Lesson 3: Running a telethon at an independent school

By Dan Keyworth

Click here for Lesson 1
Click here for Lesson 2

The calling

If the preparation and training have been rigorous, then the calling period itself, whilst busy, should be very enjoyable. Your role will primarily be to supervise the callers, to ensure gifts are processed appropriately and securely, to administer data entry/transfer onto your CRM database, and to ensure that any problems are quickly resolved.

Assign a number of alumni or parents to each caller. Every contact should have his or her own software-based record (or printed record sheet), which lists all details on them which might be of assistance to the caller. Match callers to contacts according to shared passions, interests and experiences. This might include hobbies, sports, clubs and activities; the subjects they studied; their House within the school; their teachers; their background and demographics; and their (intended) study or career paths.

Get the callers on the phone as quickly as possible each evening: they will probably be nervous until the first call, so it is better to encourage them to do this almost straightaway.

There is a delicate balance that needs to be struck between having a fulfilling conversation that is not rushed and ensuring that you do not keep the contact on the telephone for an unnecessarily long time. Typically a call of 15-30 minutes is sufficient, unless the call recipient indicates that they would prefer a briefer or a more in-depth conversation. Similarly, there is a fine balance between getting callers back on the phone quickly after each call is completed: a rule of thumb is that each caller should only be off the phone for 5-10 minutes between completed calls.

After completing a conversation, the caller should immediately note as many relevant details as possible about what was discussed and agreed. Information is power! Good note-taking helps write a more personalised postcard, letter or email to each contact after their conversation, but also makes the job of calling them easier and more enjoyable for future callers.

Your calling software or CRM database should allow you to pull reports on success levels. Initially try to hand out call recipients with low-to-medium ask amounts, in order to inspire confidence in the callers early on. Distribute the bigger ask amounts to specific callers as soon as you are confident that they can handle them; do not leave this process too many days into the telethon, because larger prospects will often be the most difficult to get hold of and may require numerous attempts before being successfully reached.

Identifying your best callers early on is key. It will enable you to match them with the wealthiest or most challenging call recipients, thus ensuring that other callers who are struggling to get good results do not take on your most important prospects.

Nonetheless, do not show a lack of confidence in your weaker callers. It may be that some of your students are better at making affinity or thank you calls, or encouraging support from contacts with low giving potential. Alternatively, they may be able to assist in other ways such as with data-checking, or writing thank you cards. Bear in mind, too, that less successful callers can improve with the right support. Simultaneously, if a caller is receiving few regular gifts, then the caller may be switching to a participation gift ask (e.g. £10-20) too quickly. Extra training can involve focusing on addressing the first no by identifying and responding to the specific objection(s) and then re-asking at half or quarter of the original amount. It can be as simple as sitting them next to another caller who is particularly skilful, and asking them to listen in on that student’s next call.

Always include a proportion of thank you calls in your telethon. Stewardship is a fundamental part of any successful regular giving programme: these calls do not include any ask, so they are also great for a caller who is lacking confidence about the negotiation. The return on investment from these calls will also come through higher renewal and upgrade rates in future years.

As the calling period progresses, ensure that the callers are continually motivated. Start each session with a brief update – use visuals and guest speakers to create excitement, humour and buzz in the calling room. Reward them with prizes for regular gifts, large single gifts and high participation, and spend money on food, drinks and other treats. Chase targets. Let callers know on a daily basis what percentages they are hitting, what causes they are helping, and what the overall running total is. Be supportive and understanding whenever a student has a bad call and make sure they know that they can stop to chat with a supervisor about their experience.

Inevitably, a number of contacts will not be reached because of lack of time, inaccurate phone numbers, or holiday clashes. When working out whom to call next, callers should prioritise renewals, upgrades and wealthy contacts, and de-prioritise those which have thus far resulted in multiple answer phones or reaching other parties instead.



Utilising your earlier preparation of templates, get the lengthy process of generating letters, processing gifts and entering call results and information onto your CRM database underway from day one. The first golden rule is, wherever possible, to follow up each call with a letter or email within 24 hours, whilst the conversation is fresh in the contact’s mind. This maximises the likelihood that a pledger will fulfil their gift and maximises the appreciation that a donor who has already made their donation will feel in response to their thank you.

The caller’s follow-up should be tailored to include any additional information requested; check each one before it is posted to ensure it is personalised and engaging.

The second golden rule is, wherever possible, to enter the updated data from your calling onto your CRM database within 24 hours. This matters, as there may be incoming correspondence from the alumnus in the days after the telethon and you need to know the latest information when responding.

Accuracy is foremost. Each postcard/letter must be carefully checked, with pledged and fulfilled donors prioritised. The call notes gathered must be entered onto the database without errors or offending information, so that it is possible to pull up required information easily. Tempting to record everything in one place for ease will not be helpful in the long run when it comes to effective reporting and segmenting. Remember that this data is amongst the richest and most valuable you will hold, and over time can lead to much more effective mid-level and major giving programmes. At the same time, be aware that contacts can request to see a copy of their own personal data held on your system at any point and UK Data Protection laws obligate us to respond, so it is essential to phrase all updates appropriately.

Produce reports both during and after the telethon to analyse the results. Have sound daily processes and do not forget to flag up important issues and respond to bespoke actions quickly. Your telethon software may be a key asset for this, especially if it has built-in financials and dashboards. You can use these analyses to demonstrate to the governing body the benefits of repeating the process. Remember to report results back to the callers too. Not only do they deserve to hear the fruits of their labour, it should also help them with their CVs and encourage them to participate again in future. Of course, also share the successes of your telethon with your alumni, parents and friends to inspire yet others to give.

Not everyone will fulfil their pledges quickly and some will not fulfil them at all. Credit card gifts and Paperless Direct Debits help keep these to a minimum by enabling supporters to donate immediately over the phone to the caller. But for those who pledged to make their donation at a later date and then do not respond, it is usually necessary to chase them. It is well worth reminding and encouraging these contacts, through letters, emails and/or telephone calls. Only in very rare instances will pledgers complain at this persistence – usually they respond rather apologetically!

Click here for Lesson 2

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