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Should charities ditch cold calling?

Cold calling and charity - two things that have featured regularly in the press over recent years. Do the two work together? And is this fundraising method really right for charity?

By Reason Digital · November 27, 2015

Cold calling is dead. Or at least it is if you’re a charity.

The charity sector might receive £35 million of its annual income from telephone fundraising, but this method is becoming increasingly unpopular with the public. And, if news reports are anything to go by, this cold shoulder for cold calling isn’t something we should be ignoring.

In 2013, 14.4 million phone calls made were made by the charity sector, up from 11 million in 2010, according to the Fundraising Standards Board (FRSB) – a rise of 30%. But that’s not the only thing that’s rising. Between 2010 and 2013, the number of complaints reported by charities to the FRSB has more than doubled to 8,019 (though FRSB does not separate cold calling and any other types of calls). And, on average, for every 923 calls comes a complaint, with 36% of complainants citing a “general dislike of the method”.

Nonprofit research consultancy, NfpSynergy, carried out a survey in 2014, which discovered that 51% of people found telephone fundraising very annoying. In fact, the number of phone numbers registered with the Telephone Protection Service has risen from 14.8m in 2007, to 20.1 million in 2014. And, as NfpSynergy co-founder and leader, Joe Saxton said: “We have to start working out ways of reducing the annoyance from some of our most effective and successful methods.”

And Joe’s on the right track. Except, we think that charities should stop reaching donors via their phones, and start reaching them through their smartphones instead.

Yes, to fix the charity cold calling mess, we just have to adapt to how people want to hear from the organisations that they interact with today.

telephone box in winter

Understanding generations

There have been regular reports of the older generation being added to targeted marketing lists, as they are more vulnerable and it’s ‘easier’ to make them give. While this tactic may work, it’s hardly appropriate in the first instance, and this generation, with less understanding of digital, is one that is getting smaller with time.

On the other hand, the average smartphone user reaches for their phone at 7:31am in the morning, checks personal emails and Facebook before they get out of bed, and picks up their phone over 1,500 times each week.

Social media and smartphones have led to a complete shift in the way people communicate. Media is now demand driven. In fact, it’s not really about media anymore, but about our ability to decide which relationships we do want, and which relationships we don’t. We have the ability to engage with, deepen, or cut-off those relationships when we see fit.

If you recognise a nuisance number on your phone screen, you won’t think twice about rejecting a call. If someone talks about themselves too much on Twitter, you know where that unfollow button is. Social media is not just another ‘marketing channel’ to abuse and infiltrate. Understanding this is key to surviving the the cold-calling apocalypse – because social media could well be the alternative.

The charity sector needs to learn to adapt to this new form of marketing where the user has the option to hang up, to unsubscribe, unlike, or unfollow with everything you do.

The problem with being inspired by classic sales techniques is you have to be okay with infuriating 100 people, as long as you get one of them to give you money. That just doesn’t fit with charities. And it doesn’t fit with this demand-driven society we live in either.

Yes, cold calling might work. But for every short-term win, you essentially risk long-term damage to a charity’s reputation. In fact, at the time of writing of this article, more people complained to the Information Commissioner’s Office about cold calls from charities than from payday loan companies. One of those people might be the person who cancels their direct debit. Or the person who chooses to run a marathon for another cause in the future. Or the person who will tell all their friends about how annoying you are. And there’s nothing social about that.

Current figures suggest that 90% of charity cold calls are made by agencies. A stranger in a call centre (who risks being fired if they don’t get enough people to give, who isn’t even directly employed by a charity) is representing your organisation.

Imagine what you could do online with a team the size of a call centre dedicated to producing moving, inspiring, persuasive digital content instead? Content that’s written or recorded once, and yet reaches thousands, even millions in one go.

This means creating and sharing value for your users; giving them content and stories they want to see that will move them to act. A mix of emotion about the cause and trust in your impact. Spend more time on inbound marketing – instead of you having to go out and find your audience, who often don’t want to be found (or harassed), start creating content that will draw them in.

And if you need inspiration – look at how some of the biggest brands in the world are doing it. Take Dove – you might think of bars of soap, yes, but you’re also likely to think of their many campaigns targeting negative advertising towards women and their body image, as part of its “Movement for Self-Esteem” campaign.

Dove adapted. It understood that there were hundreds of soaps that people could choose from, so it started building relationships instead. And it worked.

The campaign has reportedly boosted Dove sales from $2.5 billion to $4 billion in 10 years. And Ad Age named it the best advertising campaign of the 21st century.

So why are you letting soap take the spotlight over charity?

Now telephone fundraising agency GoGen has ceased training, will a dying cold calling revenue stream pull your charity down with it, in time?

Sure, digital fundraising isn’t offering the same payoff as cold calling, yet, but times are quickly changing and very few organisations can honestly say they’ve tried it with as much conviction as direct mail or telephone fundraising.

Consider this, one phone call reaches one person, with no guarantee of them giving you money, before the line goes dead, but one tweet or post can reach a decent percentage of your following, and be shared.

According to JustGIving, if a donor shares a message on Facebook about them donating to a charity, it’s worth £1 per share. If someone shares a message about donating to a friend’s fundraising page, it’s worth around £5. But if a fundraiser shares a text update about their event, it is worth around £12 per share, and if they record and share a video about their event, this increases to £18.

So surely this is the time for some proper investment into the world of social media and content?

Ultimately, even if cold calling is the best option when generating fundraising, but it relies on targeted lists that include vulnerable people, and it also frustrates a large percentage of supporters, then surely, for charities, this is one sum that does not add up.

The world has changed, but will charities change with it? Many of their donors already have. Therein lies the problem.