How to Get Prospects to Call You Back

Published by K. Michael Johnson on

I used to jokingly tell people I was a professional “reacher-outer.” My day-to-day was just a fire hose of prospect outreach. But so often, I wouldn’t hear anything back. Nothing. So, I’d follow-up. Then I’d circle back, check in, touch base, ping, ping some more, and leave another message. And chase it with one last follow-up email.

And after all that? Just a dribble of response from my prospects. And lots of crickets.

Sound familiar?
Getting calls back – getting any response – is important to the “science” side of fundraising. Why? Because at an outreach and qualification level, we’re playing a numbers game. More outreach yields more contacts. Which eventually yields more qualified prospects, then more asks, and ultimately, more gifts. So, what would it mean to your organization to get in touch with (and ultimately qualify) more major gifts prospects over the course of a year?

To be clear, there’s no secret sauce that will get you a response from every single prospect. I have, however, tested a number of outreach strategies over the years. Here are the tactics that have helped me boost my contact rate.

Make it as easy as possible
People are busy. And most aren’t waiting around hoping for a call from a fundraiser. It’s an uphill climb already, so don’t make it hard for people to get back to you. Here’s how:

  1. Call from the number you want call backs on. They should be able to select your number from their call log and hit “dial.”
  2. When leaving voicemails, state your name and phone number at the beginning and end of the message.
  3. Speak your call back number slowly. Imagine someone writing it down as you’re saying it.
  4. Keep phone messages short and sweet – under 30 seconds. Emails? Five sentences or fewer.
  5. Make your outreach message – voicemail or email – about one thing.
  6. Send a follow-up email right after leaving a phone message. This is how most prospects get back to me.

Give context
The main question on your prospects’ minds will be, “Why is this person calling me?” It’s human nature. Help them answer the question quickly. The more mental hurdles they have to jump to understand who you are and what you want, the less likely it is they’ll call you back.

When leaving a message:

1. Quickly touch on their connection to you, or your organization:“

a. We appreciate your past support.”
b. “[So-and-so] suggested I reach out.”
c. “You and I met at [event].”
d. “I understand you’re active in the _______ community.”

2. Be clear about what you want, whether it’s a face-to-face meeting, to invite them to an event, or just have a phone conversation.

3. To the extent you’re able, make it about them. Consider asking for “advice visits.” And think of other ways you can tap into their expertise, interests, passions, etc.:

a. “Your feedback on ______ would be incredibly valuable to us.”
b. “Many supporters of ______ have also been interested to hear about our work with ________.”
c. “I’ve enjoyed visiting with a number of your classmates and fellow alumni with degrees in _______.”

I can’t tell you how many people get back to me simply because I’m persistent. And not because they’re bothered by it! In general, people respect well-intentioned effort. Did you know that the rule of thumb in sales is seven phone calls? Not every day, obviously. That’s harassment. But, my guess is you’re not calling your prospects seven times.

My approach used to be one phone call and two emails within a week. And then I’d stop. If I didn’t hear back, I’d try again in a few months. Some got back to me, but I knew I could do better. And I also realized something important: None of my prospects were telling me it was too much outreach.

So, I upped my outreach to two phone calls and three emails within two weeks. And, surprise! More people got back to me. Actually, it’s not that surprising. There are dozens of reasons your prospects aren’t returning your calls. Assume the best and be persistent.

Why should your prospects call you back now instead of later? Here are a few ideas:

  • Project timelines: “In three months we plan to launch ______; it will make a huge impact in the lives of _______. I’d love to speak with you about opportunities to get involved.”
  • Events: “We’d love to have you join us for ______ in a few weeks. You won’t want to miss it!”
  • Naming/recognition opportunities: “Opportunities are still available to permanently attach your name to the project. I hope we can connect before [date].”
  • Gift officer travel: “I’m only in [location] for two days, but I want to be sure I have a chance to say hello to you while I’m in town.”

Keep the initiative
Most salespeople want to keep control of the communication process instead of waiting for returned calls. So, ask for a call back when leaving a message, but also mention the date/time you’ll reach out again:

“And if we don’t connect, I’ll touch base with you again on _________.”

It’s basically a nice way of telling your prospects that you’re not just going to go away! And often it’s enough to inspire responses.

Going back to my question at the top of the post: What would it mean to your major gifts program and to your organization to get more call backs? My advice, as always, is to test it. I outlined five tactics above. Start with one and see if it makes a difference in your contact rate. For example: How many unqualified prospects did you reach out to last month? How many did you get ahold of? Now, pick one tactic to test during your outreach this month. Stick with it for the entire month so you can make a month-to-month comparison.

Did your contact rate go up? If so, multiply that difference over a year to get a sense for the impact over a year. Test and layer on more tactics as needed. Given what we know about the numbers game of donor qualification, I’m confident more overall contacts will ultimately lead to more gifts.

Happy reacher-outering! I hope your phone surprises you by how often it rings.

K. Michael Johnson

A self-proclaimed fundraising geek, K. Michael loves the nitty-gritty of major gifts work. By day, he raises money for a large research university. In his spare time, he blogs about things he’s learned the hard way at www.fearless-fundraising.com.


Andrew S. Dungan · July 14, 2014 at 18:23

“So, I upped my outreach to two phone calls and three emails within two weeks. And, surprise! More people got back to me. Actually, it’s not that surprising. There are dozens of reasons your prospects aren’t returning your calls. Assume the best and be persistent.”

You stated the above. I would love it if you would give a percentage increase or some metrics. I manage a fundraising program where follow-up calls are essential. I would appreciate knowing the increase in returned calls when you moved to a different follow-up methodology. Thanks so much.

    K. Michael · July 14, 2014 at 21:31

    No problem. The jump in contact rate was pretty dramatic: 34% to 58%. It was clear I had been giving up too soon.

    I work at a school and primarily reach out to alumni and parents. Although some are fairly cold contacts, they all at least have a base level of awareness/attachment. So, I wouldn’t expect every org to see a 24 pt. increase. Directionally speaking, however, any org that hasn’t at least tested increasing number of calls/emails during each attempt on a prospect is probably missing some opportunities.

      Andrew S. Dungan, Ed.D. · August 22, 2014 at 19:19

      I’m just seeing this reply. My apologies for the delay in response.
      That is a terrific increase!
      Those I would be calling have been to an educational session and have been told they would be receiving a follow-up. I would imagine using your technique would increase my rate even more significantly. I greatly appreciate this blog post.

Rebecca · July 15, 2014 at 11:20

HIya, thank you for this, if it is ok I would love to use it as a tool to show volunteer supporter groups that it is ok to keep trying……….
Many Thanks

Monica Barnes · July 20, 2014 at 23:01

Would love a sample email. 5 lines can be a challenge. I used to work in higher ed, but now am at a cause related non-profit and crafting a short email is tough. I would love to see an example if you wouldn’t mind sharing one.

Thanks very much, good ideas in this post.

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