During the height of the pandemic, with social distancing restricting people’s movements and entire populations home-bound, the telephone came into its own. In this feature we speak to three telephone fundraising experts about their insights from charity calling in recent times and explore where next for the channel.
Today’s increasingly digital world is opening up new opportunities and channels for fundraising all the time. And yet, over the past year and more, some traditional channels have seen a resurgence too, with the telephone becoming one of the most valued ways for charities to connect with supporters. While people were living alone and – in many cases – in fear, the telephone enabled charities to reach out, delivering a personalised and often highly engaging supporter experience.
Last year, when EFA surveyed European fundraisers in partnership with Salesforce, almost half (48%) of respondents – and over two thirds of those in Germany – said they used the phone during the height of the pandemic to fundraise and build supporter engagement. With social distancing restrictions in place, no public fundraising, events or retail, the telephone was often charities’ only means of talking with donors and others, a vital way of deepening relationships and engendering support. Indeed, in our recent feature on Donor Love, DEBRA Ireland, RNLI, the Norwegian Association of the Blind and Partially-Sighted and Mercy in Action Onlus all used the telephone to reach out and inspire their audiences.
From simple calls to touch base, strengthening long-term supporter relationships through to upgrade campaigns or emergency appeals, nonprofits are using the phone in range of ways.
A personalised and authentic approach
As a dialogue channel, the telephone offers a wide range of opportunities to build trust, raise funds, develop long-term committed supporters, to maximise donor satisfaction and lifetime value.
Jeroen Hogenhout, founder of Hogenhout Fundraising Support in The Netherlands, emphasises that the power of the telephone is not only its ability to reach thousands of donors, but to personalise every conversation. He says:
“There are no tricks to a good calling campaign, it’s all about having a clear strategy; a vision for how you look at your donors, what role you see them having with your charity and how best to use the telephone to engage them.
“If you use the phone well, you can really strengthen your relationship with donors, as well as raising funds. Several charities called their donors during lockdown just to ask if they were fine, and it was so much appreciated.”
Hogenhout adds: “Covid-19 has been disastrous for so many people, but there were some positive effects too. One of these positives was that people opened up to charities. They realised that what really matters is health and staying close to their loved ones, as well as doing good for themselves and others. We noticed that across our telephone fundraising conversations – donors seemed more open. In the beginning, this was often because it was so nice to talk to someone during lockdown. But even after people got used to social distancing measures, that feeling remained and telephone fundraising was highly successful.”
The authenticity of a one-to-one call is what’s so valuable, helping charities deepen supporter loyalty, according to Helen Mackenzie, CEO of UK-based telephone fundraising agency Purity Fundraising. She says:
“One of the key learnings from last year is just how important authentic conversations really are. Nobody wanted to get it wrong during the pandemic, with people questioning whether it was the right time to call and taking great care to be mindful of people’s circumstances. But we found that supporters wanted to know what was happening, what was needed from them, and they responded with unprecedented levels of generosity.
“The best performing campaigns were those that put the supporter first. We ran one calling campaign for a charity with the purpose of checking in with supporters and seeing how they were coping. If those we called expressed any financial difficulties, they were given the option to take a payment holiday or to stop donating. Remarkably, 98% kept on giving and, although no financial ask was made, some even chose to increase their gift.”
Asking for more – Upgrade calling
Perhaps unsurprisingly with so many people at home during lockdown, many organisations recorded particularly high response rates. Over the year, Purity delivered a high volume calling campaign for Greenpeace UK, which raised 144% of the targeted annual upgrade income.
Tom Micklewright, supporter development manager at Greenpeace, comments:
“For many of our supporters, the pandemic reinforced the urgent need to protect our planet and live in balance with nature and the possibilities that big changes can be made by companies and governments when they are deemed necessary. This coupled with a lockdown where more people were available to talk, resulted in higher contact rates and strong average gifts from supporters who were happy to give more to support Greenpeace’s work during the crisis. We ended the year exceeding our original upgrade phone targets.”
Similarly, a lottery upgrade campaign for the Air Ambulance Kent Surrey Sussex (KSS) carried out across the Summer far exceeded expectation, achieving 160% of its projected income. The charity’s executive director of income generation, Lynne Harris, says:
“We normally rely on face-to-face fundraising to recruit new members into our lottery scheme which generates 51% of our annual income.”
“Our telephone upgrade campaign gave us a fantastic opportunity to bridge some of that income gap whilst also engaging with our supporters at a time when there was a lot of anxiety and uncertainty.”
Donor acquisition and legacy campaigns
While specialists highlight the value of engaging existing supporters over the telephone, 2020 was also a strong year for donor recruitment calls and legacy fundraising.
Raquel Gutierrez, general director of The Fundraising Company in Spain, says:
“With fundraisers off the street, we had to compensate by delivering more acquisition campaigns and we ended up recruiting 30% more regular donors over the telephone than in 2019. We trained up face-to-face fundraisers from our partner group International Fundraising to deliver calling campaigns to build capacity and so that those fundraisers could be retained. We delivered similar training for a large national charity in Barcelona. And yet, it wasn’t just recruitment campaigns that performed so well on the telephone.”
“It can seem contradictory that after more than a year of the pandemic, serious changes in our lifestyles, people feeling the economic impact of losing their jobs or seeing their business on the verge of bankruptcy, legacy campaigns burst onto the market. But, today, so many charities in Spain are seeing the real value of legacy fundraising. There’s a general feeling that the public is increasingly looking to put their life in order.”
She explains that, as was the case in other nations, many charities in Spain stopped their legacy campaigns during the hard lockdown period (April-June) as they felt it may have been insensitive at a time where the nation was seeing around 1,000 deaths a day.
“But this changed by the Summer. Two of our clients launched legacy campaigns then and the public response was really positive. Over 60% of the supporters we called were willing to talk about it and wanted to hear more information, and we had no complaints. We also discovered donors who had already drawn their will and included the charity, but the charity did not know about it. This made the campaign all the more worthwhile.”
Commenting on the legacy environment in Spain, she adds: “Spain is still a conservative country and we have some work to do to normalise conversation around legacy giving. Legacy income brings in less than many other European nations currently, but there is huge growth potential.”
Where now for telephone fundraising?
Looking to the future, the telephone clearly has a key role to play in strengthening supporter relationships, building on the strong foundations established by many during the pandemic. Experts in the field highlight the need for more personalised supporter journeys, alignment with other communication channels and better integration with digital.
“Last year, there was so much need for supporter acquisition that we had very little room for innovation. Now, I’m looking forward to developing new ways to engage supporters, maybe offering step-by-step engagement plans, which offer more flexibility and can be tailored around peoples’ needs and interests. Given the expected post-pandemic economic crisis, we need to allow future donors to become a part of the cause, showing understanding of their fears or their worsening situation.
“In this sense, the phone can be a valuable sensor of a donor´s distress and other feelings. On the phone, we can easily identify people whose situation has dramatically changed and offer them alternatives that prevent them from totally disconnecting from the organisation.”
Mackenzie agrees, adding:
“As the post-Covid world starts opening up again, we need to deliver a truly integrated supporter journey. Whatever the campaign message or goal, the power of the phone is our ability to communicate openly and honestly, to gather insight from supporters and to align future communications around their needs. Digital integration is enabling charities and agency partners to source strong leads; finding people with an active interest in the cause and those who want to help, but, in an increasingly crowded space, charities need to have a strong and clear call to action.
“We’re seeing charities work much more strategically with the phone now, moving away from treating a call as a commodity and making it a more integral part of their donor development programmes. If we’re to truly make this shift, it means assigning KPIs that don’t always focus on the gift, but the quality of the call and how we make people feel. After all, the ‘no’ calls often give you the most insight and value. Who knows how those people may go on to support you in the future?”
Hogenhout concludes, saying:
“Investing in supporter relationships now will generate more income in the future, as that’s how fundraising works. Ultimately, it’s all about building and maintaining good relations and careful communication.”
A final note on compliance
While the telephone offers significant potential for fundraising, there have been concerns over increasingly restrictive legislation around charities’ use of the channel, particularly since the introduction of GDPR three years ago.
Hogenhout highlights that the Dutch Telecommunications Act, which comes into play next month, imposes restrictions on the permissions required for calling, saying:
“The new rules here make it more difficult for charities to get in touch with their supporters. But it’s still legal to call current supporters, ex-donors or those who have opted in, and these ‘service calls’ – thanking donors for their support or asking for their feedback – are often a highly underestimated aspect of supporter engagement.”
And now it seems that the legislative landscape for calling across the EU could be shifting once more. Proposals for the forthcoming ePrivacy Regulation indicate that telephone fundraising could become even more restrictive. This makes it all the more important for the sector to continue to monitor future developments and work together to demonstrate the importance for charities of being able to use the telephone to inspire long-term committed relationships with supporters.
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