CDE project 11e tele­phone: key findings

Written by
The Commission on the Donor Experience
April 23, 2017

There was a wealth of insight and information that came out of the contributions to our workshops and survey. We are hugely grateful to all who gave their time and thoughtful responses. We would like to highlight what we believe to be 6 key findings around charities’ use of the telephone in delivering a high-quality donor experience. The key findings from the research were an echo of the discussions and sentiments shared in the workshop sessions. 

1. Satisfaction with use of the telephone

In our survey, on average charities graded their own satisfaction with their current programme of telephone engagement with donors and supporters at 6.3 out of10 and agencies at 7.8 out of 10.

When asked how satisfied they thought supporters were with contact, charities again rated this on average at 6.3, and agencies at 7.8.

From the free-form comments, it was clear that agencies’ assessments of supporters’ satisfaction were more likely to be based on their own monitoring of satisfaction via methods such as SMS surveys sent after calls; whereas charities were more likely to qualify their assessments as a best guess, based on little or no monitoring of the same.

44 of the 82 charities who responded (54%) rated their own satisfaction with their programme at 7/10 or greater (8/10 was the modal response for this question). But nearly a third of respondents rated their satisfaction at 5/10 or less.

Charities’ dissatisfaction with their programmes was most likely to be influenced by internal factors, including, for many of them, a feeling that the telephone was an unappreciated resource for supporter engagement:

It is out of house and, for the rest of the organisation as a whole, it is an out-of-sight out-of-mind attitude to what is a crucial communication opportunity
It feels like a fresh approach is needed. Many have heard the same type of call before. I feel income generation is viewed as more important internally than donor satisfaction. I would prefer us to think more about the benefits of relationship fundraising.

These comments particularly surfaced when we asked charities what they felt the biggest barrier to making improvements to their telephone programme would be. Regulation and available budget figured significantly here, but lack of commitment in senior management culture was also frequently referenced:

…internal systems within the charity
Time to work on this and buy in from others outside of fundraising e.g. trustees
“The conception that a telephone fundraiser's opinion is less important than a 'DM expert's' opinion.”
“Lack of understanding of such programmes by management”
“Cultural change to get department less focused on ROI[1] and CPA [2]”

This was mirrored by agency responses to the ‘biggest barrier’ question in the survey:

“Lack of will to test new approaches and recognise the value of dialogue in any supporter engagement program”
“Short-termism of clients and pressure to generate immediate income” 
“…turnover/internal problems within charities creates significant problems. They don't tend to have the resources internally and struggle to get approval to recruit or pay their agency to help with this. The value of long term planning and adequate resource allocation seems to get lost among short-term thinking and pressure on charities to raise more income, more quickly, and as cheaply as possible.”

2. Selection of agency partners/evaluation of in-house teams

Despite the comments above, charities did not cite price or year one ROI as their major criteria for selecting agency partners, or evaluating their in-house team. In both cases the quality of supporter engagement provided by the agency or team was top of the list, averaging a score of 2 (on a scale of 1 – 6). When asked how they felt charities selected them, agencies agreed with this, scoring it at an average of 2.7.

However, agencies and charities disagreed on the importance year one ROI had in charities’ assessments of them. Nearly half of charities (45%) ranked this as the least important factor in their assessment of agencies, whereas 72% of agencies ranked it among the top 3 criteria by which they felt they were assessed. This focus from charities emerges more strongly when the issue of non-financial calls was discussed.

3. Agencies’ perceptions of clients’ strategic thinking

We asked agencies how strategic they felt their clients to be in the use of the telephone. None felt their clients were very strategic – 75% of agency respondents felt they were moderately so, and 25% felt they were not very strategic at all. This comment sums up the feeling:

Whilst there are exceptions to this rule, the majority of day to day contacts [with clients] are focused on commercial KPI's. They are very often short term as well. As such, all conversations are framed around the return possible from an individual campaign, and any testing/development can be stunted by a desire to be more 'tactical' than 'strategic'

4. Willingness to make non-financial calls

One of the principles of relationship fundraising is that donors and supporters should not be asked for money in every interaction – relationship fundraising thinking in both the UK and US suggests that communications that thank and show donors the impact of their giving are as important an element for building long-term loyalty, even if they may not generate an immediate financial return.

And yet, in Penelope Burke’s 2002-3 survey of US-based donors, 94% of donors said they never received a telephone call that did not include an ask for money. [3]

Of the charities in our survey, 36 respondents (45%) said they regularly made non-financial calls to their donors and supporters. The remaining 46 (55%) said they only occasionally, or never, did this.

The range of responses around this was illuminating. For some respondents it was not seen as a top priority for their telephone programme:

We'd like to - hasn't crept to top of screamingly urgent things to do
We occasionally make 'thank you' calls to recent donors, but they are not always a priority. We do not (but I would like to) make calls to recent grads that welcome them as an alum and set out expectations of the contact they will receive from us (even, dare I say, ask them how they want to keep a relationship with us moving forwards). Opportunities to call donors who have given recently or on a landmark anniversary gift are not taken (perhaps only where there is a face-to-face fundraiser involved who personally knows the donor).

However for other respondents this was a central part of their use of the telephone:

“Our use of the phone is focused on stewardship.”
“We make calls every day thanking donors for giving.”
“It is far better to maintain a friendly relationship than to keep asking in our experience.  The money follows in a more natural way.”
“I call when I don’t hear from a donor. Just a knock at the door to know they are alright.”
“Happy birthday calls and thank you calls!”
“We have a quick survey comprised of 7 questions, which gives us insight in the method of fundraising that acquired them, their preferences for ongoing communication, and allows us to improve the method of fundraising that they responded to.”

When asked the main reason why they did not make non-financial calls, the two main reasons cited were budget and capacity.

We asked agencies if they regularly recommended their clients make non-financial calls. The vast majority of respondents (82%) said they regularly did so. However only just over a quarter of respondents (27%) said their clients regularly accepted their recommendations. 73% said their clients only occasionally, or never, did so. The single most common reason cited was that all their telephone activity had to show an immediate financial return:

“Many see it as an additional cost with no income line on their budget. We would suggest tracking a donor's activity after a non-financial ask: retention, additional gifts, other activity etc. But they don't seem to be great or have the resources to track this effectively and show the positive impact. Sometimes these campaigns have been planned in and are then moved or cancelled last minute so it can be difficult to commit to this type of work and if a cost needs to go, it's usually this type of campaign (as they see it as saving cost and not losing income). Some clients however are great at including non-financial ask campaigns and do value them. Donors are very receptive and will share information if they are given the opportunity. Unfortunately, many are still surprised when they receive a call that isn't asking for money...goes to show that it's not yet the norm!”

This suggests that Penelope Burke’s survey might have returned the same results if run in the UK. Another agency respondent expressed the same frustration:

“We have always suggested this, for 10 years or more, and clients have not done it because of pressure on short term return on investment. It's not individual clients’ fault. It is the culture and expectation that charities and fundraisers should maximise ROI. I have a real problem with ROI as a measure of fundraising success….A huge chain of charity shops I am aware of generates a modest margin - but makes a massive gross contribution to the income of the charity.”  

This links strongly back to the issue of internal culture that surfaced in our ‘barrier’ question.

6. Metrics used to evaluate calling, and monitoring of supporter satisfaction

Despite saying that they primarily evaluated agency or in-house teams on the quality of supporter engagement they provided, the vast majority of charity respondents said they primarily used metrics such as contact rate, conversion levels and average gift to evaluate calling. Only 21% said they used other metrics. Those who cited ‘other’ metrics did measure quality assurance of calls, and one respondent cited commitment levels, but there does seem to be a profound disconnect between what charities say they value, and what they actually measure.

Our perception of disconnect here is strengthened by the response to our question about whether charities monitored the satisfaction of supporters with their calls. Less than 20% of respondents (18.75%) said they regularly did this. Many who did not acknowledged that they should be doing so.

However there were some examples of best practice in the comments:

“I listen to circa 120 recorded calls each month, randomly selected. It started off as a mystery shopping exercise, but I learn so much from doing it that I look forward to the task.”
“Live listening every week for 60mins on a campaign (where there are multiple campaigns running we only do one session), 3-5% of call recordings monitored per week across campaigns”
“Each call is in effect a donor satisfaction monitoring exercise.”

Agencies reported having the capability to do this, but little interest from clients:

“We have this capability but often clients do not wish for us to use that facet of our service.”
“We have a feedback survey platform - however only one client has used it so far.”

7. Investment in testing new approaches to using the telephone

“A lack of appetite amongst clients to test and try new models and approaches means that the act of telephone calling has become fairly formulaic from a supporter's point of view.”

So said one agency respondent when asked how satisfied they felt their clients’ donors and supporters were with the calls they received.

Nearly 90% of charity respondents said they had no formal budget for testing fresh approaches to using the telephone. 64% of agency respondents said the same.

Which leads to the question – where is new thinking and practice around the use of voice to voice communication (thinking more widely than just the telephone for a moment) coming from? From the sound of responses to this question, it is coming from maybe a handful of agencies, but no more.

I have asked for this for 5 years. Never get it” 

said one charity respondent. 

We believe this to be very different from the approach that charities take to their other direct marketing activities – direct mail, digital, etc. Perhaps the telephone is indeed the most ‘below the line’ of ‘below the line’ activity. [4]

Luckily, we have received some case studies of innovative approaches to using the phone – from both large and small charities, which are included on pp14 – 29.


[1] Return on Investment (generally 12 month only)

[2] Cost Per Acquisition

[3] ‘Donor-centered Fundraising’, Penelope Burke, 2003

[4] “Below-the-line advertising is an advertising strategy in which a product is promoted in mediums other than radio, television, billboards, print and film. Types of below-the-line advertising commonly include direct mail campaigns, trade shows and catalogues, and targeted search engine marketing.” Investopedia

Click on the image below to view project 11e in full - PDF format.

About the author: The Commission on the Donor Experience

The CDE has one simple ideal – to place donors at the heart of fundraising. The aim of the CDE is to support the transformation of fundraising, to change the culture to a truly consistent donor-based approach to raising money. It is based on evidence drawn from first hand insight of best practice. By identifying best practice and capturing examples, we will enable these to be shared and brought into common use.

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