University Phonathons Undergo a Digital Transformation

One of the most important business aspects of running a university is to keep tuition costs affordable to attract the best and brightest students — no matter their financial situation. Campuses with thoughtful fundraising campaigns can effectively offset rising tuition fees with donations from generous alumni and friends.

Now that the 2022–2023 academic year is in full swing, it’s time to get your university advancement’s annual fund underway. And there’s no better way to get started than to launch your campus phonathon for the fall semester.

Although many universities are retiring the term “phonathon” as philanthropy teams accelerate a digital transformation, the concept itself remains the same. Students work as ambassadors who reach out to alumni, friends and previous donors on behalf of the university to engage and connect with the larger university community.

Not only does this peer-to-peer fundraising campaign give your students some real-world fundraising experience, but it also allows the university to connect with prospects. And you can build relationships between students who are “on-the-ground” at campus and those who may have left years ago.

Often, this is an opportunity to ensure your contact records are up to date and make your constituents aware of any new endeavors happening on campus, such as an upcoming reunion weekend or athletic event.

Phonathons are proven fundraising strategies as well. Simply type “university phonathon” into a search engine, and you’ll find numerous examples of higher education institutions all over the country that are touting their successful campaigns. Most schools see higher conversion rates by contacting their prospects by phone versus direct mail or email.

The Low-Tech Fundraising Events of the Past

The more difficult task for setting up your phonathon program might be finding the right technology to support your team. As a college freshman 20 years ago, I joined my university’s phonathon team as a student caller.

Several nights per week, we gathered in a conference room in our student union building — each of us sitting in front of a beige, analog Western Electric phone and a stack of index cards with individuals’ contact information. Our job was to go through each index card that corresponded to the individual prospect, manually dial their phone numbers and then follow a generic script that was printed on a laminated sheet of paper at each station.

While this may have been the highest paying job on campus, most of the work was not fun. As an 18-year-old, I got my first taste of incessant rejection, either by being told not to call again, or with the call abruptly ending. It made me appreciate those calls in which a genuine connection was made — and I got to deviate from the generic script into a more natural conversation.

If the individual wanted to donate, we weren’t allowed to take credit card information over the phone. Instead, we would fill out a pledge form and, the following day, the university would mail a credit card authorization slip to the donor to fulfil their pledge.

Despite many of the challenges with this low-tech model, I was actually a very successful caller. I was named “Caller of the Week” twice during the fall semester, a title reserved for those who got the highest number of pledges over the phone.

At the time, that was the only metric available. And even that was based on the honor system, as there were several phonathon pledges that remained unfulfilled once the pledge card was mailed out.

Needless to say, we’ve come a long way in the past two decades. And expectations for a modern engagement system have shifted how universities think about their phonathon programs.

Match Your Phonathon Digital Transformation Strategy to Your Donors

The main shift that we’ve seen with modern engagement systems is the ability to reach individuals more quickly and efficiently. In my work as a student phonathon caller, there were several shifts where I dialed out more than 20 calls before reaching a live person.

Not only was I prone to a misdial as I manually punched in the 10-digit phone number I read off of the index card, but I wasted a lot of time trying to get in touch with a live person on the other end.

Today’s artificial intelligence (AI) technology can make accurate predictions for when a caller might reach a live person, optimizing that worker’s shift by reducing the amount of time they’re waiting for someone to pick up. This automation is achieved by configuring different dialing modes in your engagement system.

And it can be tweaked depending on who you’re calling. For example, a best practice would be to use a “Preview” dialing mode for a VIP or major donor, giving the student caller an opportunity to fully review that prospect’s record before the call gets connected.

Another major shift we’ve seen is better integrations between the advancement team’s fundraising CRM system and the system of engagement. Those index cards we were using in my college days were printed days (or sometimes more than a week) in advance.

Not only is it extremely wasteful to continually print out new index cards for your student callers, but it also provides little detail about the prospect. What’s worse: Because the cards were printed in advance, often the information was inaccurate.

Today, callers should have a customized script on their workstation display for every call. And it should pull in any relevant personal information that would progress the call in a meaningful way. Advanced automation can also easily match a caller with similar attributes as the prospect, such as Greek life affiliation or matching those callers with alumni who had the same major.

New gifts and/or record updates should also be addressed in the CRM system immediately and securely while the call is live. This triggers any follow-up workflows, such as receipts and acknowledgements, to start without delay.

Finally, phonathons need to expand to include other digital channels, such as SMS, video, social and email, so connections can be made on your constituents’ preferred channel of communication. While it might be easy to procure technologies that do each of those, very few engagement systems provide that omnichannel experience within a single cloud platform.

Getting a Degree in Digital Outreach

In a recent webinar, Adam Compton, Executive Director of Annual Giving at North Carolina State University, stated “We need our messaging to align from our phone to our mail to our email strategy, versus our phone running over on one side and mail/email/text running on the other side with very different messaging. How do we bring all that together in one cohesive message? … that’s what the future’s about.”

The truth is the future is already here for many industries. And for better or worse, people expect their alma mater to engage with them in the same way their favorite retailer, streaming service or financial institution engages with them.

Although the phone is here to stay (and perhaps is experiencing a revival among the younger generation), new digital technologies will continue to grow. Universities have to stay ahead of it.

Modern engagement systems can help universities redefine their phonathon programs with innovative outreach capabilities. Not only will this help acquire and recapture your donor base, you’ll also more adequately build lasting and meaningful relationships with your constituents.