5 Things Never to Do in Your Phone Fundraising Calls

With this blog post, I’m launching a new, regular feature at Michael Rosen Says. Periodically, I’ll invite an outstanding, published book author to write a guest post. If you’re an author who would like to be considered, please contact me directly.

For the first author-guest-post, I invited Stephen F. Schatz, CFRE, author of Effective Telephone Fundraising: The Ultimate Guide to Raising More Money, the definitive book about how to make a successful appeal using the phone. Steve and I worked together as telephone fundraising pioneers. In his book, for which I wrote the Foreword, he reveals most of our proven techniques. Step-by-step, his book shows the right way, the most effective way to do telephone fundraising. As the back-cover says, “Despite the advent of sophisticated fundraising methods via the Internet, social media, and other online platforms, the bottom-line truth is: good old-fashioned telephone fundraising still works, bringing in over one billion dollars annually from generous Americans. It’s a wellspring of untapped funds your nonprofit could be reaping. Savvy, straightforward, and humorous, Effective Telephone Fundraising: The Ultimate Guide to Raising More Money shows you how to secure more donors, raise more money, and build donor loyalty.”

For this post, Steve looks at things from a different perspective and shares what he believes are the things fundraisers should never do in their phone fundraising programs:


When my wife heard that I was writing an article about the DON’Ts of telephone fundraising for Michael’s blog, Michael Rosen Says, her helpful suggestion for #1 was “Don’t pick up the phone — it might be a telemarketer!”

I had to explain the slant was to help telephone fundraisers, not to hurt them. In my recent book, Effective Telephone Fundraising, I suggest plenty of “DOs” — things you can do to make effective telephone fundraising calls. But here for your reading pleasure are some of the DON’Ts!


In the cyber fundraising world, they call this “Opt In” or “Opt Out.” In telephone fundraising, it’s simply asking the prospect to speak with you. A range of nuance is available to the fundraiser from the interrogative “Is now a good time?” to the declarative “I’d like to speak with you a few moments about XYZ Charity, if that’s okay…” giving the prospect the opportunity to opt out. It’s simple courtesy.

The telephone is an interruptive medium. Your call is either coming into the prospect’s home, office, even the automobile. You are interrupting their time, mind and focus. Barging through by telephone is like a door–to-door brush salesman ringing your bell, and the moment you open the door, sticking his foot in the crack and proceeding to make a pitch — perhaps even waving his latest dandy toilet brush in your face — saying, “It’ll make your bowl the tidiest and cleanest in town!” Rude!

What if the prospect chooses “opt out”? You can try to arrange a more convenient time he or she will “opt in.” If you can’t? Chances are you wouldn’t receive a gift anyway, even by sticking your foot in the door!


This is one of the most difficult things for new fundraisers to overcome — a fear to steel one’s self to make a proposal with a dollar tag attached. The maxim “ask and you shall receive” is indeed apt.

How successful would a grants writer be in writing a proposal to a foundation that ended, “Well, anything your foundation can spare this year, we’ll appreciate!” Or, thinking in another, completely different vein, a young man asking a girl out for a date, shyly looking down as he shuffles his feet, “Uh, Shirley, maybe you’d like to go out with me sometime?” — as opposed to the more direct, “Shirley, there’s a great new pizza shop on Market Street with the best pizza in town. How would you like to come with me next Tuesday?”

Allow the prospect to focus on a number, a specific dollar proposal. If the prospect rejects that, it opens the door to a counterproposal, a lower amount. G = f(A) is an indelible formula for telephone fundraising, and for philanthropy in general: the number of gifts you receive is a direct function of the number of asks you make.


In between the “hello” and a “pledge” a lot has to happen. Unfortunately, so many “telemarketers” use a one-way approach, broadcasting a pitch into the telephone’s transmitter, hoping the sheer force of their verbal wind will somehow blow money out of the prospect’s pockets in the organization’s direction. Please observe the Lord gave us two ears and only one mouth and the most successful fundraising calls are constituted in similar proportion.

Note also that the telephone has a receiver as well as a transmitter, and encouraging your prospect to talk, comment, react will not only keep them on the phone, it will help involve them in the call and, ultimately, help bring them to your cause.


The prospect has said “yes.” Now it’s time to nail down the specifics, before you celebrate. First, THANK, THANK, THANK the prospect. You can never, ever thank donors enough. As for the specifics, it’s okay to have a kind of formality, even scripted routine that ensures there is no disagreement or misunderstanding about a pledge.

What is a pledge, exactly? It is a promise to pay a specified amount of money on or by a specific date. No “ifs,” “ands” or “maybes.” To collect on the promise repeat the amount, at least three times, with the prospect’s assent. Also agree on a date or deadline by which the gift is to be sent.

To ensure they can act on their promise be sure to update the prospect’s address (which can change frequently from your records) and the prospect’s email address so your organization can communicate in a timely and more efficient manner, perhaps even enabling prospects to honor their pledge by entering their credit card information via a web link.

You would be surprised, over the years how many telephone fundraisers drop the ball after doing all of the hard work of obtaining a pledge. “Ah, Steve, I see you got a $100 pledge from Mr. Doe … great work! Did you get the prospect’s new home address?”

“Uh, I forgot …”

“Well, how are we going to send him a thank you letter and reply envelope?”

“Uh, I guess I’ll have to call him back!”


This is a corollary to “Create a Conversation.” As a two-way communication medium, why not take the opportunity to thank donors for their prior support, or patrons for the patronage, or volunteers for their time, or constituents for whatever their involvement? It is human nature to want to feel valued and appreciated.

At the beginning of a call, nothing is more instrumental in developing rapport and establishing or reestablishing a relationship — for it’s on this secure foundation you will be successful in obtaining a gift. “Mr. Smith, first of all I want to thank you for your gift to the annual fund last year — we so appreciate your support!” “Ms. Jones, thank you for being a subscriber this year. How are you enjoying the season?” “Mr. Adams, I wanted to call and thank you for caring about the plight of the homeless in our city, if everyone felt as you, there wouldn’t be a homeless problem!” 

It not only works, it’s the right thing to do.

That’s what Steve Schatz and Michael Rosen say… What do you say? Share your thoughts or questions and Steve and/or I will be happy to respond.

39 Responses to “5 Things Never to Do in Your Phone Fundraising Calls”

  1. I think MRS. Schatz should write an article for the blog.

    • Jeff, she absolutely loathes the phone. Won’t even answer her cell when I call. Won’t text, will occasionally email. Thinks Alexander Graham Bell and Satan were one and the same.

    • Jeff, your comment is brief but says a great deal. Thanks for writing-in.

      There are certainly plenty of folks out there like Mrs. Schatz that really do hate the telephone. For my part, I don’t hate receiving phone fundraising calls. However, I do despise getting terrible phone fundraising calls or fundraising calls for organizations I care nothing about. One of the keys to successful phone fundraising, and one of the reasons it still generates vast sums for the nonprofit sector is that calls should be made to those with an existing relationship with the organization or, at the very least, with a demonstrable affinity for the organization’s mission. I am not an advocate of cold, untargeted calling. To be sure, there are those who are, they just don’t have my endorsement.

      Many years ago, back when phone fundraising was still new, I was meeting with a prospective client. The museum’s director of development was about to sign my contract for phone fundraising services when the CEO walked into the meeting, plopped down in a chair, and said, “I hate telemarketing!” The director of development turned red, but she said nothing. As I began to pack my things, I asked the CEO why he hated getting calls. He said that he gets too many calls and they’re terrible and a waste of time. I asked what organizations have called him. He rattled off a bunch of names of for-profit and nonprofit organizations including The Walnut Street Theatre. I said, “Oh, the Walnut called you. What did they want?” He said that they wanted to sell him a pair of season ticket subscriptions. I said, “Well, did you buy any?” Now, it was his turn to turn red as he looked down at his shoes and replied, ” Yes. I bought a pair of season tickets.” Then, I said, “Great! I’m glad to hear that. The Walnut is one of my client’s and that was my program.” The CEO got up, and without saying a word, he left the meeting. The director of development signed my contract, and the museum was a happy client for years.

      My point is that when we receive calls for organizations we care about, we like the call especially if the caller has sound skills. Calls are only a problem if we find no value in them. When making phone fundraising calls, we need to reachout to people that already have a connection or affinity. And, we need to deliver value with the communication. Of course, there will always be some folks like Mrs. Schatz that won’t like the call no matter what. For those folks, we just have to be polite and, if they wish, place them on the organization’s Do Not Call list so they’re not troubled in the future.

  2. Michael, a great idea to have guest writers. Stephen, thanks for your good reminder of the still valuable use of the telephone for fundraising and how the medium doesn’t change how we treat our donor friends.

  3. Steve and Michael,

    You make a number of good points here, and I want to touch on the part about conversation between the “permission to talk” and the “ask”.

    In the planning process for launching these campaigns, the inevitable question for many charities is whether to use an outside company with professional telemarketing callers or to have students/volunteers/staff members making the calls. It seems the choice between the two is a decision on which element of the call to focus on – professionals will hit that intro/ask/follow through nearly perfectly, but people closer to the organization have an ability to build a natural rapport during the conversation part of the call.

    I’m interested to hear your thoughts/experiences/success/failures with this question.


    • Christina, thank you bringing up a very common issue that development professionals wrestle with. First, I want to recognize that not all in-house efforts are equal. Second, I want to acknowledge that not all outside phone fundraising providers are equal. A great in-house effort will always be better than a horrible out-sourced effort and vice versa. And, a great out-sourced effort will almost always out perform a great in-house effort for a number of reasons including:

      1. Service providers have broad experience. They know what works and what doesn’t under varied circumstances.
      2. Service providers are for-profit companies. As such, the good ones will be innovative and focused on quality. That’s what leads to profits.
      3. As for-profit businesses, service providers are under great pressure to perform. That means getting both quantitative and qualitative results to ensure client happiness. An unhappy client can destroy a company. So, there’s a pretty powerful incentive to do well. By contrast, the costs associated with lack-luster in-house phone programs are usually less severe and less direct.
      4. As Steve has pointed out, a service provider is not necessarily anymore of an “outsider” than the paid director of development. When Steve and I owned our phone fundraising firm, we were fond of describing ourselves as a “development office annex” for our clients. And, on many occasions, we actually cared more for about protecting the client’s interests and mission than our development contact; I think part of the reason for that is that we were with the organization longer than the job-hoping development officer.

      I could go on but, instead, I’ll respond to your specific issue about rapport. Once upon a time, I had an arts client. They couldn’t afford a full out-sourced program. So, they asked if they could hire my firm to manage the in-house volunteer effort. I agreed. However, the client couldn’t recruit enough volunteeers so they asked us to supplement with paid callers. This gave us an interesting opportunity to test the ability of volunteer v. paid callers. In a carefully controlled test, closely supervised by the client, we found that the volunteers were TWICE as expensive as the paid callers when you factored in foregone revenue as a cost. Neither the volunteers nor the paid callers generated any complaints from those called. The reason the paid callers were so much more successful is because they were able to establish rapport, accurately respond to questions, and ask for the gift. By the way, the client found the funds the following year to do the program right: 100% outsourced to my firm.

      A service provider can develop wonderful rapport if you give them the information they need to be successful and if they hire great people and provide them with extensive training. The challenge is to find the right service provider for your particular situation.

  4. Christina – it could be that way, however, with the right people recruited (compassionate about the causes) and thorough training on the organization, we’ve proved at Keys Direct Marketing that we can professionally represent our charitable clients, just as if we were working directly for them – well actually, we are.

    It’s often been said (on seeded calls) that our staff actually know more about the given organization than many of the board members. This is due in large part to the amount of training our professional callers take part in.

    I agree 100% with the 5 key points here in Michael’s blog and can confirm that these simple building blocks to successful tele-fundraising absolutely work.

    We’ve been using them at Keys Direct going on 20 years. Hundreds of millions of dollars later raised for our clients, we’ve even got boxes full of letters and compliments over the years thanking (the caller) for “A GREAT CALL!”

    It’s not rocket science, but it is an art, and it’s also a job that (staff, volunteers/board members) might do for a day or so in an OK manner. But longevity is needed day-in-day-out to really do the job properly.

    • Dear Christina and Scott,

      By way of disclosure, I came from the “pro” side of the ledger and can attest what Scott says is true. Well trained, “professional” telephone fundraisers can be very effective at building the kind of rapport you’d think might be only possible from students and volunteers. When you stop to think about it, most development staffs are “hired guns” coming from outside the organizations they represent. They learn to speak about their organizations with expert knowledge and enthusiasm because … they are well trained! Okay, okay, I know a lot of you professional development folks really LOVE the organizations you represent, so it comes naturally ….

    • Scott, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Some people think of phone fundraising services as something of a commodity. That is, they think all phone fundraising companies provide the same style of programs and the same level of quality. Ha! Nothing could be further from the truth. There are some service providers that are terrible. And, there are those who are superb. I’m glad to know of your commitment, not just to your clients, but to the folks you’re actually calling. I appreciate your passion.

  5. I posted information about this blog post on the Association of Fundraising Professionals Group at LinkedIn. Sarah Black had a great addition for the list of Do Nots:

    “DON’T abuse the silence. Silence is golden. Once you’ve asked a question – be it for money or otherwise – give the prospect a chance to think about their answer before jumping to conclusions. One way to scare someone off the phone is to fill the silence with jabbering and half questions and answers. In fact, it shows insecurity, when what we really want to project is confidence; specifically, confidence in our mission or cause.”

    Sarah’s terrific point circles back to Steve’s comment that we have two ears and one mouth and that that should be the proportion in which we use them. Using the silence is a fairly simple yet sophisticated technique that is not as well mastered as you might expect. I thank Sarah for sharing her terrific bit of insight.

    • Yup, Sarah and Michael are right. Listening effectively and trying to discern what a prospect is saying, what he or she means is key to success. Lots of examples and vignettes are in the book “Effective Telephone Fundraising”. Go buy a copy, or two. Makes excellent stocking stuffers for the Holiday Season!

  6. Folks, you might be interested to learn that “5 Things Never to Do in Your Phone Fundraising Calls” has set a new single-day readership record (Nov. 2, 2011) here at my blog site. Thank you for your interest in the topic and for helping to set this new record.

  7. I’d probably add to the first one that you can ask the person if you can get their email address to send them materials to look at and then ask if you can call them again in a few days time.

  8. Actually, I’ve seen a fair number of telemarketing blogs who list tips that mostly (if not all) parallel this one (#1 and #4 especially). It’s interesting. The only difference I notice is a DON’T with regards to the quality of telephone technology being used. It’s probably minor I’m sure but I hope you don’t mind me pointing this out.

    • Lawrence, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Steve’s list was certainly not intended to be exhaustive. So, additions to it are certainly welcome. If readers want more from Steve, I suggest they pick up a copy of his book. His book is comprehensive and will help any phone program get better results.

  9. While very obvious, most of what this column had to say was very accurate, I can speak with some authority on this as I am a professional fundraiser for various veterans groups. And I have been doing so for ten years almost, I couldn’t imagine asking a lead, “Can I speak with you?” Of course because very few people LIKE our calls everyone would say, “No, I’m busy thank you though.” I do commercial sales of ads in convention books, which really does help out the veterans, but we have to apply a certain amount if aggressiveness, that’s the name of the game here guys, people love to buy but hate to be sold, donations certainly don’t sell themselves. I can’t imagine how these guys are gurus telling people to ask if its ok to proceed.

    • Shane, thank you for your comment. You have successfully demonstrated a point of view that nicely illustrates what is wrong with the practice of fundraising. Your comment reminded me of a famous quote from Abraham Lincoln: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

      While I cannot speak for your employer, I can say that a great many so-called veterans groups that run phone campaigns are unethical and give the entire nonprofit sector a black-eye. Many of these groups receive only a tiny percentage of the money donated while the phone vendor receives the lion’s share. Many vendors for veterans groups use “aggressive” tactics, as you’ve stated quite clearly. Unfortunately, rudness, bullying, and aggression have no legitimate place in professional development work.

      If people do not want to talk with you, you should take a hard look at why they do not. Could it be that they have no prior relationship with the organization? Could it be that they never even heard of the organization? Could it be that they know that many veterans charities benefit the fundraising company more than the vets? Could it be that they don’t like cold-calls? Could it be that the calls are not warm and engaging?

      Our military veterans are heroes deserving of our support. A majority of Americans agree with me on that. So, I’m puzzled as to why strong-arm tactics would be necessary to raise money for them. Unfortunately, disreputable so-called veterans charities and blood-sucking vendors are siphoning-off dollars that should be going to help our vets. If your employer always gets more money than the vets it supposedly represents, even from renewing supporters, then do the right thing and change jobs. On the other hand, if your employer and the charity it represents are legitimate, then you really should not use the same tactics as the unethical groups.

      By the way, as to the guru status of Steve and me, I’ll just point out that we never lost a head-to-head test with another vendor. And, we were repeatedly ranked among the most cost-effective phone fundraising service providers in the nation.

      You should actually try reading the book.

  10. Reblogged this on I open my mouth & words come out and commented:
    Yes, these are the right 5! Esp. number 3 🙂 Via @MLInnovations

  11. Asking if now is a good time? No way. Getting an answer is hard enough. If the time is bad, they’ll tell you and then you can set a call back time (usually no answer or a delayed no). Also, asking nicely if they want you to call back or not can weed out the time wasters. The rest of the information is good.

    • Doug, thank you for commenting. Your view concerning whether or not to ask permission to speak during the start of a phone fundraising call is a classic organization-focused approach rather than a donor-centered approach. Unfortunately, it is also the typical approach used by most phone fundraisers. Organizations that do not ask for permission to speak seem more concerned about how hard it is for the organization to reach prospects than they are about whether they are interrupting the prospect. Sadly, this old-school orientation leaves a great deal of support on the table.

      Steve and I have tested the idea of asking for permission to speak. We tested the donor-centered approach with a variety of nonprofits, both in terms of type of nonprofit as well as geographic distribution of prospects. So, Steve’s suggestion is not based on whim, gut feeling, or emotion. Instead, Steve’s suggestion is based on empirical evidence. This does not mean that asking permission to speak will be an effective tactic for every charity or every constituency, just most. To determine if it is the best approach for your charity, you should carefully test the tactic against a control group. However, in the absence of any testing for your specific organization, best practice would be to take the donor-centered path and ask permission to speak.

      I should also point out that, in order for Steve’s approach to work best, an organization needs to have an effective way to schedule and keep phone appointments with prospects.

      I agree that reaching prospects by phone is challenging. However, talking to folks who don’t want to speak with us or who can’t give us their attention is a waste of time for the charity and the prospect. Fortunately, there’s a better way.


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