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By donorsearch

Prospect research is useless if nobody makes the call. Development professionals have it so easy in the twenty-first century! Or so you’d think. They’ve got access to technology nobody even dreamed of last century, like social media, specialized donor-management platforms, and the coolest, most insightful prospect research services ever. In spite of it all, the industry still suffers from a lack of productivity. In fact, Bristol Strategy Group’s long-term study of fundraising productivity, the Leaky Bucket Assessment for Effective Fundraising, with over 1,000 responses from every size of organization, sector, and continent on the planet, shows a median score of somewhere around C minus-D plus. There’s one piece of data the Leaky Bucket doesn’t test for, but anecdotal evidence shows it’s a widespread deterrent to fundraising success. It’s Call Reluctance, sometimes referred to as Ask Reluctance. Informal surveys of chief development officers and executive directors state it as one of their biggest frustrations. This little syndrome is a habit anyone can fall into, for any number of reasons. Don’t we all, at some time or another, procrastinate, avoid, delay, and hide behind myriad excuses not to make the call, or write the email, or schedule the appointment? Let’s spare ourselves the rationalizations, just in case we list something you hadn’t thought of before. “The dog ate my homework? Say, that’s a really great excuse!!!” Face it. You, or someone in your organization, is either experiencing Call Reluctance right this minute, experienced it recently, will probably experience it soon, or they’re lying. Why should you care? Because for one thing, Call Reluctance leads to another embarrassing syndrome, the Premature Ask. The caller becomes so anxious about making the call that he or she jumps from “hello” immediately to “give us some money quick or we’ll die!” thus instilling in the callee a sense of disgust often leading to the rapid end of both the call and the relationship. In this paper we’ll discuss how to (a) avoid Call Reluctance and (b) train ourselves out of the habit. To avoid Call Reluctance, we need to:
  1. Give the development team the right tools.
  2. Train the team to use the tools.
  3. Practice using the tools until they’re second nature and Call Reluctance begins to diminish.
To train ourselves out of the habit of Call Reluctance we need to:
  1. Establish easy-to-reach “conversation targets” with input from your development team.
  2. Conduct frequent non-judgmental reviews of performance against those targets.
  3. Coach for competence, confidence, and motivation.
  4. Constantly refresh your understanding of donor motivations for giving.

Avoiding Call Reluctance

It’s surprising how many nonprofits fail to provide their teams with the right tools to avoid Call Reluctance. According to the Leaky Bucket Assessment, around 76% of respondents had no documented qualifying criteria for donor selection, probably the single most important factor producing Call Reluctance. Standard practices and targets for donor acquisition, retention, and upgrading were equally poor. Dreadful. By the way, these statistics have been consistent over the five years of the study and regardless of the size of the nonprofit’s income from charitable giving. We believe these statistics show at least one contributor to Call Reluctance: people don’t perform well when they lack the tools and resources to do the job right.

Give the Development Teams the Right Tools

Let’s look at the three most important tools needed to avoid Call Reluctance.

1. Qualifying Criteria Including Donor’s Charitable Motivations

Before you start using prospect research services, you must decide what constitutes an “ideal donor.” The ideal-donor profile goes well beyond capacity for giving. In fact, if your only criteria are wealth-based, you are setting up your development team to waste time on donors who don’t care about your mission, don’t care about you, or don’t have much of a track record of giving to charity at all. So you end up with rejection after rejection, aggravating Call Reluctance. And for those who suffer worst from Call Reluctance, you’re giving them more reasons to avoid the call (“ugh! I have to ask a stranger for money!”) or triggering the Premature Ask. So do your homework. Talk to some of your favorite donors, board members, clients, advisors. And we do mean “favorite.” Choose people who you already speak to regularly, folks you don’t mind phoning up. Ask them why they sought out your organization, what motivates them to give to charity, and so on. P.S., conversations with as few as ten people will give you the insights you need. After you figure out the motivations of your best, most beloved and valuable donors, decide on the level of giving you want from them. Establish your own standards, like the “floor” for a major gift, the frequency of giving, their track record for giving to you or to organizations in a similar field. We also like to include the “danger signs,” the things that make a donor less appealing. Perhaps the donor is big talk, no action; wants recognition or other conditions you can’t meet; has a personal agenda that could take you off mission. These describe what you DON’T want in the ideal donor. Once you’ve established this Ideal Donor Profile, it becomes two things: your criteria for prospect research AND a set of talking points for conversations with the prospect. No prospect profile? You’re forcing your team to shoot in the dark. You’re also aggravating the Call Reluctance Problem and increasing the likelihood of the Premature Ask, which often leads to some version of “NO, go away,” leading in turn to more Call Reluctance.

2. Prospect Research Services

Any organization working to acquire individual gifts needs prospect research services, especially when used correctly. You’ll get more value out of prospect research when you have defined the characteristics of your ideal donor, as above. Developing your standards ahead of time makes your research more productive. You have a standard of comparison based on past successful relationships with current donors and proven philanthropy of donor prospects. Your insights into donor motivations help you find donors whose past giving history, personal and professional connections, and circles of influence are a good match to your standards. You also have criteria about the level and frequency of giving to expect from major donors. Match these criteria with donors’ wealth and giving capacity, size of past gifts, frequency of past giving, and other indicators of capacity. If your prospect research engine supports prospect ranking, include the desirable rank as one of your criteria. Those who come in below the desired level might not justify the same amount of time and effort as those who reach it. Use both tools – the ideal-donor profile and prospect-research filters – to find donors and prospects most likely to offer your agency high lifetime donor value. The records you’ll pull from prospect research are much more likely to align with those ideal donors you’re seeking in the first place.

3. The Interview Script

People often experience Call Reluctance for a simple reason – they just don’t know what to say. So provide a script. Your “script” is a series of questions to reveal the other person’s thoughts, feelings, preferences and ideas about charitable giving. It’s not a recitation of your agency’s many charms, followed by a demand for money. It’s surprisingly easy to establish rapport when you invite people to talk about themselves. Ask questions about three relevant aspects of the donor’s feelings about giving to charity:
  • What they want to achieve with their charitable giving;
  • What they want to avoid with their charitable giving; and
  • How they’ll know they selected the right charity
There is an art to asking these questions, but it’s easy to master. Start with the confidence that your mission is worth funding. If this particular prospect doesn’t feel the same way about philanthropy in general, or about giving to an organization addressing the issues you exist to resolve, or just plain doesn’t want to give to your organization, it’s not a reflection on you. Learn more about asking the right questions with this Bristol Strategy Group resource.

Train the Team to Use the Tools

Even though the first and most important tool is the Ideal Donor Profile, the Interview Script is the one you need to master first. You’ll gain a much better understanding of your best donors’ motivations and capacity by using it. Here are three steps for using the Interview Script.

1. Master it.

Your interview script might be as simple as this:

“Tell me about yourself. What motivates you to give your money to charity, regardless of which charity you choose? Why do you respond to that particular charity’s message?”

Keep your “script” down to about three or four questions. Ask the question, then sit back and let the other guy talk.

2. Try it out on your peers.

Interview one another. Do NOT make it difficult for the other guy; just be yourself and ask each other the questions. Be candid in your replies. Since you already know each other, there are no downsides to these conversations, even if you feel awkward at first. Besides, you might learn something from these preliminary talks to make subsequent conversations with actual prospects more revealing. Always ask the same questions the same way every time. Keep extensive notes on the answers you hear.

3. Select ten or more of your most dedicated donors, board members, or volunteers for the first round of interviews.

This exercise might take a while to complete, but stick with it. If each member of the team, including volunteers, interviews just one or two people, you’ll gain more information than you can imagine. You’ll also discover how easy it is to gain rapport this way, how eager most donors are to talk to you, and how much you’ll learn, which helps you define your Ideal Donor Profile. Set up the interviews by asking each candidate to spend a half hour with you to learn why he or she is involved with your nonprofit, so you can improve your marketing and outreach. Tell them explicitly you are NOT asking for money in this call. Whatever else you do on the call, do NOT ask! We recommend conducting the interviews by phone so you can limit the call to the time allotted unless the interviewee wants to extend it, and take a lot of notes while you’re chatting. These interviews are magical. They enrich your Ideal Donor Profile with great meaning, far beyond what you guess or assume. Most important, you become more confident, your Call Reluctance quotient will drop, and you’ll leave a good impression of yourself and your organization. Second, you establish rapport with the interviewee. Anticipate remarks like “gee, that’s a great question, let me think about it.” And don’t be surprised when your interviewee ends the call by saying “thanks, you’re a terrific interviewer!” – even if you only said twenty-seven words during the whole conversation. Collate all of your notes, seeking common language, themes, keywords and phrases. The next tool to master is the Ideal Donor Profile. Follow these steps to construct, validate and get comfortable using it.

1. Construct your profile.

If you already have a documented ideal-donor profile, compare your current criteria to what you learned from all those interviews. Modify the current profile accordingly. If you have never created such a profile before, select the top four or five reasons for giving gathered from the interviews as your qualitative criteria. Then add four to five quantifiable criteria describing desired level of capacity for giving, wealth profile, prior giving history, circle of influence, and so on. Include the prospect ranking mechanism available in advanced prospect-research services like DonorSearch as one of those quantifiable criteria. Finally, include four or five “no-no’s” or “danger signs,” characteristics you want to avoid in your donors. Learn more about building donor profiles based on donors’ potential with this resource.

2. Validate your profile.

Go back to your interviews. Compare each interviewee to the ideal-donor profile. If you did a good job, most of the interviewees will get good marks, at least on the qualitative criteria. Then try out the profile with donors you feel you already know well, without conducting an interview. You may discover you don’t really know them that well after all. In which case, schedule an interview!

Practice Using the Tools Until They’re Second Nature and Call Reluctance Begins to Diminish

There’s only one component to mastering this step: just do it. Practice interviews with one another, as well as some of your favorite volunteers, members of the program and administrative staff, board members, and some more of your favorite, best-known donors. Tell them you’re practicing a new skill. Make it a game, make it a goal, but do it! Hold weekly staff meetings to discuss what you learned from the interviews, how you felt about the experience, how the interviewees responded, and what you could try to do differently.

Training Yourselves Out of the Habit of Call Reluctance

Call Reluctance isn’t just a productivity-draining problem. It’s a self-reinforcing habit. Once you’ve come up with your first reason to avoid a donor conversation, the next reason comes along pretty quickly, and before you know it, you and the whole team are paralyzed. If you find yourselves spending lots of time in staff meetings, or informal griping sessions, obsessing over whether it’s OK to call that prospect again, or what’s the best time of day to call, or how you should start the call, or why people are so rude they don’t return your calls, or [fill in the blank], you have given in to Call Reluctance. However, hope is at hand. Here are four easy steps to follow.

Establish Easy-to-Reach “Conversation Targets”

Emphasize the “easy-to-reach” part. Set simple team targets to achieve things that are easy to record and easy to do. Here are a few examples: “By this time next week, our team will have accomplished the following:
  • Selected 10 names from our donor list, by tomorrow. That’s only two names per team member!
  • Sent an email to each prospect asking for the favor of an interview, also by tomorrow.
  • Conducted one interview per team member by next week’s meeting.”
By the next team meeting, up your targets just a little bit: “By this time next week, our team will have accomplished the following:
  • Completed a total of seven interviews.
  • Collated all interviews and report on common themes, phrases, concepts and keywords.”
As you and the team become more confident about the interviews, raise the targets gradually, but keep a focus on “number of conversations” for a while, not on “number of dollars squeezed out of donors’ wallets.” Eventually, you’ll move from the introductory conversation (just like an interview) to the process of cultivation and solicitation. Think of this as your “opportunity pipeline.” The pipeline should help you keep track of donor progress, so choose targets like these:
  • Number of donors or prospects we want to respond to our invitations for interviews
  • Number we want to tell us they liked what they heard about us
  • Number we want to say they would consider making or renewing a gift
  • Number we want to make the gift
  • Total number of gifts desired
  • Total amount of collective income from all gifts
Of course you need a target for the total amount of income you’d like to achieve*, but if you break it all down with targets like the ones above, you take uncertainty out of the process. Your ability to achieve the earlier targets has a direct bearing on your ability to bring in the desired number of gifts, from the desired number of donors, at the desired level of total income. And if you can’t get to know them, or if they don’t like what you stand for, why keep trying? Beating a dead horse by spending six months trying to get a meeting, even though the prospect clearly lacks interest, is another sneaky way to exercise Call Reluctance. It feels like you’re busy, right?

Conduct Frequent, Non-Judgmental Reviews of Performance Against Targets

Here you’ll emphasize both the “frequent” and the “non-judgmental” elements. When you’re working to break the Call Reluctance habit, schedule weekly conversations and emphasize facts, without judgment. Facts are facts, they are neither inherently “good” nor “bad,” but they may be “desirable” or “undesirable.” Over time, as Call Reluctance diminishes, it’s all right to conduct such meetings less frequently. Share the latest progress report from your CRM, spreadsheet, or other tracking report with members of the team. Ask everybody to spend a moment or two reviewing the report. Then ask: What is the story these numbers are telling us? Where are we on target, where are we off target? Did we set our targets correctly? What’s working that we’d like to keep; what isn’t working that we ought to change? When someone says “this is dreadful, who’s to blame,” give that person the stink-eye and remind them “we’re here to figure out what’s working and what isn’t.” Do not get drawn into the blame game. Avoid dramatic changes – or any changes, actually – unless there is enough information to justify doing so. Strive for incremental improvements. Celebrate every step forward, no matter how modest. When undesirable results pop up, and they will, ask “what would we have to do differently to obtain more desirable results?” There is a catch here. Development officers have to update their CRM platforms or other tracking methods ahead of time. If (when) a member of the team whines about not having had time to update the platform, use your best Mary Poppins voice to state “this meeting will review the data we have, not the data we don’t have.” People get the message pretty quickly – do your homework ahead of time. At the end of these reviews, select only a few things to modify, if any. Sometimes the best approach is to modify nothing at all, and just keep on doing the same stuff for a while, until you have enough evidence (data) to justify making a particular change.

Coach for Competence, Confidence, and Motivation.

Whether you’re the manager of the team or not, reviewing performance against targets offers great opportunities for learning. And since you’re all adults, coaching is a better learning modality than is instruction, lecture, or beating people over the head. When it comes to Call Reluctance, coaching is the only way to go, since those suffering from the CR syndrome already feel lousy about it. Coaching for competence means making sure team members know how to do the job they been asked to report on. If you’re the manager of the development team, try asking questions like these:
  • Would it be helpful to review the interview process?
  • Would it be helpful to review our Ideal Donor Profile?
  • Who has questions or suggestions about the best approach to [the interview or whatever]?
  • Who can share an experience showing a more effective way to do [such and such]?
If you’re not the manager, you still have a great opportunity to coach – or ask for coaching – on competence. You can ask questions like these:
  • I’m not quite sure how to do [this or that]. Can somebody explain it again?
  • Remind me of what to do next.
Coaching for confidence means making sure the team members know what they’re doing is getting results, even if the results are undesirable. That’s one reason to provide reports in tabular or graphic format. Most people find it easier to understand progress when they can visualize it, even if the progress is undesirable. Point out progress whenever, wherever, and to what extent you can find it in your report; it makes people feel good, thus reducing their Call Reluctance habit. If you’re the manager try saying things like these:
  • Let’s look for the progress here.
  • We’ve got some useful information here, let’s discuss it.
  • Great, guys, now we have something to work with.
If you’re not the manager, you still have the opportunity to coach or ask for coaching, with remarks like these:
  • Compared to the last report, I see we’ve improved in this area.
  • Look, the statistics are up here, even though they’re down there.
  • Maybe seeing things remain stable is a good thing, in this case.
  • It seems to me this report shows we’re actually doing more work and getting more results, that’s great!
Coaching for motivation means making sure the team wants to do the job. This is the most fun of all, because it empowers your team to solve their own problems with enthusiasm. Those visual reports aid motivation, and there are some other useful techniques. Whether you are the manager or not, try saying things like these, which have a good track record for empowering people and giving them the opportunity to get their opinions heard:
  • OK, guys, what do you think should we do to improve things?
  • What do you think might happen if we tried it this way?
  • Could we exceed our targets if we [changed this or that]? Let’s hear your ideas.
  • What could we do to improve the ratio between introductions and getting people to consider making a gift? Or consider making a gift and then actually making it?

Constantly Refresh Your Understanding of Donor Motivations for Giving

When tracking the progress of your fundraising pipeline, some opportunities will move smoothly from “hello” to “here’s my gift.” Some will go directly from “hello” to “forget it!” And some will get to a particular point and then just seem to linger there forever. That’s good! Now you can see how smoothly opportunities move through the process, where the process encounters an obstacle or bottleneck, and what you and your team might analyze and improve. Undesirable results might stem from a lack of knowledge, skill or willingness on the part of your development team. Including our old pal Call Reluctance. They might also be affected by other operational issues or obstacles, such as improper budgeting, inadequate technology or other reasons, aspects typically outside the span of control of the development team, but which the team can highlight and pass up the line. But one of the most important is knowing why your donors give, so you can (a) identify the right ones and (b) maintain engagement with them. These insights affect your ability to retain donors and upgrade their level of giving over the years. Since these reasons are likely to evolve over the donor’s lifetime because of age, the latest political situation, economic fluctuations, or the phase of the moon, you simply must remain up to date with your donor’s reasons for giving. How do you find out what’s changed? How do you know what inspires your donors to give, to volunteer, to become and remain engaged? It’s very simple – you ask them. That’s why you can’t afford Call Reluctance.
*Surprisingly, the Leaky Bucket Assessment suggests that as many as 37% of respondents do not track their income in any way. Thanks to Ellen Bristol of Bristol Strategy Group for this comprehensive and in-depth article. Learn more about fighting call reluctance with this helpful article by Ellen Bristol.Ellen Bristol founded Bristol Strategy Group in 1995 to improve the productivity of the fundraising shop for nonprofits, and the sales department for for-profit organizations. Over the years she has become a nut for metrics and a performance management geek. Ellen is the designer of the Leaky Bucket Assessments for Effective Fundraising and for Sales-Force Productivity, developer of the methodologies Fundraising the SMART Way™ and Selling the SMART Way®, author of Fundraising the SMART Way: Predictable, Consistent Income Growth for Your Charity, and co-author of several books and anthologies of work on fundraising effectiveness, strategic planning and board development. Visit to learn more. Contact or phone 305-935-6676.         Learn more about reaching your donors, even with call reluctance!
From Call Reluctance to Call Enthusiasm: A 7-Step Approach