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Key Strategies for Fundraising by Telephone

Key Strategies for Fundraising by TelephoneShould you ask for gifts by telephone?

Indeed, you should!

Why? Because the number one reason people don’t give is because they aren’t asked.

The phone is a wonderful, personal way to connect with folks in real time—and people actually don’t get enough of that in today’s digitally revolutionized zeitgeist.

In fact, many folks today are stuck behind their computers and mobile phones. They don’t get enough socialization. They don’t talk to their friends, they text or use social media. They are actually starved for real, live human interaction.

On top of that, their inboxes are overloaded. If you email an ask, and they happen to be busy, they may just delete it without even thinking about it. So your ask gets lost. It’s as if you never made it. In today’s world, you’ve got to ask multiple times in multiple places. Because you never know when your prospective donor may be paying attention.

And in order to close a gift, you’ve got to first get folks' attention.

The Phone Is a Huge Part of People’s Lives

Some 91 percent of adult U.S. citizens have their mobile devices within arm’s reach 24/7. More people on the planet own a mobile phone than own a toothbrush. By 2020, there will be 6.1 billion smartphone users worldwide.

Businesses find that expensive and complicated products need phone calls to be sold. It stands to reason that any request for a mid-range or major gift could also benefit from a phone call.

Increasingly, folks are picking up the phone to transact business. Google research shows that 59 percent of customers use click-to-call to quickly get an answer and accomplish their buying goals.

Only during a live conversation can you effectively address donor concerns and persuade them your organization merits their philanthropic support. Only through give and take can you address their hesitations and reframe your solicitation, suggesting personalized giving alternatives that will convert potential donors into closed asks.

Always. Be. Closing.

A, B, C is a common axiom among salespersons.

This assumes, of course, that you must always be asking—otherwise, there’s nothing to close.

To that “always” I would add, always ask every which way you can.

Which includes the too-little used tool of the telephone.

So let’s flip the question around.

Why Wouldn’t You Ask for Gifts by Phone?

Here are the excuses I’ve heard:

  • We don’t have donor phone numbers.
  • We don’t think people like getting calls.
  • Too many people screen their calls.
  • We can’t call everyone.
  • We don’t have people to make the calls.
  • We wouldn’t know what to say.

Those are all excuses that can be overcome. And you’ll want to do so. Why? Because the phone uses the human voice to authentically connect with people. Even if you get voicemail, you can still leave a message that exploits the expressive power of speech.

Which brings me back to the A, B, and Cs. Some different A, B, Cs this time, borrowed from Daniel Pink, author of To Sell is Human. And, yes, he’s talking about sales and we’re talking about fundraising. Sales and fundraising are more alike than they are different.

Attunement. Buoyancy. Clarity.

As described by Daniel Pink, these A, B, Cs are requisite skills for today’s world.

Attunement is the capacity to take another’s perspective, to understand their interests, and to see the world from their point of view. Buoyancy is the capacity to stay afloat on what one salesman calls an ‘ocean of rejection.’ Clarity is the capacity to make sense of murky situations, to curate information rather than merely access it, and to move from solving existing problems to finding hidden ones.”

—Daniel Pink

The telephone happens to be a beautiful way to deploy these skills.

  • How attuned are you to your constituents’ values, needs, and desires?
  • How buoyant and adaptive can you be in responding to constituent demands?
  • How do you get clarity on constituent challenges and ways you can help folks find the meaning they seek in their lives?

There’s no better way than person-to-person to show attunement with the values of your supporters ... demonstrate buoyancy and resilience through listening and reframing your offer to meet supporter needs ... and offer clarity of purpose, and impact, in your ask.

You can’t meet with every prospective donor face-to-face, but you can call a bunch of them. Probably not all of them, unless you’re super small. But why not identify those folks likely to merit the investment of your time?

Who Might You Call?

Begin by asking yourself where folks are on their journey toward awareness of what you do, interest in learning more, engagement, and investment with you.

Consider ... might the phone be a tool to move them to the next level?

What’s great about a phone call is that you can have a real-time conversation that, ultimately, leads naturally to a fundraising ask. Conversations build relationships.

The further along the continuum folks are, the more likely they are to say “yes.” In order of priority, current donors are your best bets. Your prospect list may include any or all of the following:

  • Contributes financially
  • Contributes in-kind
  • Contributed in the past
  • Attended an event
  • Volunteered
  • Actively participates (e.g., client, member, parent, patient, ticket buyer)
  • Joined mailing list
  • Engaged with social media
  • Follows on social media
  • Visited the website
  • Aware of us
  • Stranger

Who Will You Call?

Prioritize calls to those folks most likely to give you a positive response. The more people know you, and are already engaged or invested with you, the greater your likelihood of success.

  • Regular donors
  • Lapsed donors
  • One-time donors
  • Volunteers
  • Peer fundraisers
  • Social media advocates
  • People connected to you on social media
  • People who value you
  • Cold

Why are You Calling?

Know your objective going in. What are you trying to accomplish? What will success look like?

  • Renew first-time donor
  • Renew ongoing donor
  • Renew major donor
  • Reinstate lapsed donor
  • Increase donor to a new level of giving
  • Convert one-time giver to a monthly giving schedule
  • Give to a special project
  • Give to a special campaign (e.g., #GivingTuesday, challenge grant)
  • Introduce a legacy giving ask
  • Secure first-time monetary gift

Structure Your Call

It’s useful to have a script outline for your callers.

  • Build rapport (“Hi, this is Claire from XYZ Charity. Do you have a moment to talk?”)
  • Thank them (for whatever they do or did with you, or for being on your mailing list, or for their leadership in the community)
  • Share achievements (“I want to update you on what your gift made possible ... and find out if you have any questions.”)
  • Ask about their philanthropic interest this year (“Is there anything of particular concern to you this year, or do you think you’d like to continue your support as in the past?”)
  • Listen (you have two ears and one mouth; use them in that proportion)
  • Offer feedback (“I really appreciate hearing that ... “That’s so interesting ... “That’s really nice to hear.” ... “I can answer that question.” ... “I don't know the answer, but I’ll find out.”)
  • Describe the specific problem (offer one you believe is of interest to the donor)
  • Describe a specific solution (make sure it relates to the problem and is credible. Your donor knows $100 won’t end hunger. But $100 may buy a week’s worth of meals for a family)
  • Ask them to be the hero (“Will you consider a $100 gift to be this family’s guardian angel this holiday season?”)
  • Be silent and wait for their answer (Give the donor time to think, reflect, and respond. Avoid the temptation to jump in too soon and say something counter-productive like “If that amount is too much, would you consider a smaller gift?” Ouch! What a surefire way to suck all the oxygen out of the room and potentially destroy a hero moment.)
  • Thank (for their time ... their thoughtfulness ... their gift ... their feedback ... something!)
  • Check and verify their personal data (“So we can share with you in the future, can you tell me if this is still your ...?”)

Be Prepared for Common Hesitations

Listen. Wait for response. Empathize. Find out if this is the real reason for the hesitation. Suggest an alternative. Make another ask. Rinse and repeat.

  • I give elsewhere (“Then you know how much a difference a donation like this can make.”)
  • I can’t afford it (“I understand. ... Is there an amount you would be comfortable with?”)
  • I don’t give out my details (“I feel the same way. ... I’ll pop a remit envelope in the mail to you today so you can use that!”)
  • No credit card (“No problem. ... You can mail your gift in. I’ll send you the paperwork.”)
  • I’ll think about it (“Thank you! Just a reminder that our challenge runs only to the end of this week, so I hope you’ll double your gift by making your decision soon.”)
  • I’ll do it online (“Thank you! So you know, the average gift we’re receiving is $XX if that helps you with your thinking.”)
  • I have to discuss it with my partner (“I understand, and thank you! Are there any questions you think your partner may have that I can help you with now?”)

What to Do If You Get Voicemail

People do screen their calls, but don’t let this scare you away. Consider sending an email first to let folks know you’ll be calling. If they love you, this may persuade them to pick up.

If you get a message, leave a message. Be genuine. Say thank you so much! Tell them why you’re calling, and give your personal contact information so they can reach you. Tell them you’ll try again; follow through. After trying three times, tell them you’ll pop a quick note in the mail or send an email. This is still more personal than simply sending a cold mailing.

Ways to Boost Your Results

Remember, this is a two-way dialogue. Be friendly and attentive, and endeavor to ensure the information you offer is heard and understood.

  • Use the donor’s name. More than once.
  • Use YOU. This is about what the donor can accomplish, not your organization.
  • Be personal and human. Don’t read a script. Speak in a manner that’s comfortable for you.
  • Be conversational. Imagine you’re talking with a friend.
  • Offer your donor benefits they care about. Even a thank-you is a benefit. Other benefits are challenge grants, invitations, flattery, etc.
  • Listen and respond.
  • Prepare mentally. Smile as you speak. Consider standing up and walking around to convey energy.

You want to go in expecting a “yes” but prepared to manage a “not yet” or “no.”

Collect Contact Information Wherever and Whenever You Can

Of course, in order to be able to use the phone you need phone numbers. So make a list of all the places you might be able to collect this data. For example:

  • Opt-in on forms and surveys
  • Raffles
  • Events (e.g., forms on the tables)
  • Training sessions
  • Information sessions
  • Volunteer activities
  • Tribute envelopes
  • Donation remit
  • Donation landing page


Don’t overlook the telephone as an integral part of your fundraising marketing mix. While e-mail and mail communication may be efficient, the telephone remains ideal as a means of building strong, lasting relationships. It enables you to address issues in real time, and to overcome donor hesitations that might otherwise have stopped the donor from following through with a gift. Plus it’s much more difficult for someone to say “no” to a phone call than to an email or letter.

Key Strategies for Fundraising by TelephoneClaire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, was named Outstanding Fundraising Professional of the Year by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and brings 30 years of frontline development and marketing experience to her work as principal of her social benefit consulting firm, Clairification.

Topics: Fundraising Major Gifts Funding asks