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What we learnt from our first telephone fundraising campaign

We started our first ever telephone fundraising campaign about three weeks ago after a few months of preparation and planning. We stopped after two weeks but in that short space of time, we learnt a great deal. We knew going in that as a new venture for us, set against a backdrop of a strategy review and forthcoming rebrand, and some negative coverage of telephone fundraising in national media, there were risks but we felt it was worth trying.

Telephone fundraising is a successful way of getting income
This campaign had three aims – to increase some regular gifts, to get previous donors to give again and to get potential supporters to give. We managed varying degrees of success with all three and by the time we stopped, we were on course to achieve our target. It was clear that (some) people don’t mind being phoned and asked to increase their support for a cause they believe in. It was also clear that some people do mind. The challenge for all charities is to understand which category their supporters belong to (you can ask, but that isn’t always a reliable indicator – what people say and what they do are different).

Being open about costs is right but not easy
The warmth our supporters feel towards the charity was both a positive (they want to support us) and a negative (some didn’t understand why a charity they felt so close to was using an agency to call them to ask for gifts). In the past, we had raised expectations that we could buck trends or change reality – that somehow we really could do more with less. This has bitten us! Of course we love to connect closely to the people we help, we want them to feel we are always there for them. But we also need to be open about the fact that we can only do more if we can raise more, that their support is an essential part of that, and that there are costs to increasing income.

It doesn’t always pay to stand out from the crowd
Despite using a reputable agency who worked really hard to get ready for the campaign, and whose callers I went to visit and brief, there was concern amongst supporters that we were a) paying someone to call b) not calling them ourselves (people drew a distinction between us and agency staff, even though agency staff were a lower cost than if we had called). As a specialist charity, many of our supporters and beneficiaries see us as ‘different’ from others. We have probably played on that to our benefit in the past, but it meant we had raised supporter expectations of how personalised our approach can be. For example, many supporters know and really admire our Chief Executive. They know most of the staff by name. They indicated more willingness to support us if asked by him or other staff. But some of our warmest supporters were less keen when it was a paid caller from an agency. We realise that we need to be more transparent about the costs of all our fundraising, and that if we are to grow, we need to explain there is a limit to how much any member of staff can do.

Like any relationship, open communication with your supporters is essential
The criticism we received came from the heart. Some people felt hurt that we would ask them for money in this way, but when we explained we were trying to reach more people and needed more funds to do so, and that we had chosen to use an external agency because they had the expertise and were cheaper and more effective than us doing it in house, there was better understanding of our motivation. We think this presents us a good opportunity for open dialogue. We want to be as transparent as possible, so that we can build the same trust around fundraising as already exists about the services and support we provide to our beneficiaries. We also realised that we hadn’t effectively communicated the reason for needing more funds. Despite (from our perspective) regular communications about our work, without communicating a clear strategy for growth and the funds that would be needed to achieve it, it seemed like we were asking for more money without a good reason.

Timing is everything
So, we have paused the campaign. We are going to finish developing our strategy, and come up with some really clear examples of how supporters can help us reach goals we have all agreed on. We also will draw a better distinction between the people we help (who can be dealing with really significant issues and have only us to turn to) and the people who have signed up to support us rather than be supported by us. This is a particular challenge for health charities, especially those focussed on genetic conditions, as there can often be a blur between beneficiaries and supporters.

Our supporters are amazing. They inspire us and enable us to do so much. Those supporters who challenged this new style of fundraising will help us to make better connections in the future. As someone wise said before we started “Whatever happens, you will learn loads!” They were right, we have and we don’t regret giving it a try and look forward to returning to it in the future.

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