Dear Kim:

Our organization has been doing an annual appeal for over 15 years. We follow it up with a phone-a-thon and try to reach everyone on our mailing list. Up until a few years ago, the phone-a-thon was a HUGE part of our annual appeal and more than doubled the return (in 1998 we had 261 people pledge $9,835). However, in the past few years, the response to the phone-a-thon has dropped dramatically (in 2009 we had 62 people pledge $1,830). We are wondering if the phone-a-thon is really worth all the time and effort to do anymore. We also can’t figure out why it isn’t working. Nothing has really changed in our method, who we call, or how many times we call. The only thing that has changed is that as time has passed, fewer and fewer people actually pick up their phone. Each year we get more and more voice mails and answering machines. Is there an alternative to have some personal contact with our mailing list, without wasting time on a phone-a-thon? Thanks.

~To Phone or Not to Phone

Dear Not To:

Your question is a great case study and I really appreciate your writing in. I invite other readers to share their experiences with phoning also.

I do not believe your experience is indicative of a trend, unless you are at the front end of the trend. In fact, many groups are having better luck since the “do not call” legislation passed as people have far fewer phone calls in general and are more open to getting calls. Of course far more people have caller ID and few people feel an obligation to answer a ringing phone. The great advantage of all of this is that when you reach someone, they are far more likely to be willing to talk.

You need to look at several variables before abandoning your phoning:

1) Are you constantly acquiring new donors, or are you calling fewer and fewer people every year? In other words, if the 261 people you reached in 1998 were 10% of your list, and the 62 people you reached in 2009 also 10% of your list then your phone-a-thon is doing as well as ever. Your list is the problem.
2) Are you sure your current callers are well trained and as assertive as the callers in the 1990’s? If you have 10 callers and in the good years, 8 of them were really excellent and now only 5 of them are really excellent, that will take a big toll.
3) Is your issue as big as it was in the 90’s? Perhaps world attention has shifted to another place or another cause. Organizations working on Central America issues have found a drop off in donors in general, whereas organizations working on peace in the Middle East have noticed a great increase.
4) Are all of your other strategies (mail, major gifts, special events) working as well as ever and this is the only strategy not pulling its weight?
5) Do you keep track of the rate of response from the people who you do not reach, but you do a leave a message? Phoning may be working more than you realize. To test this, next year, do not do follow-up calls with some of the people you haven’t been reaching, and do leave messages with others and compare results.

Drilling down with more evaluation and analysis will give you the information you need to make an informed choice about whether to keep phoning.

To answer your final question, there is no real alternative to phoning that will give you that same personal experience with the donors you do reach. Some of your donors may respond to email or even a text rather than a phone call, and you may be able to have an interactive experience with other donors through a blog, Twitter or Facebook. You should be working with these Web 2.0 strategies anyway, but don’t give up on phoning yet.

~Kim Klein