played at the margins, managers must be willing to extensively plan all elements of their phonathon. They will need to more heavily scrutinize the scripts, training materials, and objection techniques they write. They will need to more effectively strategize about segmentation criteria, forecast calling results using all available data, and recruit more intelligently so that they identify the best callers on campus instead of just attaining the numbers they need to fill the seats. The good news for managers is that most programs still have significant room for improvement if they are willing to put the time, resources, and effort into planning and preparation.
The major challenge for phonathon managers is often the multiple responsibilities they hold on campus. Many double as organizers of class agents, senior class gift programs, or reunion class coordinators. This makes it difficult to give full concentration and attention on the phonathon, leading to unnecessary shortcuts. It is tempting to just use training materials and scripts that were created in previous years, offering little in the way of improvements in an effort to save time that can be devoted to other important tasks. However, whatever gain is realized by cutting these corners is often lost through lower productivity in the long run. It makes more sense to critically evaluate the program and make the necessary changes before calling starts rather than trying to play catch up throughout the year. A solid effort in planning helps save valuable time needed to devote to the other important responsibilities that managers face during the course of a fiscal year. For established programs seeking an edge, all aspects of the phonathon should be reviewed. In the end, the many little things that make up a phonathon have a large impact on the results, and this is where your focus as a phonathon manager should be.
Improving results means taking a closer look at every component that factors into phonathon success. Specifically, look at ask amounts, calling scripts, training materials, coaching methods, and negotiation tactics. These areas offer chances for immediate improvement. Segmentation, motivation, time management, calling strategy, pledge fulfillment, and supervisor skills are equally important. Leave no stone unturned. If your program continues to struggle to hit goals and objectives, do more homework. Consider visiting a peer institution or bringing in a qualified consultant for a complete audit to identify best practices that can greatly impact your results. There is no shame in asking for help. Often times, seasoned professionals can find areas for significant growth, making any investment you make pay off many times over with high rates of return. In the end, the goal is to have your phonathon keep pace with the funding needs of your institution. This is crucial in today's world. From that standpoint, phonathon must also keep pace with technology, communication, innovation, and best practices. Therein lies the secret to running a successful program- never be satisfied with the status quo. Yesterday is gone and tomorrow is another opportunity. Be sure your program's full potential is realized.
As always, your comments are welcome.