Telephone fundraising: what to learn from Indian telefacing

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Telephone fundraising: what to learn from Indian telefacing

In the third installment of our special focus on telephone fundraising, Jenny Ramage discovers how the telephone could be used to inject a new lease of life into face-to-face fundraising


What if you knew that every front door you knocked on would be answered, and answered warmly? What if you were able to achieve a near-perfect conversion rate from your door knocking?

In India, ‘telefacing’ has been a huge success. A telephone call/home visit hybrid, telefacing comprises engaging with prospects over the phone, arranging a meeting, and quickly getting a representative out to their home or office to draw the prospect out to a donation. It’s a method used by various non-profit organisations in India – and with a remarkable amount of success.

Fundraising consultant Rich Fox, chairman and CEO of Washington-based Rich Fox & Associates, has worked with UNICEF in India on the organisation’s telefacing programme. “Their programme was an extraordinary success”, he says. “They had young women making telephone calls to business people who were not currently supporters, to ask them to accept a meeting with a young man who wanted to explain the good work UNICEF did, and ask them to support the charity. They were getting one to two per cent to agree to a meeting. In those meetings, 85-90 per cent agreed to a gift – an amazing conversion rate.”
Indian giving

Fox worked closely with Delhi-based Anup Tiwari, then a fundraising specialist at UNICEF India and now director of fund development & communications at SOS Children’s Villages International. Tiwari, who has also worked with UNICEF, CAF, HelpAge and CRY-Child Rights & You, is widely considered India’s foremost authority in telefacing. It was developed as a fundraising method, he explains, to combat some of the issues fundraisers were facing when using telephone and face-to-face independently of each other.

“Many prospects were wary of sharing credit card details with an unseen telephone caller, and instead would promise to send a bank cheque or direct debit form, and then never do it. Others said that they needed time to think, which often became an eternity. And many times, gatekeepers of all sorts blocked door-to-door fundraisers from accessing potential donors.”

He says that combining calls and visits works like a panacea. “Seeing an NGO representative in person increases the prospect’s confidence to share their credit card details. And if a prospect says on the phone that they need couple of days to think, two days later the facer’s visit helps them to make up their mind. An appointment arranged over the phone sees fundraisers smoothly float past the gatekeepers to reach the prospect.”

Every year, telefacing acquires and retains hundreds of thousands of donors in India. Leading international NGOs operating in the country –UNICEF, Oxfam, Action Aid and Greenpeace among them – have all made telefacing one of their main fundraising channels.


A numbers game

Independent fundraising consultant Richard Pordes has worked with both Tiwari and Rich Fox at UNICEF India and has witnessed its success, which he thinks is largely about making the numbers work. “In India telefacing works so well because skilled labour is very inexpensive. You can hire people to make the call and the follow-up visits at very low cost. The two together aren’t that much more expensive than sending a letter.”
In the UK, of course, this process would cost you much more. Labour costs are higher, and you’d be paying for the cost of the phone calls, then paying for the cost of sending someone out to the prospects. Would it really make sound financial sense to introduce telefacing over here?

“I’m not saying telefacing cannot be done in the UK, but the numbers could be difficult, as you’d have to get such a high return”, says Pordes. “But I would certainly be interested in seeing whether it can be made to work.”


Testing, testing

It seems he isn’t the only one. Making it work is exactly what some thought leaders in the UK are trying to do – telemarketing agency Pell & Bales, for example. Its creative director, Charlie Hulme, says the company is looking to test telefacing later this year. “There seems to be a lot of interest,” he says. “There are a lot of people who are asking about it, and I think it will be an interesting test.”
Identifying the prospects, he says, is done through a fairly straightforward telephone survey where people specify charities they would like to support. His team is now looking to follow these “lukewarm” prospects up with a call to book a home-based appointment with a fundraiser.
While the UK may not share all of India’s fundraising problems (we don’t need a signature to set up a direct debit, for example), telefacing could be a solution to many of our own issues. “There is concern at the moment about what might happen with door-to-door and street fundraising in the future”, explains Hulme.

“Even if nothing changes, you’ve still got an attrition rate of around 50 per cent, so anything that potentially improves this form of fundraising is worth testing and trying out.

“Also, you can have your best people out there in the field all day, but they may hardly get to speak to anyone. Telefacing could be a way of making it more effective.” It’s already been shown to work in the commercial world – double-glazing companies, for example, have been doing it for years – and it’s exactly the same principle. Whichever country you’re in, “it’s about getting people more engaged with your cause before you send your best fundraisers out there.”

As for the costs argument, Hulme says, “the call will be short and money will be saved with the visits, because rather than doorknockers not getting any answers for a large part of the day, with this, almost every time they knock, someone will answer. The prospects will also be more engaged as they’ve already agreed to a meeting.

“I imagine the conversion rate would be high.”


American dream

Across the pond, Rich Fox says it’s already working for organisations in the US, particularly for one-off, high-value gifts. “You set the meeting via telephone, then use that face-to-face meeting to draw the donor out and find out more about what cause or project they might consider supporting”, says Fox. “Then, the fundraiser will generally develop a specific support proposal to present to the prospect, built around the interests and concerns expressed by the prospect during that initial meeting.

“Based around this proposal, you then have subsequent telephone conversations and meetings, and negotiate the final details of the gift. This approach can result in very large gifts.”

According to Fox, success in the UK and US hinges on making your face-to-face meetings valuable enough that it’s worth the investment. “Telefacing has its greatest value in setting meetings with people with greater potential, both in terms of their capacity to give and their engagement with the cause. Whether it’s for estate gifts, regular support or a big one-off gift, it’s good for upgrading and building relationships – you can use it to draw people out to a much more personal relationship.”


Treading carefully

Martin Jervis, chief operating officer at fundraising consultancy Fundraising Initiatives, is also exploring the potential of UK telefacing. He is currently garnering best practice from countries around the world, and although it’s still early days, he is putting ideas out to customers as part of an offering of integrated donor stewardship. As well as looking at the costs issue, he is considering the PR angle.

“We don’t want to provoke an adverse reaction that will cause there to be even more stringent regulations around fundraising,” he explains. “It’s another mechanism of being cold called, and certain members of the public object to this and can be very vociferous, which can create a significant adverse reaction.

“Really, telefacing is different to other forms of telephone contact, but if it’s seen to be a new trend, then people will use pejorative or negative language around that; they might say it’s another creeping, insidious invasion of our privacy by charities.

“Certainly it needs to be done carefully, as whenever something new happens the tabloids can start pulling out all the old stories about how charities are doing it all wrong.”

Anup Tiwari, however, is pretty confident that telefacers will be well received. “Will you call a telefacer a ‘chugger’? No. In fact a telefacer gets all the respect and hospitality that a guest receives.”


On your bike

As is often the way, it’s the sector big guns that are putting money into testing all of this. If you lack the resources that larger organisations possess, could telefacing still work for you? Tiwari thinks it could – if you get on your bikes. “The tool will work very well for neighbourhood fundraising. For organisations whose donors are within cycling distance, telefacing should work in any part of the world. Even in Europe and North America, if you are a small or mid-size organisation with donors within cycling distance, why not?”

It would certainly seem that telefacing passes the fundraising sophistication test. “Telefacing is middle donor fundraising taken to mass marketing proportions”, says Tiwari. “That it recruits several middle level donors is therefore no surprise. Moreover, the donors acquired through telefacing are retained and upgraded through the same channel, quite like direct mail. Not many other fundraising channels can boast that.

“And if you are a fan of integrating fundraising channels, what else is telefacing if not an integrated campaign?”


This article first appeared in The Fundraiser magazine, Issue 17, May 2012

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