Warming Up to the Cold Call
You may have heard some of the stories. Maybe you have even lived one of them. They typically begin with a fundraiser, dejected and sitting alone in a dimly lit office. He's surrounded by piles of prospect lists that never seem to dwindle. A bead of perspiration falls gently from his brow. All the while he's staring at the phone.
He's preparing for the dreaded "cold call."
The cold call is one of the scariest yet most unavoidable tasks we face as fundraisers. Few professions require telephoning of a total stranger — a person we have neither seen, nor spoken to, nor perhaps even heard of. And worse, imagine the reaction by the person on the other end of the phone when he or she suddenly realizes what you do for a living! This is a scenario for disaster.
But — and this is where a definition is critical — there are cold calls, and there are cold calls. The latter type, in which you telephone a total stranger to your organization, is not worth your time. My own experience, as well as those of a number of my colleagues, says that going to the White Pages (do they still have those?) and making a telephone call to an individual with zero affiliation to your charity most often results in exactly nothing, except perhaps frustration. (Related to this is the notion of phoning someone solely because you know her to be wealthy. If you're really trying to attract and engage this wealthy person, your time is better spent pursuing others means of introduction.)
The type of cold call I'm referring to here is part and parcel of daily development toil. It consists of making calls to people you may not know but who have at least a minimal affiliation with your institution. Perhaps they have been patients at your hospital. Maybe they enrolled as students at your school, or they have attended a show at your theater. These types of relationships, among many others, can provide the entrée you need.
Now that you established that an affiliation with your prospect exists, a successful effort requires a bit of research before you pick up the phone. But — and this is practically unheard of in our business — I'm going to emphasize the words "a bit of research." Don't get too bogged down in prospect research at this point. You needn't discover everything there is to know about a prospect before you place a cold call. A few factoids might be helpful — a profession, an address and other tidbits that might give you a general idea of your prospect — but resist the urge to complete a comprehensive report before making the call. Research often becomes an excuse for not picking up the phone.
Having learned a few potentially pertinent facts, it's time to make the call. You dialed the phone. Now what? When someone answers, here are some next steps:
Say hello, and state your name, your title and your organization. Don't be surprised if you get a chilly reaction. Think about the last time you got a solicitation call at home — you probably did the same thing. Not to worry — as you move along in your conversation the tone will probably grow more pleasant.
Thank them for their support
I usually start with a thank-you for the support that has been received in the past. Perhaps they gave to a capital campaign or an annual fund, or maybe they have volunteered or taken advantage of your organization's services (in a past position, we sincerely appreciated those who had become ticket subscribers). Remember, you're cold calling them, but you have established that they have some relationship to your organization now or in the past. Let them know they're appreciated.
Ask if it's a good time to talk
For reasons I have never quite understood, some people answer their cell phones while they're driving only to tell you they can't talk because they are driving. That, and other inopportune moments, can happen. If you get a "no," volunteer to call them back later in the day or tomorrow. If you ask if you may call them back at a more convenient time, you are likely to get rejected sooner than you had planned.
Offer a few details
Are you celebrating an anniversary? Do you have an exciting new program to relate? Perhaps you're about to commence a capital project? Your prospect knows what your organization does as a part of its daily routine, but what new projects are you working on that might excite her? And it doesn't have to be a major project. Maybe it's a milestone in your service (i.e., "We just gave our 25th ballet class to needy children," or, "Our new X-ray machine has really helped us to serve our patients" — you get the idea.)
Learn to spot an opening
Find common ground. And be real. Very often, when I talk about my organization (a university college for several artistic disciplines), the talk turns to children, grandchildren and other topics of a more personal nature. Use these forks in the road of the conversation as opportunities not only to learn more about your prospect, but as a chance for the prospect to learn about you. We are constantly told that fundraising is about relationships, and indeed it is. You can lay the groundwork for a solid relationship even during a cold call.
Ask for an appointment
If I get as far as I hope to get during the initial portion of the conversation, I always ask to meet in person. Location does not matter. What is important is to get "face time," especially if you are prospecting for major gifts and prospect research has borne little fruit. Regarding the latter point, my experience has been that 30 minutes of face time beats 10 pages of research.
Naturally, your cold call will not be successful 100 percent of the time. A number of people will immediately hang up on you (sometimes politely, sometimes less so), and others might listen for a minute or two before asking you to call at another time (they don't mean it). You've done your job, made a good effort, and now must accept that there are people in the world whose philanthropic interests simply do not align with you and your organization.
But — and more often than you think — other individuals will stay on the line, hear what you have to say and even consent to meet with you. Success! The cold call has worked, and you can go about the important business of building a relationship with your prospect.
There, that wasn't so bad, was it?
Bill Faucett is director of development at the College of the Arts at the University of South Florida (Tampa) and president of the Association of Fundraising Professionals Florida Suncoast Chapter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org