Trinity College at the University of Melbourne is one of a few educational institutions in Australia recently to trial the telephone as a way of building relationships and acquiring donors. Alan Watkinson reports on how the college raised some serious dollars but also learnt some important lessons along the way.


Trinity College at the University of Melbourne is one of a few educational institutions in Australia recently to trial the telephone as a way of building relationships and acquiring donors. Alan Watkinson reports on how the college raised some serious dollars but also learnt some important lessons along the way.

Universities in Australia have traditionally shied away from the telephone as an instrument to nurture alumni and stakeholders. It has been used sporadically in the past for the final “mop up” phase for capital campaigns and telethons, but beyond that the phone has remained largely ‘on the hook’ as far as universities are concerned.

In 2008, Trinity College at Melbourne University trialled a phone campaign with four specific objectives: build affinity with alumni; get feedback on the college and its performance; ask for donations; and give students the chance to learn valuable skills by being callers.

Despite some hiccups and heightened stress levels, a great deal was achieved, and the lessons for future campaigns will be invaluable.

Audience Targeting

A wide demographic was deliberately targeted for the phone program including: alumni, friends and parents of current students (Australian-based and overseas); non-donors, occasional donors and regular donors (but excluding those on the way to being converted to major givers). In all, 11 different segments from the Trinity database were targeted.

Articles in the alumni magazine and monthly e-newsletter were published to prepare constituents for the phone campaign, and the selected prospects all received an opt-out letter one month prior to the campaign. Of the 1,500 letters sent, 90 people requested not to be called.

Students from the college were employed on a casual basis to make the calls, and they were trained in how to use a script and special software to record the details of their conversations.

Results

The first campaign of any long-term strategy is always a learning experience, and this was no exception. Benchmarks have now been established for future campaigns.

While the original aim was to recruit 25 student callers, in reality 22 signed up. And on average 10 of these students attended each calling session when 12 was the target.

In all, some 751 calls were completed over 485 hours (the target had been 1000 completed calls over 696 hours). The inevitable ‘busyness’ of college life and the proximity to exams and assignment deadlines took their toll on the attendance of callers.

Just over $104,000 in cash and pledges was raised, which was just over 50% of the goal. However, as only 70% of the intended calls were made, this total was in line with actual expectations.

What was really exciting was the giving rate – 60% of the parents who took the phone call gave; and 42% of alumni gave. Not surprisingly, the current parents were more generous (on average $100 per call) than the alumni.

This result compares very favourably with the response rate (6.5%) to the college’s annual fund mail out. And the phone netted 162 first-time donors.

Apart from the immediate donations, the other great outcome was the forging of relationships with alumni, who shared all sorts of information about their careers and family, other interests in life, and feedback on college events and publications.

The cost to roll out the program was $46,000, and so while the 2008 campaign turned a reasonable profit, the ingredients for future success and even greater returns will come in subsequent years as donors are further nurtured.

Lessons Learned

The campaign lasted a frenetic three weeks; a period of high-octane energy for many of the callers, and a period of long hours for the office staff. Some of the important lessons learned were:

Additional human resources were required as the follow-up administration was far more than anticipated Members from other parts of the office had to help in a variety of ways such as: providing refreshments for the callers, folding and stuffing envelopes, doing additional data entry The student callers, and a number of their parents, remarked how much they enjoyed themselves, and how much they learnt about the college, about themselves, and about engaging meaningfully over the phone with complete strangers

Improvements for 2009 have already been planned including finding a larger space to act as a call room, and some of the IT arrangements will be upgraded. There will also be a black-out on advancement office staff taking leave or being out of the office during the three week campaign period as it is necessary to spread the load across everyone, rather than rely on one or two to carry the burden.

Future Phoning

There is still a lot to learn, but for the first year, this was a very exciting result, and within the parameters that had been set.

Word has got around the campus that being part of the calling team was fun and that you can earn real money, which means most of the callers for this year’s campaign have already been recruited!