i suppose i should apologize

I wasn’t fair to the young man who called tonight.

wheaton collegeIt was the annual fund call from my alma mater. Students call, ask to verify information, invite me to contribute to the annual fund, and ask whether I have any prayer requests.

This year, the young man who called is a communication major, just like I was. When he asked me what my favorite course had been, and I told him, he said that it had been an important course to him, too.

And then, having established connection, he worked through the well-crafted fund-raising script that starts with a big ask, cuts it in half, and then goes for at least a participation gift. It appeals to the school motto, thanks me as a student who has benefited, gives great factual and emotional appeals.

I let him ask, knowing from the outset that I would not give. I resent, perhaps immaturely, being run through a script. It isn’t fair to this college student, my silence on the phone, my allowing him to work all the way through every section of the script.

But here’s my frustration. The college that gave me three memorable professors, an excitement about rhetoric (of all things), a couple of significant spiritual moments should be smarter in approaching me.
You know, for example, that I have three degrees in communication, focusing on persuasion. You know that I worked in higher education, that for part of that time I was involved in development. You know that I had high test scores coming into college but that my grades never reflected them but that my GRE’s were great. You know that I never lived on campus, that I graduated early, that I came back to pick up classes from a different major, one that took me into higher education for 15 years. You know that I haven’t ever come to homecoming.

You ought to know that I will be somewhat cynical, aware of how fund-raising works, and that I would be susceptible to an appeal that said, “Maybe you didn’t exactly fit at Wheaton, but there are some misfit commuters here who don’t fit the mold but will, like you, go on to be moderately successful and help some people. Would you be interested in talking with them? No strings attached.”

I’m sorry, young man who called tonight. I made you work too hard and didn’t give you anything. When the envelope comes that you will probably send, I may consider giving something.

But Wheaton, dear old Wheaton, live forever. And while you do, think about using the tons of data you have on me, and people like me, to build appeals that see us as individuals.

And other people who use scripts to raise funds or build relationships or seek converts, please learn from this incident. You have enough information on us to see us as people rather than pockets.

Please do.


32 responses to “i suppose i should apologize

  1. Are you sure about that?

  2. which part? The apology? or how much data they have.

  3. Your words are good advice to all salespeople & marketers. Bob Seger said it too: I’m not a number

  4. I found this today on twitter and retweeted.

    @MileHighFan I am not a “lead”,”prospect”,”customer” or any other synonym. Try EBay if you’re selling something.

    Now with the College, there is an established relationship, regardless of the years.

    Yes the College and for that matter many others can do a bit of research, with the tools that many of us use daily, to assist them in having a better conversation with us.

  5. Thank you for your honesty about your college. It rings true in many other areas of communication.

    I went to a Bible college for four years. One of my least favorite classes was “Personal Evangelism.” They taught me to go door-to-door, ask for a chair to teach the definition of faith. Ask for eggs to explain holiness. And that it takes 45-60 minutes to give a decent presentation of the Gospel.

    I’ve never used it. I have information, insider details, about my friends and family. I need to tailor my message about Jesus Christ to them. They are each individuals. Not targets.

  6. I get what you’re saying – but can you imagine the tremendous workload to arrange a fundraiser that would appeal to you on the level of the details you mentioned in your article? It’s simply not a realistic ask to expect a fundraiser to consider such minute details before requesting a donation.

  7. Humbly offered:

    1. I’ve worked in alumni relations & development. It’s hard enough to wrangle basic data (graduation year, major, giving history) into meaningful shape. Going the whole monty and using advanced data-modeling tools? It’s probably a generation away for most development departments.

    2. Given #1, and given your Wheaton history, you’re an outlier. The student who called you — and his boss, and his boss’s boss — have numbers to make. I’m sure they’d love to make an individualized appeal to each of you, but they don’t have the time or the resources.

    The short version: I completely sympathize with the feelings you’re expressing — but you’re asking for too much from a technical standpoint.

  8. Intersting article. I’ve often wondered why the automated systems ask me to key in my account number, then the human that (eventually) joins in actual conversation… asks me for it again. I asked them once, and was told that the system isn’t reliable… so I asked why they use it at all. No answer.

    But I do have to ask Jon why he doesn’t write an individualized blog for each reader. He should understand, like his college, that we are all individuals with different outlooks and life experiences, so why does he write just this one blog and think he’s getting his point across to us all?

    Or perhaps, like his college, he’s not trying to understand us as individuals, but rather attempting to simply get the majority of his readers to understand.

  9. What if Wheaton college created an outlier fundraiser then? What if they took the time to compile the data, train the fundraiser in how to communicate to the people on the list?

    What if you, instead of cash, offered to show them how to talk to people like you?

    What if they raised a ton of money doing this?

    What if?

  10. Jon,

    I hear you – but having worked in marketing for more than 20 years, and higher education for 10 years, I have to agree with Tim Walker’s comment (above).

    Trying to pull simple data from legacy systems requires Divine Intervention – and sometimes, that’s not enough.

    And since most Alumni Groups are outside the University, they have even less access to data.

    Now, that said, wouldn’t it be nice if they called just to check in, see how you’re doing and bring you up-to-speed on the school WITHOUT asking for money. Or us the call to also make me aware of how I might still benefit from the school!?

    Ahh, expectations that are based on possibilities rather than realities. 🙂

  11. It’s not fair to you putting you through a scriptreading either, so you don’t need to apologize if you ask me.

    Any good pitcher would know that silence on the other end means they’re not interested – not that they’re so excited to listen to your pitch that they don’t say a word. If your client / prospect / [insert term here] is quiet – ask a question!

    It doesn’t matter wether or not you have actual data on a person. That’s what questions are for:)

    Ask, talk, find out what triggerpoints this _individual_ has, get them involved – LISTEN – communicate!

    Sounds like somebody needs to tell this young man to put his script away and start a conversation:)

  12. Tim – thanks. I am looking beyond this one conversation.

  13. Paul – I have, I confess, particularly when I worked for a couple years in development, thought about people as leads or prospects. I like that tweet a lot.

  14. Richard – great application to a different setting. Those metaphors for faith can work as illustrations when the question is being asked. When the question isn’t being asked, they are invasive and off-putting. Thanks for stopping by.

  15. Kate and Tim and Deb – I understand the workload that this is pointing to. But what is relationship worth?

    Deb gives a good alternative: put me in a different bucket, and other outliers. Treat us as a group of the disaffected or the detached. And stop calling us as part of the normal calling circuit. Every gift we give out of a sense of guilt increases the disaffection rather than building a bridge.

    I know I’m asking for a huge amount of cooperation between student life, academics, and development. If you have never worked in higher ed, you have no idea how huge this request is. But I’m guessing that resident vs commuter for a primarily residential college is a fairly easy and useful sort. I’m guessing that occasional gifts is a fairly easy sort. I’m guessing that “never been to a reunion” is a fairly easy sort.

    And those would give a very simple starting place for a differentiated campaign.

    And I understand, friend Tim, that I am being a little cranky. But I’m also wanting to suggest to people and organizations that are NOT as huge as my alma mater that you don’t have to do things the way the big organizations are forced to do things. Maybe they have thousands. What if you have tens? What can you do to respond to individuals, not buckets or categories or prospects?

    oh, and thank you for pushing this conversation, friends. Very much.

  16. great question, Steve. I do write individualized posts at times. Sometimes those are the conversations that have happened in my office this week. Sometimes those are @replies on twitter. Sometimes those are emails (and facebook messages and DMs and Flickrmail and Linkedin messages). Sometimes those are comments, like this.

    In fact, I have done all of those things this week. And some of them have responded directly and well to what people have been asking. Other times, I confess, I didn’t listen to the original question and ended up running a script.

    I would love to say, “But I’m not asking for money. If I was asking for money, I’d be more focused”. However, I am asking for time. And that counts as a valuable resource, too.

    I think of my posts the way my alma mater thinks of articles in the alumni magazine: read what you want to, toss what you don’t. I do my best to think about the people that I know are regulars here. But if I am using a mode of communication and a style of communication that is intended to seem as if I am talking to you, Steve, I better think about you.

    Does that make sense?

  17. beate – but i’m not sure he knows enough about this whole fundraising thing to be treated the way I treated him, to allow him to do the whole script knowing that I wasn’t going to give no matter what. I should have cut him off with “I know you are doing what you were hired to do, but let’s save us both time.”

    But I agree. If he could have jumped to, “you know, I can tell. You just aren’t interested. Have a great evening. Maybe next year.” That would have been amazing. and engaging.

  18. we had a meeting the other day. there’s a 2.5 million deficit. my family depends on your dear old alma mater for our livlihood…

    is that a better sell?

    seriously, i know what you mean. i was getting calls from a college i went to for one year…and left because of rampant cheating, dishonestly and immoral practices by so many students around me…they stopped calling me, after about fifteen years when i reiterated to this to them…

    If I want to give, I’ll give. I’m that kind of person. But don’t pretend to try to connect with me…because you can’t, not in the ways you think you can anyway.

    So you want me to pass your blog along to the people I know over there??? 😉

  19. That is a WAY better sell. Seriously. It’s honest. And it’s connected to me. Coming from you, I’ll give. This is showing the value of the personalized connection.

    And this? “If I want to give, I’ll give. I’m that kind of person. But don’t pretend to try to connect with me…because you can’t, not in the ways you think you can anyway.”


    And I can’t stop anyone from sharing with others what is freely available out here 🙂

  20. Jon, it does. Though I think you are describing the difference between marketing and sales.

    Marketers speak to broad markets based on a defined segment for which their product may have value. Sales people speak to individuals, building rapport, understanding their needs and problems, and prescribing a solution specifically for them.

    Perhaps, in this case, Wheaton’s marketing team should have a segment for moderately successful, cynical, misfit alumni. It would be challenging, since you are inherently cynical about any approach they’d have. You know they are calling for money; you just want to feel good about giving it, should you choose to do so. The questions would be… what makes Jon feel good, and how do we give a young person with no experience the tools to make Jon feel good?

    Perhaps the young man that called should have taken time to get to know you, to understand that in giving funds you would help other young people gain the insight that your memorable professors provided to you, that other students would find their spiritual center and someday learn to communicate with people as individuals. What memories do you have from those days Jon? Tell me about Professor Smith, he’s about to retire you know…

    At the end of the day they are looking at the numbers. Everyone they call knows they’re looking for money. A certain percentage will, and a certain percentage won’t. They want to make as many calls as possible to get the volume that will produce the funds they’ve targeted. How many more would give, that otherwise wouldn’t have, if they’d taken the time to get to know them? Would it outpace the funds they’d lose by decreasing the volume of calls made?

    I’d like to have my very own customized version of each magazine I subscribe to. I’d like them to get rid of most of the advertising and cards that fall on the floor when I open them. I’d like them to get rid of content that has no application in my personal life.

    Then again, maybe in some circumstances I should read about people not like me. And if they didn’t get the advertising dollars, my subscription fees would go up. I guess it’s all about the numbers.

  21. Having talked with two professionals in the last few days, on this very topic, I am saddened by the realization that junk mail – and junk phone calls – sell.

    I’m not calling the Wheaton call a junk call – but maybe borders on that territory. Sadly.

    Yes, the more human we can be in all this, the better.

  22. This is a GREAT conversation!! I love it.

    I have to say, however, that unlike Jon, there are MANY people who did have a positive experience at their college (or from whereever said caller is calling from) and would like to have a chance to connect – even briefly with that again.

    Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m NOT a fan of telemarketing…not at ALL. But, I think that the masses like to think back fondly to earlier times and reconnect, especially with a current student or member.

    And, I agree with you Jon, with technology as it is today, we should know a lot more about the donor or potential donor BEFORE we call. I’ve been through LOTS of fundraising training, and everyone one of those trainings says to KNOW your donor before you call/meet with them. That means our telemarketing friends need to do their research too. It can’t be a one size fits all approach.

    I am a part of the team at the Fort Wayne Children’s Choir and have been trying to find a way to have our singers connect with our donors and potential donors. I think it’s critical to let our singers share their stories. This is a good way to do it – but I will approach this with some good keys I’ve learned from this conversation:

    1. DONT have a script.
    2. Let the students talk about their experience.
    3. Have the students ask WHY the donor/potential donor has been involved in the past – and really listen.
    4. Know our callers BEFORE we call.

    Hmmm…again, great conversation and things to think about. Jon, thanks for not letting us “fundraiser types” get lazy with what we’re doing!!

  23. I’m with you on this one, John. I’m marginally connected to a great school where I fast-tracked the remainder of an undergraduate degree. The college is now a university and bursting with programs and sporting events, none of which existed while I was there.

    Sorry, school, wrong approach again and again and …

    Coincidentally, I received a fund-raising call shortly after reading your post. The pleasant lady from a Breast Cancer org stumbled over the script here and there, but valiantly plowed through. Once she came up for air, I thanked her for the opportunity and began to decline the offer. She abruptly cut me off and hung up. Charmed, I’m sure.

    I’ve been on the other side of the phone raising support for a national youth organization. I tried to learn all I could about our donors before calling and expressed appreciated for their time, even if no financial support was forthcoming. Strengthening ties.

    This was my second call from different cancer organizations where the caller created a poor image of the agency (I blogged my experience in Nov).

    An untrained or discourteous solicitor can trim a donor prospect list rather quickly … and permanently.

  24. Pardon, that’d be “Jon.” Gotta correct this list …

  25. Steve – it is about the numbers. I agree.

    As I think about it, perhaps I’m just looking for a shift in style from a model that worked well before (run the percentages) to an approach that leverages information and embraces outliers. Technology helps. Acknowledging that not everyone had the same experience helps. And giving opportunity in the call to say, “Why, If you don’t mind me asking, are you not giving much here?”

    As I think about it, I’m sounding like I want a minimum wage scholarship student to do what most well-trained adults don’t think about doing. Listen.

    Ah well.

    Thanks for writing back Steve. I’ll work on the personalized blog.

    What would you most like to ask a social media chaplain but never had the opportunity to do? And, how do you understand this issue so well?

  26. You know, Paul, it may not be junk mail but it is direct mail on the phone. Good insight.

  27. thanks Denice

    I should clarify that my experience was good at Wheaton as a student. I wasn’t a good student, and I connected in peculiar ways, but my life was changed. For example, I picked my second two degrees because I was more excited about the subject than my wheaton prof had been, and I wanted to prove that rhetoric could be fun as philosophy. One chapel in particular still shapes my thinking.

    However, I never felt like I fit the box. And I’m sure others didn’t either. And there has to be a box for us non-box fitters.

    I love the approach you are talking about for building connections between donors and singers. It’s a powerful approach, not asking money but building relationship, allowing the donors to see and hear the difference that their dollars are making.

  28. Curtis – fabulous examples.

    What I love about the approach that you took is that you decided that the time was worth spending because the relationships were worth developing. I am aware that it takes time. But at some level, if we value people, if our organization is about that, we will work on our structures so that they support our values.

    It applies personally, as I am well aware. I have to be saying, do I do this? Do I think about people when I am talking with them–not for what I can get out of the exchange but for what I can give in the exchange. How is my conversation adding value to them?

    And I misspell my name regularly. Really.

  29. Jon – I’m an engineer that’s moved over time from that vocation through sales and then to marketing (B2B). And I’ll apologize in advance for an entry that’s likely to be longer than your original commentary.

    A marketer’s job is to influence people’s buying decisions. To do so, you have to know who your potential market is, what problems they have that can be solved by your product, why your solution is better than your competitor’s, and get that communicated to your target audience.

    In order to communicate all of this to your audience, you have to find a way to get their attention and focus for a moment on their problem and how much better their life would be if only they had your product. Or, in the case of your alma mater, you need your audience to feel that they’ve improved something near and dear to them by their action; that they’ve made a difference to others; that they are a better person for their support. They have to understand all of this to a point that they are willing to give you money.

    In times past, and still largely today, interruptive marketing techniques were used… advertising, direct mail, telemarketing, e-mail, pop-ups, etc. But increasingly, people are unwilling to accept these interruptions in their lives. We have, and use, tools to rid ourselves of these unwanted interruptions… TiVo, do-not-call lists, anti-spam tools, pop-up protection, etc. People would rather discuss their need with a trusted colleague than trust an advertisement. So people have turned to social media.

    Social media means that an individual has more say-so about who can contact them and by what means. However, where customers go, so go media and marketers. There is now only negligible difference between our personal and our professional lives. Facebook was once a personal networking medium, but now it’s one way that companies build community with “fans” with whom they can regularly communicate and influence. After all, you can’t influence someone if you can’t communicate with them.

    At the end of the day, relationships are an economy… you get something from them in exchange for what you give to them. How long would you remain friends with someone if they only contacted you when they wanted to borrow some money, or needed something from you? You give to others, they give to you. To succeed in this environment, your fans and followers must feel that they are getting some value from your communications with them, and that you aren’t just begging them to buy your wares.

    It’s the hard truth that outliers, as you phrased it, don’t generally get the individual attention. By definition, you aren’t a likely contributor, and perhaps shouldn’t have received a call at all. Then again, if you’ve contributed in the past, it makes perfect sense that they’d call you again.

    Until a business sees the benefit ($) of customizing calls, it won’t happen. You can pretty much bet that the really big contributors get customized calls from the University President who knows their children’s names, their favorite professors, what appeals to them (their name on a building?) in order to get their contribution. The potential income from that call warrants the time spent. On the other hand, if the potential income from calling you is not very significant, then you get the young, inexperienced script reader calling.

    It would be a wonderful world indeed if we all had time to get to know one another, like neighbors at the old General Store. Unfortunately, we live in an age when people would rather shop at Wal-Mart than their neighbor’s shop, paying less for a product… without the personal touch.

  30. Jon,

    You should’ve gone to Gordon.

  31. Seriously though, you think way too highly of their data.

    Development offices don’t know that much about you. High school scores, GRE’s, classes you took are all protected information held with the registrar. Sort of like patient information, fundraising isn’t allowed to know that stuff.

    And the fact you let him go through the script may have been a relief. Much nicer than getting cussed out be an alum. 🙂

    Now, if Wheaton were REALLY astute, they’d have listening posts that would pick up your blog. THEN they could ask you correctly AND fill all the great information you listed into their database!

    But I still think you probably should’ve gone to Gordon like me. 🙂

  32. i think possibly i thought about Gordon, briefly, once upon a time.

    This is a good insight, Marc, from the inside of fundraising. Is the stuff from student life about residential/non-resident also in that category? Because for a primarily residential college, that would be a significant insight.

    And, up to this point, I haven’t heard from Wheaton, except for a mass-mailing postcard about giving.