The fundraising landscape is changing with fewer Australians giving to charity each year. According to Philanthropy Australia, the number of Australians giving to charity has been declining each year since 2011. Roy Morgan reports that as of March 2018, 61 per cent of Australians aged 14 and over reported giving to charity at least once during the past 12 months. That’s down from 70 per cent in 2011 – a decrease of 9 per cent over the last seven years.
Those are numbers that nobody in the fundraising sector wants to hear. It’s a trend that’s easy for us to ignore. We can pretend it’s not happening and stick to a comfortable business-as-usual approach. Or we can start listening – because this sustained decrease in the number of Australians giving to charities each year has something very important to teach us.
Let me share a story with you. I have a friend who is a successful businessman. Every year at tax time he sits down with his accountant and figures out how much money he will give to charity that year. Then he writes a cheque – a very large cheque.
He has done this every year for many years, and he always gave the cheque to the same charity. This changed recently. The charity in question called him with a request to start giving a regular monthly donation. He patiently explained that he preferred to give a one-off donation once a year. The caller thanked him for his support and left it at that.
Then the charity called my friend again. And again. They continued to ask that he begin giving every month. After the third call my friend was fed up. He informed the charity that he would be ending his support, and now he donates that very large annual cheque to a different organisation.
I understand the benefits of converting single-gift givers into regular monthly donors. I know the monthly gifting model makes it easier for non-profits to plan ahead and to more effectively allocate budgets. And I’m not advocating for an end to the monthly donation model.
However, this charity’s persistence to sign my friend up as a regular monthly donor cost them tens of thousands of dollars every year. It probably cost them a substantial bequest too. Rather than listening to how he wanted to support them, they pushed ahead with their campaign goal and are now poorer for the effort.
Let me be clear. My problem here isn’t with the monthly donation model. Many donors are happy to support charities in this way. It works for them and the charity they give to. Rather, what I find troubling about this example is that the charity ignored the preferences of a significant donor because it couldn’t see past its immediate campaign goals.
A lesson from the business world
This kind of thinking spells disaster in the modern business world. Over the last several years, commercial businesses have invested enormous amounts of money in customer segmentation. This is not just an empty buzzword – it’s all about developing a deeper understanding of individual customer preferences so the business can deliver a better, more personalised customer experience.
Today’s most successful commercial businesses divide their customers into clearly defined segments based on not just their basic demographic information, but they also consider factors like past buying behaviours, preferred communication channels and interests.
These segments then dictate how the customers are communicated with. The marketing messages and delivery techniques are different between segments. An email newsletter that works for one segment doesn’t work for another. One segment loves virtual chat support while another segment loathes it. Social media is an effective way to engage one segment, while another segment responds much better to direct mail campaigns.
You get the idea. Successful businesses know that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to marketing in the dynamic modern economy. Customers have widely different needs and preferences, and the key to winning as many over as possible is to treat them as individuals.
This is an important lesson for non-profit organisations. Our focus must not just be on what is best for us, but we must give equal weight to what is best for our supporters. If we try to force everyone into the same box, we’ll lose important donors like my friend. But if we can empower people to support us in their own ways, then we’ll build better long-term relationships.
Building human connections
That’s all well and good, but how do non-profit organisations actually make that happen in an environment where there is so much competition for every donor dollar?
I believe it comes down to building human connections with supporters. It’s a delicate balance between pushing to achieve campaign goals and knowing when to pull back in order to protect an existing relationship. This requires highly trained fundraisers who know how to build human connections and have the ability to step away from the script when required.
Katelyn Webb and Tony Kirton are two of my most valued tele-agents. They have both worked at OURTEL for three plus years, and they understand this delicate balance better that most.
“It’s very important for us to balance what the charity wants with what and how the donor wants to give,” says Katelyn. “We call it a soft push. If the campaign goal is to sign a single-gift giver up to a monthly donation plan, then we start with that request, but we need to read the mood of the caller and be flexible.
“That could mean keeping the request open. Instead of asking for a certain amount, I might ask them how much they would feel comfortable donating. Or when an existing supporter is resistant to signing up to a monthly donation plan it’s often helpful to explain to them why many charities prefer regular monthly donations and why this is more useful for achieving campaign goals than single gifts.”
Tony agrees that establishing human connections with individual supporters is the most important aspect of his job.
“We do get set KPIs for each campaign, but I’ve never been told that I must raise ‘X’ amount from each supporter,” he says. “We’re given the freedom to treat each call differently. For example, in the case of a supporter who donates a lump sum once or twice a year, in some calls you can start to sense them get defensive when they’re asked to consider a regular monthly donation. This is where we need to use our human judgment. The last thing I want to do is push too hard and lose that supporter altogether.
“Some might say that they’ve been giving annual gifts to the charity for 10 years and they don’t need or appreciate prompting. In these cases, it’s important to acknowledge and thank them for their support, explain how it has helped the charity and then pull back. If we’re not listening to them and keep pushing despite the signals they’ve given, the call can come across as a nuisance and threaten the relationship with the supporter.”
The virtual workforce solution
This all obviously requires a delicate human touch. Tele-agents need the ability to quickly read a supporter’s mood, establish how they want to support the organisation and balance that with the charity’s goals for the campaign – all within the first 30 seconds of the call.
From a fundraising company’s perspective, this is incredibly difficult to achieve. Fundraising call centres have been traditionally staffed by transient workers – university students needing to pay their rent and backpackers keen to fund their next adventure. Employee turnover is high, training is brief and experience is a rare commodity.
That’s why I set up OURTEL on a virtual workforce model. All our tele-agents work from home or from their chosen place of business and are constantly connected to their teams and supervisors via various technology such as video conferencing software and instant messaging apps.
By not restricting our recruitment to people within commuting distance of a central bricks-and-mortar office, we’ve been able to cast a much wider net and attract tele-agents from all over the country.
The benefits of working from home have not only allowed us to achieve impressive employee retention rates, but also make OURTEL attractive for highly experienced mature-age workers who come to us with extensive life and professional experience across a range of industries.
Tony, for example, enjoyed a long, successful career traveling around Australia as a recruitment manager for a weighbridge company before joining OURTEL. And Katelyn is one of our brightest young rising stars who is building a successful career with OURTEL while not having to give up a country lifestyle.
“I live half an hour from town and six hours from the closest city,” says Katelyn. “Being a virtual employee, I am able to move up in my career with OURTEL regardless of my age or location. I could not go back to commuting to work.”
“The cost of living in Sydney was getting too high. So when the company I worked for folded, I moved to the country and got a job with OURTEL,” says Tony. “It’s an ideal work environment. I’m comfortable in my own surroundings, there’s no commuting stress, and I can live wherever I want.”
Retaining quality staff like Tony and Katelyn over the long term has been essential to OURTEL’s success. We get the benefits of their past experience while being able to freely invest in their training in the knowledge that they’re here to stay thanks, in part, to the superior work/life balance afforded by the virtual model. And that makes all the difference when it comes to developing skilled, empathetic tele-agents who understand how to create strong donor relationships based on genuine human connections.