Stop Pretending that You Work for Stanford!

It’s big news.

Stanford University has shut down its annual fund telephone fundraising program. You can visit the university’s official web page announcing the decision by clicking here.

It’s all over the blog-a-sphere. It’s made headlines in publications for the nonprofit sector. For example, here’s a headline from The Chronicle of Philanthropy:

Stanford Hangs Up on Telemarketing — Will Others Follow?

I’ll leave it to others to speculate about whether other charities will follow Stanford’s lead. I’ll also leave it to others to consider whether or not Stanford made a wise or foolish move. Instead, I’ll focus on whether or not you should also discontinue your organization’s telephone fundraising effort.

Simply put, you should probably keep your own telephone fundraising program. Here are just five of my random thoughts that lead me to that conclusion:

1.  You do NOT work for Stanford, so don’t act like you do!

Unless I’m mistaken, you don’t work for Stanford, or Harvard, or Yale, or Cornell, etc. Such prestigious universities have built-in, loyal constituencies and, therefore, have a massive advantage over your charity. Not only could Stanford eliminate its phone program, it could fire nearly its entire development staff and still raise much more money than the average American nonprofit organization.

Your challenges are vastly different than those faced by Stanford. So, your challenges require different solutions. If you don’t work at Stanford, don’t make the mistake of acting as if you do.

2.  Telephone fundraising is less effective than it was, but it still works.

Since the early 1980s, I’ve heard so-called experts predicting the extinction of telephone fundraising. Interestingly, many of those same folks also predicted the demise of direct mail.

phone-and-moneyThey were wrong then, and they are wrong now. Neither mail nor phone are as effective as they once were. However, smart organizations have evolved their use of both. The outcome is that these organizations are still able to produce worthwhile results by both mail and phone. It’s not about extinction; it’s about innovation and evolution.

Colin Bickley, writing for NonProfitPRO, provides superb analysis of some of the telephone fundraising challenges faced by the nonprofit sector. However, Bickley concludes:

The telefundraising business is never going away, but it is changing. And right now, it’s clear that its changing more than ever.”

3.  Don’t judge all telephone fundraising by looking just at bad programs.

I’m amazed at how many TERRIBLE telephone fundraising calls I receive. I suspect that the charities responsible are either disappointed with their program results, don’t know enough to be disappointed, or think they’re doing the best they can.

Let’s face it. If your calls are bad, your results will be bad. Remember the old adage, “Garbage in, garbage out.” Not all calling programs are of equal quality. If you’re not getting the results you want, look for opportunities to improve before abandoning the entire medium. You wouldn’t stop your direct mail efforts because one mailing didn’t do well, would you?

4.  Master the fundamentals.

While there are certainly plenty of opportunities for charities to be more innovative with their phone fundraising, many could see significant gains by simply mastering the basics. As I stated above, I continue to be surprised by how many poor-quality fundraising calls I receive. So is Stephen F. Schatz, my former business partner and fellow telephone fundraising pioneer. Steve was so disgusted by the terrible calls he received regularly that he decided to do something about it.

Steve wrote the book Effective Telephone Fundraising: The Ultimate Guide to Raising More Money.  Anyone serious about phone fundraising should read it. There’s no longer any excuse for making horrible calls. You should also read Steve’s blog post “5 Things Never to Do in Your Phone Fundraising Calls.”

5.  Be innovative.

Once you’ve mastered the fundamentals, you’ll be well positioned to test some innovative tactics. For example, you might focus your calling efforts on current and recently lapsed donors rather than long-lapsed and non-donors. Or, you might test different ways of integrating direct mail and email with your calling program rather than looking at them as stand-alone appeals.

Test. Test. Test. That’s the way to find innovative solutions that suit your organization.

Again, should you follow Stanford’s example and eliminate your telephone fundraising program? Almost certainly, the answer is NO!

Used properly, the telephone remains an effective fundraising tool. Furthermore, it can help you build stronger relationships with your supporters. For example, my wife, a deeply committed supporter of Smith College, actually enjoys receiving an annual fund call from a student. She finds it a great way to informally hear about what’s going on at the campus. On occasion, she’s even provided advice to the students. It’s yet another way that she’s been able to engage personally with the Smith College community, making her feel more connected.

Let me know what you think. And, if you’ve discovered some innovative, effective tactics in your phone fundraising program, please share your ideas below.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

9 Responses to “Stop Pretending that You Work for Stanford!”

  1. Good advice. What’s good for the goose is not always good for the gander. And, yes, everything is more difficult than it once was. Because there are SO many communication choices. You need to evaluate those that work best for YOU. And sometimes when others are abandoning a particular space, that’s a good time for you to be there.

  2. Michael- while I was reading the post I had three points I was going to make in my reply but then you covered all three. Each organization has to fundraise in its own unique way. How do you find out what works? Try it and find out. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Just because someone else is jumping off the bridge doesn’t mean you should. Wait a minute, I think I just heard my mom. 🙂

    PS: I loved the title to your post.

    • Nathan, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. I’m glad my post resonated with you, and that I hit the points you feel are key. My mom also drilled the bridge-story into me; perhaps that’s why I had the reaction to the Stanford news that I’ve had.

  3. A month into our second alumni calling campaign at this Australian university and we are achieving a giving rate of 24%, have three new legacy pledges, are cleaning up our data, and having real conversations on a scale we couldn’t possibly replicate face to face.

    I’ve only had to respond to one complaint so far, from someone who hadn’t received his pre-call mailing and so was surprised when the caller moved on to discuss their potential support. But even that was a win as we got to communicate with him about what we are doing, correct his contact details, and update his preferences to a no calling list. And he was at pains to say the caller was very good.

    This mirrors my experience when I started out as a student caller in the UK 20 years ago. I am really curious what lies behind the decision to abandon the phone. Do they have so many fundraisers and volunteers they can visit everyone face to face? The tone of the brief justification on the website suggests it isn’t that, rather the alumni have said they have had enough.

    So have they bombarded their alumni with too many asks? Or lost sight of the vital relationship building and stewardship components that should be primary in the call, and turned their calling rooms into high pressure sales centres? I would love to be enlightened by someone with insider knowledge!

    • Paul, thank you for sharing your experience. You’ve underscored that the phone is just a tool. It’s how we use that tool that matters. Your experience demonstrates, that when used properly, the phone can raise money AND cultivate relationships. As for the situation at Stanford, I would also love to have more detailed information. One thing we do know, however, is that Stanford will still be able to raise a ton of money because, well, it’s Stanford.

  4. I was fortunate enough to work for Michael when he ran The Development Center, a telephone fundraising firm for colleges and universities in the 90s. Michael was one of the most innovative and creative entrepreneurs it was my pleasure to associate with. It is great to see that those talents have not abated over time!

    • Bob, it was quite a pleasant surprise to hear from you. Thank you for your kind message. I hope you’re doing well. The Development Center seems like a lifetime ago. But, we definitely accomplished a lot of good things. Thank you for being part of it!


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