It’s no secret that to level up your calling program, you need to step into the “multi-channel engagement” realm. 

We all have to start somewhere, right?  

So, beyond the basics – renaming the program and redefining program goals, it’s crucial to discuss how to identify and leverage the right tools to make it happen. What might the actual deployment of a multitude of channels look like in the context of your unique program, and what are the pros and cons of the various approaches?  

That’s the topic of our introductory webinar in the “Inside Fundraising Multi-Channel Engagement: Crawl, Walk Run” series. Rachel Spencer, Donor Engagement Enthusiast & Multichannel Fundraising Expert, Jordan Hiatt, Digital Engagement Enthusiast, and I will share our experiences and discuss the latest university fundraising trends. 

If this whole narrative reminds you of sales, you’re right! Fundraising can borrow a lot from this industry, starting from methods, channels, and tools.

Join us as we take our baby steps and “Crawl” toward rethinking and reimagining our approach to donor journeys. 

Terminology: What’s in a Name? 🐱‍🏍

Does your program name really matter? And what about the actual room your student callers employees are doing the outreach? 

Yes, it does. 

When you’re trying to revitalize your program, what you call it will set the stage for other changes that will follow. 

“Phonathon” has become somewhat obsolete – as a way to refer to your program and as a university fundraising concept. The same applies to job titles on your team and even the label on your office door. But we’re not talking about a purely cosmetic change. Taking an entirely new approach to running the program is crucial. 

  1. Change the terminology 

Besides “phonathon,” you must update the entire terminology associated with this approach. 

Move away from outdated words like: 

Student caller ❌

Call center ❌

Call center manager

and embrace the following: 

Student fundraisers or student ambassadors ✅

Engagement center; engagement program; engagement center program  ✅

Engagement center managers/directors  ✅

Get the entire institution on board and start using the new terminology. Come up with a fresh name for your program and rename your office/room too, and make sure it reflects the work your team will be doing from there. Since the outreach will expand well beyond calling, it’s best to use the umbrella term “engagement center” instead of “call center.” 

Apart from staying on top of industry trends, there are two super important benefits of modernizing your wording: 

  • Introducing the idea that you no longer do the same work you’ve been doing for years. Your job has evolved from being perceived as just making phone calls to something more complex and meaningful – building strong and lasting relationships with your constituents. So, give yourself and your team more credit. 
  • Updating titles will make student fundraisers’ jobs more appealing. The connotations around “engagement center” are more positive than that around “call center,” which will allow you to hire better candidates and keep top talent on the team long enough to keep building the program. 
  1. Meet your constituents where they are

Generally speaking, we’re shifting to an approach of connecting with constituents and offering them an opportunity to give a gift in a way that works best for them. The old strategy focused on pushing your agenda in an attempt to squeeze whatever small donation you can get out of them will no longer cut it. 

In addition to implementing more channels, this approach requires you to reimagine phone calls. 

Rather than creating your scripts around 3, 4, or 5 asks, create flows more concerned with the quality of the conversation, establishing rapport, and connecting with your potential donor. 

Such an invested and highly-personalized approach will allow you to determine whether they would be interested in supporting your university with a gift.   

Key takeaway: The main difference between “phonathon program/call center” and “engagement center” is that the essence of engagement is getting people involved, while phonathon implies a more transactional relationship. The shift in terminology and approach will allow you to find the right balance between these two aspects and build a loyal donor base. 

Goals: Shoot for the Moon 🎯

The ultimate goal of turning over the page and reinventing your whole outreach concept as “engagement” is establishing more meaningful connections with your constituents. 

But how do you achieve this? 

Start by identifying the problem you’re trying to address. 

Multi-channel engagement

Think about the pain points, the donor complaints, the items you’re trying to fix, and the issues you’re trying to solve by reimagining the approach to your work. 

Are your donors unhappy with how late at night student callers ring them?

Is a Friday night perhaps a bad time for them to talk about supporting your university/ 

Do some of your donors prefer email over the phone? 

This analysis will help you to pinpoint different elements of the process that need to be improved and allow you to set your goals accordingly. 

Are we still dialing for dollars? 

Dollars and donors have historically been the most important metrics we used to determine the success of a fundraising program. Even though we’re still reaching out to our constituents and want them to participate by making gifts, hitting your numbers in terms of donors and dollars shouldn’t be your only goal. 

However, the key to an effective fundraising program is to add more value to your constituents by connecting with them in meaningful ways by implementing various channels.

Given that over the past few years, we’ve been witnessing donor fatigue or even burnout, getting in touch with your constituents in the way that best resonates with them will help you avoid this issue. 

Engagement implies getting in touch with someone only to check in on them and see how they’re doing for a change. This little touch won’t up too much of your student callers’ time, and still, it goes a long way in establishing meaningful relationships. So, don’t reach out to your constituents only when you need to ask them for a gift. 

Quality of interactions vs. quantity of gifts? 

Don’t be discouraged if you notice that your efforts generate fewer dollars, especially at the start. But it’s crucial to understand that your team is adding so much more value through different activities:

  • Updating constituent information. As you know, having the right data makes a world of difference and lets you personalize your approach. 
  • Identifying constituent preferences regarding the channels of communication and giving methods. Allowing people to choose how they want you to get in touch with them and how they’re most comfortable giving will take personalization to a whole new level. 
  • Inviting people to events. 
  • Collecting information on new grads. These people are your potential future donors, so including them in your constituent database is of critical importance, 
  • Sharing news and updates from campus. Keeping your constituents in the loop about the latest updates from campus and letting them know how their previous gifts made some good things happen will keep them engaged and willing to support you more. 

All this means that you need to develop a way to demonstrate these new, intangible metrics to show how the new approach to donor engagement adds value. 

So, it shouldn’t be all about how much money you raised or how many constituents you contacted, but how many emails you sent, how many responses you got, or even how many addresses or phone numbers were updated. 

All the information that can amplify your outreach and make it more successful – for example, you keep calling a constituent who never picks up, but then they do reply to a text message and tell you that’s how they prefer to communicate. This is a valuable piece of information you can use in the future, and be sure this tactic will work. 

Key Takeaway: Work your strategy around what fits your constituents. Don’t focus on the output – focus on the engagement. Listen to your donors and balance their needs or preferences with your student callers. Don’t call them only to ask them for a small contribution.  

Channels: Variety Is the Spice of Life! 📧☎️📱

Before discussing new channels and how to integrate them into your program, we should clarify why we should move away from the traditional phone or phone+email approach. As we’ve mentioned, not everyone is comfortable with the same communication channel, so diversification is the way to go. 

Here are some tips for successfully introducing new channels to your program. 

Group people based on their preferences  

Due to the massive volume of outreach we’re doing, it’s not possible to be too granular and tailor every single element. For example, if you’re making 1,000 calls, it would be virtually impossible to call each of those people at a specific time of the day they would prefer. 

Still, you can group your constituents based on their preferences, such as the preferred channel of communication, the method of giving, the time of year, or a specific area of campus they would like to be solicited for first. 

However, if you decide to ask your constituents about their preferences, make sure you have a system in place to fulfill their wishes. It’s not a good idea to get their hopes up and then let them down by not delivering on your promise. 

Find a new way of doing things

While it’s true that the phonathon program as we know it is dead, the phone as a channel is very much alive and effective – it’s practically irreplaceable when it comes to building rapport and adding a personal touch. 

Multi-channel engagement

But it’s harder than ever to connect with your people over the phone since they’re getting a lot of messages, emails, and phone calls from different organizations asking them for support. So, you need to cut through all that noise and capture their attention.

Leverage all you can to get your message across and reach your constituents. For example, send a pre-call text to let them know they can expect you to ring them, follow up with an email, and then make a phone call. All these touchpoints will increase your chances of reaching your constituents over the phone. 

Increase your efficiency by testing our different channels

As effective as the phone is in fundraising, it’s an expensive and time-consuming channel.  

So, you can test how your constituents react to text messages and emails very quickly with the help of automation and cut your costs without sacrificing the quality and success of your outreach. 

Tools of the Trade: Leveling Up Your Tool Kit! 🧰

There are a lot of tools in the marketplace, but many programs are running on a shoestring budget. So, it’s not easy to pick the right toolkit that will work for your needs and within your price range.

Here are a couple of steps that will get you going. 

Think about the budget 

Building a tech stack is always expensive. But the good news is that you can do it gradually.

After identifying the issues you’re trying to fix, your audience’s preferences, and your goals, figure out what tools you need to execute your plans and meet your goals. 

Think about the future 

To make a smart choice of tools, have a plan for the future. 

Maybe you can’t get video set up in year 1, but you know you will want it in year 2. Therefore, look for a solution that will allow you to integrate video when you’re ready. Don’t make any snap decisions and go shopping only with a 5-year plan.  

Talk to your campus stakeholders 

Once you have a plan, reach out to your leadership/buying committee and/or other campus stakeholders that will have a voice in your decision-making process and explain your vision to them. They need to see the full picture and what the next few years will look like to understand how a particular platform or software will get you there and how your program will benefit from it.  

Do your research 

Check out different options on the market and see what they’re offering. 

You need both the tech stack and employ students, so find the right balance in your budget. That’s why figuring out where you want to be and how software can help you with that is crucial for picking the right solution. 

Strategies: All the Gear But No Idea 📝

You can have the flashiest tech in the world, but if you don’t know how to use it properly, it won’t do you much good. 

That’s why a discussion on the best ways to put your toolkit to work is a must. 

Personalized outreach at scale vs. mass communication? 

Now that you have the tools to automate your outreach but not at the expense of segmentation and personalization, do we even need to use mass blast-type communication platforms? 

Surely it’s always best to make your outreach come across as personal and as if you’re speaking directly to every single constituent. But, when you’re strapped for time, such as when you’re doing Giving Days or a similar time-sensitive campaign, it’s not realistic to personalize every single message. 

And that’s OK because, by that point, you’ve already engaged your audience and given them the personalized outreach they deserve. 

So, before you resort to the mass comm approach, ensure that this message blast isn’t your first or second touch with your constituents. 

Coordinate your touchpoints between different departments 

Engaging your audience is a joint effort, meaning that various departments participate. 

It would be best to coordinate these touchpoints to avoid flooding your constituents with calls, messages, and emails from the same institution. Improved internal communication and sharing outreach plans among different departments would be ideal. But since that’s not always possible, prepare students for when they hear, “I already got a message from you” or “You already called me yesterday.” 

Keep track of these situations for future reference and try to chart a path that will allow you to plan your touchpoints better. For example, if you know that another department is running a campaign around Homecoming, you can hold off your outreach for a week later. 

Final Thoughts  

Remember that different organizations and causes compete for your potential donors’ attention. That’s why updating your fundraising program and making it relevant to your target audience will allow you to stay ahead of the curve and top of mind with your constituents. 

evolution of phonathons