Lesson 4: Running a telethon at an independent school

By Dan Keyworth

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To get the most out of telethons, your institution should invest appropriately and balance the short and longer term objectives. Remember that you are also indirectly educating your pupils and staff to become ambassadors and donors in the future. Of course, there can be no greater springboards to a successful telethon than by having both an inspiring case for support and an active, relevant and engaging alumni relations and parents programme and community already in place at your school.

Think of future years and don’t just go for the quick buck: engage appropriately and target your constituencies to maximise returns over several years’ worth of telethons. This means: investing in longer fulfilling conversations; utilising your larger prospects and donors; incorporating thank you calls as well as solicitations; and cultivating a wide pool of contacts to extend beyond just the current reach and focus of the school. Don’t merely plan for year one; instead try to set good prospects and expectations at the outset for continued investment in year two and onwards.

Above all, aim high: telethons do work and they work best when asks are bold and the cause and targets ambitious and inspiring. Motivate your callers and build up as much team spirit as you can. Similarly, motivate your development office and your governing body. Most of all, motivate your alumni, parents and friends. Promote your telethon in your newsletter or magazine and email bulletins, through social media, and on your website. Report results back to them frequently. Let them know how their gifts are being spent and the impact that they are collectively making. Regular giving is a culture that prospers over time. In order to bring sceptical alumni and parents on board, continually demonstrate that the calls are as much about engagement and sharing impact as they are about fundraising totals. Build the sense of community throughout.

Consider including metrics around relationship-building as part of each telethon, so that this point on engagement is made more clearly. Build metrics around the data enrichment/cleaning and prospect identification benefits too. How many future legacy opportunities arose from the telethon? How many new donors gave £1,000 or more for the first time? How many high-net-worth individuals (CEOs, directors, barristers, investment bankers, surgeons etc) were identified? How many gave more this year than last year? What impact did calling have on event attendees in the six months after? How many new sign-ups for the boat club email list did you obtain? How many new volunteers did you identify for your mentors programme? What other qualitative data on contacts now flagged as prospects did you capture? And so on.

Fundraising does need fine-tuning. There can be a big difference between a badly-run telethon and a well-run one, with your own time investment and any consultant support making a real difference. Enhance the telethon with supporting strategies, perhaps by sending out a personal information form beforehand to gather more up-to-date contact and other helpful details. Make sure to ask for telephone numbers on every event invitation RSVP and gift form too, as that grows your pool for next year. Ensure you collect the accompanying consents: formulate a structured plan for potential touch points where phone and email consent may be obtained, and make your print and online statements simple, prominent, explicit and positive enough that people will opt-in. A comprehensive CRM database is perhaps your greatest tool towards these pursuits – it is vital to preparing for, executing and then following up your telethon, and also for harnessing the longer-term benefits that this investment in personal contact derives for you.

If you follow sensible guidelines then you should expect an excellent rate of return. A typical telethon costs as little as £10,000-£20,000 to run, much of that being wages to callers and software and mailing costs (the telephone bill itself should be relatively low). Donations meanwhile typically reach between £50,000 and £200,000, and in some instances much higher. Above and beyond this there are the priceless non-immediate benefits discussed throughout. With your institution’s backing and good preparation, a well-run telethon will pay dividends many times over.

Missed the beginning? Click here for Lesson 1

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