A Realistic Look at Annual Funds
Then, about a decade ago, direct mail started into a decline that has become a nosedive as we — and all our colleagues in the for-profit and political arenas — drove it to, and then beyond, the reader’s saturation point. Witness the new vocabulary like “junk mail.” Direct mail is still an important part of the mass solicitation business, but its role has changed dramatically.
But, through the later chapters of the direct-mail story, telemarketing was rising to meet and anticipate the challenge of that decline. Telemarketing moved in to compensate for “snail” mail. It too, at first, increased the dollars and the donors almost geometrically. The rate of growth was astonishing as alumni volunteers staffing the two-nighter at the local phone company’s facility was replaced by students, then by paid students working several weeks, then all semester, etc. The process was so lucrative and so effective it simply kept growing. Soon telemarketing companies introduced new professional calling centers, and database-driven automated dialing equipment squeezed out the inefficiencies of touch-tone (which had replaced the rotary dial of the earliest days of telemarketing) and drove the contacts to thousands per hour.
We added the same statistical modeling and analytics that had redefined direct mail to further streamline telemarketing. Then, the digital database and other equipment brought robo-calling and a host of other technological refinements that seemed to hold the promise of stretching our “touch” nearly to infinity.
But almost as quickly (think about how the pace of these changes continues to accelerate) caller ID, screening and cell phones with unpublished numbers (and the decline of the landline) began to point toward the approaching decline of the phonathon. The story of telemarketing is all too familiar to all of us and hardly merits a reprise here. Telemarketing also continues to be critically important and continues to be the source of the vast majority of major gifts most institutions receive. But, participation is in decline for most. The ratio of “attempts” to “contacts” continues to decay, the numbers of prospects who are unreachable continues to grow, etc. The future looks long but not especially inviting.