Breaking the Ice: Cold Calling Does Not Do It!

In working with one of my clients over the last few weeks an issue was raised about how to reach out to potential donors. There was a discussion about 1) what strategy should be used when reaching out to these people to approach them for a donation, and 2) who should make the first contact? I would like to explore these questions and provide some suggestions for reaching out to people who do not have a relationship with the organization.

Often the executive, the financial resource development professional or a volunteer fundraiser in an organization will receive the name of a person and be told that he/she is interested in the population that the agency serves. It will be suggested that one of these people call the potential donor and speak to them about a donation. Another well known scenario is soliciting people over the phone during a community wide fund raising campaign. The caller will say “Mr. So and So suggested I contact you and said you are interested in ……… We are conducting our annual campaign and would you like to make a contribution to our organization.”

In these situations, contacting or calling people who have not had any relationship with the caller or the organization is known as cold calling. It means the caller has to explain who he/she is; the reason for the call; and who suggested the call be made. The bottom line is the multiple agenda of making contact with the potential donor and soliciting the person or setting up a meeting for a solicitation in the same call. This is not an easy task when there is no prior relationship with the person.

It is even more difficult when the caller has to negotiate the potential donor’s office staff. When contacting an office the assistant or the secretary wants to know who the caller is; what is the reason for the call; does the potential donor know the caller; and what is the purpose of the call? All of these questions are part of process of reaching the person who might be interested in making a contribution. However, when the caller begins to explain that “… Mr. So and So suggested I call because Mr./Ms Potential Donor (P D) would be interested in what the Agency does, and we are conducting the annual fundraising campaign”….. or “I was giving Mr. P D’s name by Mr. So and So, and it was suggested I call him ….”

Entering into this kind of discussion with a secretary or assistant can become quite cumbersome and somewhat uncomfortable. It is rare that Mr. P D will return the call and if he does it is often to do his relationship with Mr. So and So. It is also unusual for Mr. P D to conclude the conversation with a commitment to make a contribution.

What is the alternative? How do is it possible to reach out to Mr. P D without making a cold call? This is the reason that there needs to be a strategic approach to contacting Mr. P D and not just a phone call from someone connected to the organization.

When an active volunteer leader or contributor suggests the organization contact Mr. P D, this is the time to recruit the person to assist in contacting Mr. P D. If someone knows Mr. P D and has had a business and/or personal relationship this should signal that the initial contact should be made by this individual. The volunteer leader or contributor can be more effective in making the first contact and in “paving the way” for a conversation with Mr. P D by calling and asking him if someone from the agency can contact him.

It is even more effective if the volunteer leader will agree to participate in the first meeting and to be involved when the executive or the FRD staff person or volunteer fundraiser has a conversation with Mr. P D. The established relationship whether it is a professional or personal one is an endorsement of the importance of the contact and in all likelihood the response from Mr. P D will be different than if a cold call is placed to him from someone he does not know. It is important for the volunteer leader to understand the significance of his/her involvement in the first contact with Mr. P D.

I have heard a number of volunteer leaders say, “You should call Mr. P D, but please do not tell him I gave you his name.” This is not very helpful, and it may be necessary to spend some time explaining to the volunteer leader that this is a cold call and it defeats the purpose of the connection between the lay leader and Mr. P D. Often, the FRD process involves helping the involved leaders and contributors understand their role in establishing a relationship with Mr. P D is as important as their other activities on behalf of the organization.

The next question I often receive is, “If my lay leader will not be involved should I make the cold call?” The issue becomes more complicated if reaching out does not yield any results. If you are not successful in engaging Mr. P D, can you reach out to him again in the future. Yes, you can, but it may be more difficult since he has already communicated his lack of interest in the organization.

Thus, it is always best to approach potential donors utilizing an already existing relationship with a volunteer leader or contributor so the agency does not have to “break the ice” on its own. It is all part of the process of increasing the community’s support of the agency by broadening the donor base through personal relationships.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.