Anyone in the development world who was paying attention in FY ’17 will long remember that one of the biggest stories was Stanford University’s decision to discontinue its longstanding Telefund program. The move was much discussed both online and in print, to say nothing of the myriad conversations that undoubtedly took place around water coolers everywhere. Even CASE’s Currents magazine featured an article co-authored by Stanford’s advancement VP and annual fund director, outlining the reasons behind their decision. I have no doubt that the move is the right one for Stanford, and I would not presume to debate them. Ultimately, they have to do what they believe is right for the institution.

So it is with the rest of us, which begs the question: should one follow Stanford’s lead or not? Of course, that is a decision each institution has to make for itself, but if your phon-a-thon is like many others around the country, then your numbers have been declining for quite some time.

It goes without saying that one must weigh the pros and cons of doing a phon-a-thon against the return on investment, and assess whether it justifies the effort and expense. That said, there are three very good reasons to consider continuing your phon-a-thon, or at least some version of it, for the foreseeable future.

1. Some People Still Respond to Phone Appeals
That fewer and fewer people are answering the phone these days does not mean that no one is answering at all. At my institution, there are alumni who we know look forward to getting that call from a student each year. They like sharing stories and hearing about what campus life is like today. These are valuable exchanges for alumni and current students to have, because they reinforce the idea that they are all part of something larger than themselves, and that different generations have much to learn from one another. Also, there are those whose primary trigger to give each year is the phone call. They still get the direct mail appeal, but the phone call is ultimately what prompts them to write the check. This is a segment of your donor base that should not be ignored.

2. Phon-a-thons Can Help Build a Culture of Philanthropy Among Students
Phone appeals involve students directly in philanthropic activity. Phon-a-thons teach students how to be advocates, not just for their school, but for causes they care about. The skills developed in the phone appeal process are transferable to many different situations. When students experience success in a phone solicitation, they see that what they do really makes a difference, and this can go a long way to setting the stage for future philanthropic activity after graduation.

3. The Phone is Not Going Away Anytime Soon
At this point, you might be thinking, “that’s all very nice, but the return on investment just isn’t what it needs to be to justify the effort!” I get that. I do, and I believe it was Einstein who famously said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result each time.

The reality, however, is that unlike the 1970s and 1980s, when most people had to be at home to take the call, people today are walking around with phones in their pockets! The essence of what a phone is has changed so radically, that it is no wonder the old phon-a-thon model no longer works.

So is it a matter of ditching the phone as a channel of engagement, or ditching the phon-a-thon model? I believe it is the latter, and the task now is to figure out how best to use the phone as a channel for fundraising, but I shall save that discussion for another post.

Question: Does your organization still do a phon-a-thon each year? Why or Why not?

Posted by Dr. Mark Zobel

Director of Annual Giving at Blackburn College

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