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The Smartest Phone Calls You Can Make

By Adam Lenter

In 2002, I received a phone call so strategically brilliant that I think about it regularly today. I was living in Boston, where I had recently quit my job in order to move to New York for graduate school. One morning, the phone rang and I answered it. There was a brief pause from the other end followed by: “Oh… Hi Adam. This is _______, Dean of Admissions at Columbia Business School. We are so excited that you will be joining us this fall, and I just wanted to check to see if you had any questions for me.” We exchanged some small talk, and that was all.

Picture of a hand dialing a telephone

What makes this call so smart? If you can figure out the reason for that pause in the story, you will have the key to the answer…

As I hung up the phone, my first thought was: Wow – it’s impressive that the Dean of Admissions takes the time to personally call every new student. And then I figured out the reason for the pause: She was used to just leaving voicemails. Most people going to business school have regular jobs and can’t take personal calls during business hours. She was probably calling dozens of people each day, a small percentage of whom was answering the phone. In the vast majority of cases, she would leave an enthusiastic voicemail and move on to the next one. In the rare cases that someone answered, she would be slightly surprised, hence the pause, and then continue the conversation. Either way, the recipient received a warm personalized welcome to the school.

How can you apply this strategy to your organization?

Determine segments of your organization that you want to reach out to. It could be donors, volunteers, program participants, and others. Generate a list of names and phone numbers with any information that could be relevant for your call. If you have a CRM like DonorAdvance or Program Portal, spend 30 seconds before each call perusing the individual’s record. After the call, make sure to capture any information or feedback you receive so that you can act on it appropriately. Each day, commit to spending 20-30 minutes making calls. If you happen to connect with a lot of people, you might make only 4-5 calls. If you mostly reach voicemails, you might call 10-15 people.

If they don’t pick up the phone, you can leave a message that is short and sweet. By stating their name directly and mentioning something specific, they will know that it’s really you and not just another robocall.

If they do answer the phone, you can give them an opportunity to provide feedback: “It was great seeing you at our recent picnic. How did you enjoy it?” You can let them know about recent successes that you have had: “Have you heard that we provided scholarships to 20 students to attend college this fall?” In the case of donors, you can let them know about the programs their donations are funding: “I want to tell you about an exciting new initiative we have launched thanks in part to your contribution…”

Whether you connect in person or by voicemail, thank them for their contribution to your organization, whether that comes in the form of money, time, expertise, or volunteer service.

Benefits to Constituents

Put yourself in the shoes of the people you are calling. How would it feel to receive a simple thank you phone call? These types of phone calls build an affinity toward your organization. They demonstrate that you are genuinely interested in them and welcome their feedback. When people receive a phone call in which you do not solicit them for money, it sends the message that they are more than just a checkbook to you. In a world in which there is real competition between nonprofit organizations, that personal connection will make your organization stand out as a special one.

Benefits to You

These strategic phone calls are not just good for your constituents, but they are good for you as well. Why? Think about how nice it would be to spend the first 20 minutes of your day doing nothing but making positive phone calls? By speaking about the good work your organization is doing, you will begin each day rekindling your passion for your organization’s mission. Scientists have demonstrated that forcing yourself to smile actually makes you happy. Forcing yourself to talk about happy things will certainly have a similar effect. Furthermore, by making these calls, you will greatly improve your ability to speak passionately yet succinctly about your organization, a skill that will serve you well in countless ways. And the great thing is that these calls are efficient – you can make a big difference in a short amount of time. I would even argue that by doing this for 20 minutes, you will feel more positive and focused on your mission which will make you more productive throughout the day.

More to come…

These strategic phone calls are just one of many simple things you can do to engage with your constituents in a meaningful way. We plan to describe some more strategies in the coming months…


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