The word business can often carry with it a negative connotation. Businesses are sometimes thought of as an impersonal, cold entity, seeking only the bottom line at the expense of human relationships. While there are undoubtedly some businesses that fit that description, successful businesses are nothing like that depiction. In fact, the best run organizations put people at the forefront of their mission, realizing that achieving the objectives and goals set forth means successfully balancing product and personnel.
The effective phonathon manager runs their program like a business. They understand that high rates of productivity and efficiency are the outcomes of thoughtful planning and strategic analysis conducted many months prior to the end of the calendar or fiscal year. They know the value of intangible qualities like leadership, motivation, and integrity, while at the same time appreciating the necessity of tangible factors such as knowledge, effort, and analysis. Managers who believe that achieving objectives and goals have less to do with luck and more to do with skill and foresight are infinitely more prepared to succeed.
To achieve stellar results, phonathon managers need to think like a business owner that has a substantial investment in their operation. Think of dollars raised as revenue for the company, donors as new customers, and students as critical employees. Caller turnover, interviewing, hiring, policies and procedures, hours of operations, training, productivity rates, and many more factors discussed within this book all play a part in the success of a business. The end result becomes a byproduct of management’s actions, pure and simple.
Phonathons should emphasize a proactive, business-like approach to fundraising, while maintaining a positive and motivating atmosphere for employees. Planning, forecasting, and anticipating potential issues are all important elements of being proactive, and there is no substitute for vision. Being reactive usually means management has waited too long to make the appropriate changes that can make a significant impact on overall results. Missed opportunities mean lost potential, not only for the current campaign but perhaps for future efforts as well.
A phonathon program is often a critical component to an institution’s development office, providing a major source of donor retention and acquisition. While the dollars that are raised from phonathons are usually considered to be modest in comparison with other methods of annual giving solicitation, the personal connection made via the telephone can result in significant upgraded pledges, donor education, and stewardship. The phone call that alumni receive may be the only personal contact they have with the school during the entire year. It is a big responsibility that the callers have, and a wonderful opportunity to make a positive impact. Stewardship is the truest form of client reverence in the world of annual giving, which combined with productivity, is the backbone of any business.
Phonathon at the Margins
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, identifying the donors who will give and picking the low-hanging fruit. Undoubtedly, this is a positive for annual giving programs. 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 will find it more difficult to see large gains in donors or dollars on yearly basis as the continual cultivation of alumni will mean 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 phonathon programs will indeed be able to improve their results from one year to the next. With the exception of the rare underperforming program that is essentially ignored by the development professionals on campus, the vast majority of phonathon programs see smaller, marginal increases instead of more sizeable improvements in overall productivity.
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 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 little things that make up a phonathon have a large impact on the results.
As always, your comments are welcomed!
[This passage taken from Jason Fisher's book The Phonathon Manager's Planning Handbook, published by CASE, 2008.]