Phone first!

Published by Rebecca Davies on

As a relationship professional, I’m a big fan of Alexander Graham Bell’s electronic speech machine(*), the latter-day telephone.

My mantra when communicating with major donors: phone first. Phone first. Ph f. (Soothing, isn’t it?)

Email and letters don’t allow for the bilateral conversations our donors and prospects deserve for their generosity. The best “touches” by phone aren’t end-games of trivial information or data collection, either. The goal of every call you make should be to begin, advance or deepen a new or long-term relationship between your prospect/donor, you the fundraiser, and your organization.

The secondary goal of every phone call is to move beyond the business at hand – the hook – to get your donor/prospect to articulate what they need from you to further engage with your organization. The language and approach can be the same for loyal donors and discovery prospects: “I welcome the opportunity to update you on where we stand today, and our goals for the year.”

Every event or one-to-one meeting invitation is an opportunity to engage or re-ignite major gift prospects/donors right from the moment of the invitation, which is best delivered by phone.

Say your organization – an opera company – is inviting donors and prospects to a behind-the-scene lecture and reception with a guest conductor. Rather than sending out letters or emails of invitation, try phoning your top donors/prospects to build the momentum right away, and make them feel like exclusive VIPs and true insiders. For very lapsed donors, my mindset is to assume our invitees’ interest in our charity is as high as it was when they made their last gift, even if a long time ago. A sample script may look like this:

Mr. Obama, I’m so pleased to speak with you. It’s Rebecca Davies from the Opera Company. This call is long overdue; we have much to update you on.” [PAUSE for reaction]

Of course, I’m also hoping to see you on April 12th – it’s a rare occasion indeed that Maestro Yang is making an appearance in Toronto, and he so rarely lectures. We’ve invited a select group of Toronto-area supporters to the event. Are you able to come, Mr. Obama?

I’m so pleased and can RSVP for you right now. Will you be bringing anyone? Also: is there anything I can look into that will make this evening particularly special for you?

You likely have many questions regarding the impact of your support over the years. I encourage you to ask me some now, and I certainly look forward to continuing our conversation in person on April 12th.

I look forward to our conversation. Let me start it now by asking you what your favourite repertoire is?

IF SOFT NO (i.e. Is not free that evening, but interested in the Opera Company):
Maestro Yang is one associate of the Opera Company. There are many more artists and composers you’ve help put on the stage, and they love meeting with the people they perform for. When would you be able to come for a personal meeting and tour?

You can and do support us in so many ways: financially, and also taking the time to be thoughtful about the issues we face off-stage. I’d like to personally update you on the Company’s last year and upcoming season, and would be pleased to come meet with you. May we schedule this for next week?

IF HARD NO (i.e. Clearly disinterested in event and the Opera Company):
Thank you so much, again, for your past support. May I ask: what inspired you to give two years ago? What has changed?

We’re reaching out more to the community and past supporters. You may not have heard from us in a while, but we’d like to re-engage you in our work and would like your advice on how to do this, please.

What information or outcomes do you need from us to be confident to donate again?

Is there anything in my control that I can do?


Pre-calling preparation
1. Hear what you say and how you say it from you donors’ ears: what would make you interested in connecting with the Opera Company if you received a cultivation call? It nearly always comes down to access to information and exclusivity.
2. Invoke your courage and pride. It’s their privilege that you are calling, and your organization’s privilege they are donors.
3. Devote blocks of time to call a number of prospects, rather than trying to fit them in and around the rest of your day. These calls are your priority and the most important contribution you can make to advancing mission.
4. Do your research and clarify for yourself the donor/prospect’s relationship with your organization: are they confirmed bequestors? Major gift prospects? Did they give a one-time “go away” gift to a door canvasser? Do they work for a company that gave an employee tribute gift last year? Have that relationship on the tip of your tongue, and nuance
your language and messaging. For example:

Barack Obama: “Why are you calling me in particular” or “How did you get my number” or “I don’t remember giving to you.
Rebecca: “As a donor within the past two years to the Opera Company who lives in Toronto, we of course thought of you when we planned this event.

5. Know the donor/prospect’s contact history and most recent giving.
6. Google for any current public information and possible points of conversation.
7. Commit enough resources to supporting your front-line fundraisers with the research, data mining and administration they need to be fully active on the phone, and, ultimately, out the door.

During the call
1. Be yourself. I NEVER ask “how are you?” because everyone else does and I’m not everyone else.
2. Be professional and exude integrity.
3. FOCUS. Treat each person you call as if he/she is the last person you’ll ever knowingly speak with again. Make the conversation echo for both of you for days to come.
4. Actively listen.
5. But still take notes.
6. Always bring the conversation back to the donor/prospect and their generosity and concerns.
7. Realize that a “no” to meet now doesn’t mean that the donor isn’t willing to meet in the future. Be pleasantly persistent in your cultivation.

After the call
1. Document at least one action item or one significant learning from the conversation.
2. Follow up. Keep the momentum going. Phone first.

(*) Bell conceived the idea of the telephone in my home province Ontario, in Canada. Fact.

Rebecca Davies

Rebecca Davies

Rebecca Davies is incoming Chief Development Officer of Save the Children Canada. As past director of fundraising for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Canada, from 2007-2014 she lead a team that in seven years increased private revenue from $19 million to over $50 million. Prior to joining MSF, she held senior fundraising positions in some of Canada’s top hospitals and the University of Toronto. Her current volunteer passion is the Ripple Refugee Project, where she and a group of concerned Torontonians are sponsoring and settling five Syrian families over the new few years. Rebecca’s an active musician (French horn), plays hockey and golf, and very proudly is on the executive for and was the inaugural blog post contributor to 101fundraising.org.


Olivia · September 29, 2014 at 23:17

Thanks Rebecca! This post really helped me out!!

    Rebecca · September 30, 2014 at 14:35

    You are most welcome, Olivia. Good luck with your program.

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