Phone solicitors are ubiquitous these days--but are they effective?


July 22, 1991|By LESTER A. PICKER

Watch out, folks, here they come! In the game of up-the-ante zTC fund raising, we are about to be hit by a wave of that most feared and despised method of all. Yes, it's the invasion of the telephone solicitors!

Forget about raising money for the good works of non-profit organizations being an art. These folks have it down to a science.

When I try to reach a friend at home, chances are 50-50 nowadays that we'll connect. How, then, do these telephone mavens know the exact instant that my butt is about to park itself on my dining room chair for dinner? They must have programmed the schedule for every televised Orioles game into their smart little computers. No sooner do I sit down, when the blasted phone rings. Half the time I have no idea whom I've agreed to give money to. When Cal Ripken is up to bat with one on and two out, I'll agree to anything to get off the phone.

If you are like me, you are probably as annoyed by the practice of raising money for charities by phone as I am. Yet, the fact of the matter is, more and more charities are going this route. Predictions by professional telephone fund-raisers point to 1991 being a banner year.

"We have seen a 9 percent increase in our non-profit telemarketing business last year, and we anticipate a similar increase this year," said Ken Whitaker, senior vice president of Public Interest Communications Inc. in Falls Church, Va.

Why on earth would a charity resort to this practice of raising money for their operations? The increase in telephone solicitation is due to several economic factors.

In the last 10 years, fund raising has become more and more competitive, with hundreds of charities soliciting each of us in a never-ending barrage. The most common form of solicitation has been the junk-mail route.

But postage rates have been climbing at an alarming rate for non-profit organizations. Non-profits suffered a costly 30 percent rise in their preferred rates and narrowly averted another proposed 30 percent increase this year. Rising production costs for creative mailings also have forced non-profits to seek other ways to raise money. Meanwhile, telephone rates have been steadily decreasing, making telephone marketing more attractive.

And computers have become more powerful and less costly. A medium-sized or large non-profit can invest in a sophisticated computer system with software that will retrieve its donor database, place the calls and bring up on the screen a complete giving history of the donor, along with other pertinent demographics. These systems can now be coupled with other electronic information, such as the latest census data, to give a detailed profile of potential donors.

These profiles allow an organization to tailor its appeal based on the characteristics of a particular group of people, a process known as market segmentation. This fine-tuning of the market is far more effective than a generic solicitation, where all potential donors are treated the same. So, if the database shows the person on the other end of the line is a black, married, college graduate he will get a different script than a white, blue-collar worker.

While these appeals undoubtedly are effective in many instances, they aren't universally effective.

Some non-profits, unable to afford all the computers and telemarketing costs, have turned to professional telemarketing companies. These companies often charge outrageous fees for their work, with the non-profit receiving only pennies on the dollar. Several states now require that professional telephone solicitors tell the potential donor how much of each pledge will actually go to the charity. This disclosure requirement alone has caused many non-profits to abandon phone solicitation.

To add fuel to the fire, a new generation of computers automatically dials homes, ahead of the solicitor, and a recorded voice tells the potential donor she is being placed on hold until the solicitor is available. For the life of me, I cannot imagine how this impersonal, insulting approach to potential donors can possibly help further good relations with the non-profit organization.

Now, I'm not universally against telephone solicitation. However, there are situations where it is more effective.

For example, this type of fund raising works well with colleges, where an undergraduate volunteer makes personal contact with an alumnus. In many cases, donors have reported that they enjoyed the conversations, were able to catch up on school gossip, and made a larger contribution than they would have in a mail appeal.

This points up the fact that such appeals work best for both parties of the exchange when the potential givers are highly targeted and already identified with the cause or organization. It also helps if the solicitors are involved with and knowledgeable about the cause or organization. Hiring professional telemarketers is not always the smartest thing for a non-profit to do. It may be easier than training committed volunteers, but the short-term financial gains come at the expense of long-term gains in the resource base.

Let's face it, technology is a great thing. But, it must be used selectively and with great sensitivity. Raising funds for important causes must place the relationship between donor and organization first. To do otherwise is self-destructive and an insult to all potential donors.

Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.

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