Lesson 1: Running a telethon at an independent school
By Dan Keyworth
Telephone fundraising works: if organised smartly, telethons may become your institution’s main source of recurring income. They are one of the most effective tools for raising donor participation levels, and an invaluable way of building relationships and gathering prospect information for the future. Telethons also have a surprisingly inexpensive cost-to-benefit ratio.
Central to every successful telethon are the callers – the students or recent alumni who embody the raison d’être of your school. It is precisely because they are not professional fundraisers, nor tele-salespersons, that they deliver formidable results. Students make the need for financial support direct, real and alive.
Nearly every call should deliver a positive result, whether financial or otherwise. In a well-run telethon, 30-75% of those reached may make a gift, compared to 0.5-7.5% from a carefully written appeal letter. Good telethon calls allow for much more flexible, personalised conversations: they can inspire non-donors to make their first ever gifts and motivate existing contributors to give more.
Telethons also deliver positive non-financial results. They help engender community among alumni, parents and the student body and provide a platform for stewarding existing supporters and bringing distant alumni closer to the school.
Telethons should not induce guilt – instead they succeed by making it as easy and compelling as possible for each contact to donate. Unlike a mailing campaign, there is the opportunity for dialogue, where the caller can discuss the case for support, answer any queries, and learn if and why the contact may have concerns, before responding personally.
A final result of any telethon is the key new information that can be gathered. Calls help to: improve relationships with your school; identify new prospects; update details and communication preferences; elicit career support and mentoring; identify interest in your legacy programme, and more. Above all, they empower your school with insights into the passions and interests of future major donors and highlight factors that will need to be addressed to fully harness their support.
Resourcing the telethon – and whether to have external support
Many schools decide to hire external consultants to assist in running their telethons. Established consultants know how to train enthusiastic and motivated callers and provide vital extra manpower and specific soft/hardware to aid telethon data management: both may alleviate the risk of your development office becoming over-stretched.
Good consultants can, however, cost upwards of £10,000, depending on the extent of their involvement and their reputation. As a middle option, some schools elect to have just the telethon software component provided externally. Each institution is different: determine the right balance of external support and internal investment required to deliver success at your school.
Telethons require meticulous data management and can create a large amount of paperwork. The right software and hardware can help your telethon to run smoothly and efficiently, whilst also providing you with more real-time insights into progress and areas of growing risk and/or opportunity.
Regardless of the method used, each piece of data requires careful checking before migrating into your primary CRM/contact database.
Crucially, the questions of both software and consultants are a matter of determining whether your school has sufficient resources, manpower and experience to manage all of the aspects of a successful telethon internally.
Whatever options you select, remember that a successful telethon will necessarily generate a substantial demand on your team. You will ultimately be responsible for the cleanliness and utility of the data you hold, and for guiding your institution to the need for a high-quality case for support. Do not hire consultants thinking that they will remove your administration altogether: instead, an excellent consultant will provide you with very useful support and software for your training and calling, share from experience what approaches most commonly work best, and help you to understand and meet the timelines and deadlines involved.