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Why Stanford decided to end their telephone appeal


Earlier this year, Stanford University indefinitely suspended their telephone appeal, a decision that sent shockwaves through the Higher Education sector. The decision followed years of diminishing alumni interest in telephone campaigns, leading Stanford to realise that they needed to make the radical change.

No matter the size of your institution’s endowment or its prestige, deciding to call a halt to telephone-based fundraising is a bold move. However, it can be the right decision to make, if the data supports it.


Rethinking fundraising strategy

A key element in Stanford’s reasoning was the dramatic rise in negative responses to their calling program, as shown by the data. This, combined with email complaints and offhand comments from alumni, made the decision makers at Stanford rethink the entire enterprise. Had they become out of touch with the wants and needs of their supporters?

And, as a result, were they putting their future philanthropic pipeline at risk by continuing to promote a program that annoyed their supporters? It seemed that the answer to these questions was a resounding ‘Yes!’.

But that led to further questions. How do you follow through with such a fundamental shift in strategy? How do you create buy-in from your institution’s senior leadership to help them understand and go along with a decision of this magnitude? And what could replace something as fundamental as a telephone appeal so as to drive donor participation and gift amounts to a comparable extent?

Not one to shy away from a challenge, Amy Wilson, Director of the Stanford Fund, and Julianne Troyer, Stanford’s Associate Director of Direct Marketing at Stanford University understood that if something didn’t change they would soon find themselves in a position of low engagement, and low participation.


The game has changed

The threat of declining telephone appeals doesn’t just affect a single institution: many programs have been seeing similar declines in activity for some time.

In North America, increasing numbers of people use mobile phones as their primary contact number, rather than land lines, which has made it more difficult for institutions to contact their alumni. In the UK, changing regulations about the consent needed to make a fundraising telephone call has meant that institutions are finding themselves in a position where nearly 70% of their contactable supporter base are not reachable over the phone. And across the world, people are becoming less amenable to fundraising phone calls, which often come through at an inconvenient time.

With all of this to consider, along with the possibility that you may be annoying and turning off a large majority of your donor base, it seems like the odds could be stacked against your telephone campaign being truly successful.


An opportunity for increased engagement

Hubbub sat down with Amy Wilson, Director of the Stanford Fund, and Julianne Troyer, Stanford’s Associate Director of Direct Marketing, to understand how they went about making the decision to end their telephone appeal, how that decision affected alumni engagement rates and donor retention figures, and the new direction their program would now take.

Stanford-Speakers telephone appeal

Did you notice a change in behavior in your donors? How did the data from your telephone program influence the decision to stop calling?

We saw a dramatic rise in negative responses to our calling. In 2011, for every eight people who answered our calls and made gifts, only one said, “Never call me again.” By 2015, the ratio was 3-to-1.Our decision to end the calling program was intensely data-driven, and in our webinar, we will share the broad range of metrics we utilized to understand the changing relationship our prospects had with the calling program.

What were the initial internal reactions to the change? How did you create internal buy-in to allow you to move forward with your vision of the program?

Initially there were mixed reactions; some were excited about the change because they related to the frustration prospects may experience getting calls. However, others were focused on the potential loss of donors and dollars.Ultimately, we secured buy-in by using data to understand the scope and validity of these concerns – both the issues with our current telefund and the fears that came with eliminating the program.  We then used that analysis to develop innovative strategies to mitigate those issues.   

What affect did the change have on your retention numbers? Are you where you expected you’d be at this point in the year in terms of donor retention?

From the beginning we proposed that this change would have an initial impact on our retention rate, especially because we were ending the telefund before we’d be able to launch our new strategies. We are currently tracking towards the anticipated retention rate we set at this point in our fiscal year (with four months remaining). 

Is there now an additional focus on social engagement to motivate your audiences, especially your younger alumni? If so, how have you implemented this into your strategy?

Absolutely. A key part of our decision to end the calling program was the fact that we have plenty of room to grow in emerging channels like email and social media.  With the additional resources now available to our teams, we’ve been able to enhance existing programs as well as introduce several new strategies. These initiatives have ranged from launching a new university-wide loyalty society to running enhanced digital campaigns targeted at our young alumni audiences. In the webinar we will provide details of all of the enhanced and new programs we have spearheaded since ending the telefund.  

What was Stanford’s first experience of a giving day? And what will you be looking to achieve with your year two giving day appeal?

Giving days are not new to Stanford, but we have only recently started running university-wide coordinated campaigns around Giving Tuesday – and that is where we have started to see some strong momentum.In 2016, our Giving Tuesday campaign was extraordinarily successful, shattering records, and paving the way for future Giving Days by demonstrating the power of unified messaging, cross school/unit collaboration, and the mix of both engagement and solicitation asks. As we look to the future we want to continue to push ourselves to take Giving Tuesday to its full potential.

Kat Carter

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