Phone-a-thons: Extinct or Re-Purposed? | npENGAGE

Phone-a-thons: Extinct or Re-Purposed?

By on Jul 12, 2011


Updates from October 31, 2011:

We are sharing with you an email excerpt between the author Laura Worcester and reader Marrilee Chamberlain, Manager of the Annual Fund & Alumni Relations at Kuyper College.

Hi Marrilee,

Thank you for copying me on your email—I think, as fundraisers, we can all benefit from this type of experiential insight.

I think it is interesting that your callers had this experience this year.  I have certainly heard that, over the years, it has gotten more and more difficult to reach individuals via phone, as more individuals now only have a cell phone.  And I agree that individuals often wonder, “what the catch is”, though typically are pleasantly surprised when reassured that there isn’t one—it is just a thank-you call.

I think, in general, part of the success of a Thank-a-thon, especially when trying to ensure that callers stay enthused and motivated—is to set realistic expectations.  You might want to share with them that there will certainly be individuals who probably “can’t be bothered” and will just say, “OK, fine” and hang up.  Sad, but basic manners these days are pretty much going by the wayside as more and more people become desensitized to auto-calls and telemarketers. 

However, try to set an expectation of “half-full” rather than half-empty—just as Major and Planned Gift officers need to expect that probably 7 out of 10 contacts (or so, I am just making a point here, not trying to quote stats!) people they contact won’t want to talk, and maybe only 1 of those 10 will agree to meet, the callers may need to expect similar outcomes (hopefully a little better than this!).  And, I have found that donors who are a bit older—perhaps nearing retirement age and beyond—may be a little more receptive to calls, so you may want to do some “testing” to see if demographics make a difference.

I think your idea of sending an “announcement” is intriguing, though part of me feels that this would somehow “spoil the fun” a bit.  Part of the effectiveness of a thank you call is the sheer spontaneity of it.  I would hate to think that we have to “prepare” donors for good news, but again, it might be a concept to test.  There might be value is sending this announcement to a different demographic than I described above:  those individuals who tend to be very busy and eager to ignore a call if they thought they were being asked for money again.  Perhaps an announcement would quell that concern.

Thanks, Marrilee, for including me on your discussion.

Laura Worcester, Senior Consultant, Target Analytics

From: Marrilee Chamberlain  

Hello all – this was a nice article however I have a few observations.    We hold an annual Thank-a-thon in the fall (this past month) where our student callers call every donor who has made a gift in the past year.  Thanking them for their support, asking how they first connected with us, was there anything they had questions about (the college) and so on.

In past years this has always been a fun and great activity with a high connection rate.  We’ve obtained great stories and observations from our donors.

This year however, we had an extremely low connection rate, lots of hang-ups, or folks who just didn’t’ want to be called – as well as many who wondered ‘what the catch was’. 

Does anyone else hold a thank-a-thon?  Do you do any type of announcement or mailing to donors letting them know this will be occurring?  It was quite discouraging for our students and definitely a first since I’ve been here.

Any advice?   As we get ready for our Dec. phonathon I almost wonder if there is another tactic to take?

Marrilee Chamberlain, Manager of the Annual Fund & Alumni Relations, Kuyper College


“Good evening, Mrs. Worcester.  This is Suzy So-and-So calling from Creighton University. How are you today?”

Since graduating from Creighton many years ago, I have received more of these calls than I can count.  This one, however, was a little different.  The caller continued, “I am calling today to thank you for your recent Annual Fund contribution. And, while I have you on the phone, is there any information I can update for you in our files, or any news we can pass on to the Alumni Office for the newsletter?”

Turns out, they weren’t calling for a gift; they simply wanted to thank me for my past generosity, gather any relevant information and, before hanging up, also asked if they could send me any estate planning information.  This wasn’t part of a typical “phone-a-thon” event. Instead, this was a call on behalf of a relatively new effort many development offices are trying out—a “thank-a-thon” or, more precisely, a stewardship activity, not a solicitation.  In this age of cell phones becoming the new home phone, and email and social networking replacing snail mail, many tried and true development strategies are being replaced.   But, before abolishing a call program all together, ask yourself if you might not want to re-invent it with a little different purpose and with more targeted demographics.

While marketing firms will be more than happy to provide with you all the latest data and demographics on call effectiveness, allow me to briefly share with you my observations of what can still work on the phone front.  Creighton did a lot of things right with this call.  First, since I had made the gift as a result of a phone call, it was a logical assumption that they could reach me on the same number to thank me.  While I am not sure if they call to thank donors making online contributions, it does make a great deal of sense to stick to what works:  use the same method to thank that the donor used to give.

 In addition, whether I want to admit it or not, my age (53), places me squarely in what is probably a good demographic for what they were doing.  Again, while I am not professing to be offering “official” statistics on this, anecdotal information leads me to believe that calling 50-somethings is probably more effective than 20-somethings, who are more likely to respond to email or online giving opportunities.  And, asking if I had any information or news to update or pass on is a great way to get address, job or other changes without waiting for the donor to send this info to you.  Finally, inquiring about any interest I might have in receiving planned giving information, considering my age and past history of making annual gifts, is a much more proactive way of engaging me in this conversation than simply offering a check off box on an envelope.

So, before you decide to do away with your calling programs, consider your goals and demographics.  Calling can still be a very effective tool.  It may just be playing a different role (stewardship) in the donor cycle.  And, be sure to carefully target the right demographic for the calls.   There’s a lot of good will that can be achieved by having an energetic representative from your organization reaching out and just saying, “Thanks”.  Give it a try—you might be surprised at what you might gain. 

Do you have a great calling program in place at your organization?  If so, post a comment to this blog or email me at  As usual, I would love to hear from you!


Laura Worcester, senior consultant at Target Analytics, joined Blackbaud in 2001.In her current role she advises nonprofits on utilizing screening results in identifying and evaluating best donor prospects. In 25+ years of fundraising experience, Laura has served as the chief advancement officer for numerous organizations and managed her own consulting business, providing grant writing services to arts, educational and health care organizations. She’s presented at development conferences and has been a regular contributor to Blackbaud’s blogs with selected posts being reprinted in journals such the NonProfit Times. A traveler since her study abroad days in Denmark, Laura’s committed to passing this enthusiasm on to her teenage daughters. Her family’s travel adventures were just featured in a neighborhood magazine in her suburban Milwaukee community. Contact Laura by email.

Comments (4)

  • Who’s thinking of scrapping their phone program? What a mistake that would be, even in a time of declining phone responsiveness. It may be harder to raise money via phone, but that means we need to get smarter, not get out. As Laura writes, stewardship is a part of this — thanking, event calling, “checking in” — all of which we do. But in addition phone interactions are learning opportunities through which we can use call result data to get more focused and free us from relying on anecdotal evidence and assumptions about who’s responsive to phone solicitation and who isn’t. I’ve analyzed my call centre data from 2007 to the present and yes, I’ve found that older alumni ARE more likely to answer the phone. But some of the differences in age are nearly negligible. The median age of alumni who have never answered our call is 41, while the median age of alumni who have answered once in that time period is 42. The median age of alumni who have answered five or more times is about 50 … that’s a reasonably significant difference, but it’s not enough for me to base prioritization decisions on. Likelihood to answer the phone is far more associated with affinity to alma mater than to any demographic factor. Have they attended an event? Have they sent in a change of address? Do you have employment data for them which they’ve volunteered somehow? Have they participated in an online survey? These are clues (there are dozens more) than an alum values having some sort of connection to your organization.

    • Laura Worcester says:

      Thanks, Kevin–these are all great insights and issues to consider when weighing the cost effectiveness of phone programs.  The key takeaway here is, “Do some research”.  Learn more about what works for your organization and who is responding to what type of approach.  Fund raising, while it never was a “one size fits all” endeavor, has become even more complex as technology has exploded.  Segmented approaches to target audiences will likely enhance your opportunity for success.  Thanks again, Kevin.  Other thoughts?   

  • I really enjoyed your article as it raises awareness about leveraging a phonathon program for stewardship. The Thank-a-Thon is something Willamette University has been doing for a while now, and as a former caller myself, it’s always a great energy boost to the program to do these calls. Thanks for highlighting the utility of a calling program for more than just fundraising.  

    • If our goal in annual giving is to build a donor pipeline then it is nonsensical, in my opinion, to exclude the stewardship component from the calling routine. The Phonathon is arguably the only vehicle that delivers personalized constituent relationship management to as many people as it does. A thank you note is nice touch, but a thank you phone call from the benefactors of donor generosity speaks volumes. If schools are really that concerned about investing payroll in a Thank-a-Thon then they can leverage volunteers. As someone who manages a committee of alumni volunteers for their 10 year reunion and a committee of student volunteers for their Senior Class Gift, I feel confident that I can speak to the easier time I have getting volunteers to say “thanks!” than “please join me in making a gift.”

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