Ring of Fire
When Kwi Brennan came to New Jersey’s Rutgers University in 1996, volunteers culled from the alumni and student body were raising about $2 million a year through telemarketing. Not bad, but not exactly blazing either.
Then Brennan, the senior director of annual giving, and his supervisor, Victoria Wilt, turned up the heat. Telemarketing revenues jumped up to $2.5 million in 1997, $2.9 million in 1998, $3.1 million in 1999, $3.7 million in 2000, $4.2 million in 2001, $5 million in 2002 and $5.1 million in 2003.
According to Brennan, Rutgers is the first university to break the $5 million mark in pledges and is the highest pledge-dollar program in the country by about $1.3 million.
So what happened?
Brennan instituted a year-round calling program (as opposed to the traditional September-December and February-May schedule), did away with the volunteer callers and, basically, stopped telemarketing altogether.
OK, not really. He and Wilt turned the volunteer-based program into a paid student-caller program. They also partnered with Advantage Fundraising Consulting and implemented new fundraising strategies that took the burden of the ask off of the callers.
“Their job is twofold: They’re first goodwill ambassadors for the university and then fundraisers,” Brennan explains. “But they’re not telemarketers, because they are not selling anything. They’re providing an opportunity for our prospects to invest in Rutgers and its students.”
Advantage President Anthony Alonso recommended that Rutgers preface every phone call with a letter explaining to potential donors what and why they should give. It also tells them not only to expect a phone call, but when — usually about a week later.
Though he knows it’s a good idea now, Brennan wasn’t thrilled with the pre-call letter notion early on.
“When I heard about the pre-call letter, I didn’t buy into it right away,” he admits. “But Vicky said, ‘We’re doing it,’ so we did it and it worked amazingly well. In the first year (1996-97), the average gift increased 43 percent, and there was a 20 percent increase in giving.”
The pre-call letter approach makes sense, Brennan says.
“Much of our work in fundraising is based off of the pre-call letter concept,” he adds. “If you’re a major-gifts officer trying to schedule an appointment, you would send a pre-call letter ahead of time and then follow that up with a call to schedule the appointment.”
The pre-call letters are signed by major-gift donors, Brennan explains, which also makes the process a great cultivation tool. Signers share their Rutgers experience with the development staff, which then writes the pre-call letters for their approval.
Involvement on that level gets signers excited about their alma mater again and often leads to their own increased giving, Brennan says.
Over the past three years, Rutgers has partnered with Advantage in an effort to reach Brennan’s goal of contacting every alumnus, parent and friend on the 240,000-name prospect file at least once a year, regardless of his or her giving history. Outsourcing to Advantage made that possible, though fewer calls will be outsourced going forward since Rutgers recently opened a second calling center, doubling its call-center capacity. The new center is on its Camden campus; the original is at the main campus in New Brunswick.
Next up is to increase the goal from one contact a year to two. And that’s no small task, especially when you consider that the Rutgers program isn’t automated. It relies on telephones, paper call cards with preprinted donor information, handwritten thank-you notes, and lots of busy fingers.
“Would we raise more money if we were automated? Maybe. But the only real advantage is in the processing and reporting,” Brennan says. “Aside from that, in some ways it can be a detriment … computer crashes, loss of data, and computer equipment and software costs. I’m not convinced that it is worth the startup, maintenance and ongoing computer-replacement costs.”
One of the biggest reasons he doesn’t want to automate the Rutgers program, he adds, is that it would eat up too much space in the call center, cutting the number of seats. The New Brunswick center has about 40 seats, while the Camden site can hold up to 50.
One bit of advice from Brennan: Don’t be afraid to max out a new program too quickly.
“I say the sooner we can get people giving, the better,” he says. “Rutgers graduates 8,000 to 10,000 people a year, and they’re instantly thrown into the calling pool.
“Sure, you can expect slower growth after you maxed out your program, but you should still grow a little every year. If not, then something’s wrong,” he adds. “Either you’re not soliciting everybody; the new idea for the year wasn’t so great; or your approach, case for support or program strategies have become stale.”