Awkward Calls and Long Pauses: How to Handle Negative Responses in Phonathons

Vol. 13 No. 7

development eletter Vol13 No7 phonathon

In a perfect world, every call during a phonathon would end in a cash donation and a monthly commitment. But in reality, efforts are often received by awkward—or even angry!—responses. To prevent your volunteers from becoming proverbial “deer in the headlights,” give them some direction to try to change that “no” into a “yes,” even if it’s only a “yes” for next year.

“I’m sorry, but I just can’t afford to give this year.”

Volunteer response: “I’m sorry to hear that. I hope things will improve and we will be able to ask for your support in the future.”

“I don’t have any spare cash this month, I’m sorry.”

Volunteer response: “I’m so sorry, and I understand the difficulties you must be facing. The annual fund campaign runs through June 30, and we are focused on participation rather than the amount of a gift. If you think it will work, you can make a pledge now that you can pay later in the spring.”

“This is not a convenient time to talk. We just sat down to dinner.”

Volunteer response: “I apologize for the interruption and taking you away from your family. May I call tomorrow night at a time that is better for you? I’d like to have five minutes of your time to tell you about [School’s] annual fund and all the wonderful programs it will offer our students if it is successful.”

“We’ve been having serious problems with Ms. Taylor and no one will call me back. And now, the only time I get contacted is when you want money?”

Volunteer response: “Thank you for letting us know about your concern. May I share your concerns with [normally the Director of Development or the Division Head]? He/she should get back in touch with you right away. If you don’t feel like you can make a pledge at this time, we understand, but hopefully we can call on you for support in the future.”

Note: If the volunteer tells the angry parent that someone will be back in touch with them right away, you need to make sure it happens. The parent in this example is already has a problem with communication with the teacher. Hearing that someone will be in touch, and then hearing nothing, will only exacerbate the situation.

“We’re already stretching to make tuition payments, and now you’re asking for even more money?”

Volunteer response: “I’m sorry to hear that you’re struggling. We’re not focused on the amount given so much as the participation itself, but if you’re not able to contribute right now, we understand. We hope we can count on your support next year.”

Your volunteers will be in a stressful situation. Consequently, common sense responses can evaporate in favor of more blunt answers (or long pauses of dead air). Giving phonathon volunteers sample scripts like this can prevent thoughtless faux pas born of exhaustion and frustration, while allowing calls to end on a positive note. Arming volunteers with information about this year's fundraising intentions and prospects' previous reactions will prevent awkward, last minute scrambles, too.

What was the most successful negative-turned-positive phone call your school has ever seen during a phonathon fundraising drive? Share how you pulled it off with your fellow Development Directors to inspire other volunteers.

Additional ISM resources:
ISM Monthly Update for Development Directors Vol. 8 No. 5 Share Your Accomplishments and Experiences During Your Phonathon for Maximum Impact
ISM Monthly Update for Development Directors Vol. 8 No. 9 End-of-Year Phonathons: Do You Call Everyone?

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 40 No. 2 Planning the Comprehensive Campaign: Guiding Principles for Success

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