Ending a Student Phonathon Program

Posted on 09/14/2016

Stanford University announced in an email to its alumni this week (see below) that it will be discontinuing its fundraising calls. The news has already shocked (and even saddened) many advancement professionals who have known student phonathons to be a central component of college and university annual giving programs ever since Yale launched the first paid student calling effort back in the 1970s.

It’s no secret that phonathons have struggled in recent years as it’s gotten more difficult to get alumni to pick up the phone. Contact rates have declined year-after-year for nearly a decade, a trend that has been precipitated by mobile technology and social media changing the way alumni communicate with their alma maters. Today, online donations represent more than half of all annual gifts.

One of the challenges of phonathons is their cost. Compared to other, albeit less personal, print and digital channels, running a call center is expensive. Caller wages, equipment and software expenses aren’t cheap. And while they could once boast impressive dollar totals and high returns on their investment, many of today’s call centers barely break even. Some programs even operate at a loss, only justifying their existence as a necessity for acquiring new donors and negotiating current donors to higher gift levels.

Stanford isn’t alone. Dartmouth College and the University of South Florida have also made decisions to end their phonathons. Dartmouth will be phasing out their program gradually: while it won’t use mass calling efforts to acquire new donors anymore, it will make sure that those alumni who have consistently responded to phonathon solicitations in the past continue to get a personal call from someone at the college.

Reactions to Stanford’s decision have ranged from “Well, they’re Stanford, they can afford to do stuff like that,” to “That seems a little extreme.” Some have even commented, “They’ll be back.”

Whatever the future holds for Stanford, its decision will surely elicit conversations at other institutions about the future of their own programs. For some, it will be business as usual: dialing for dollars. Others will find new ways to use their call centers: to engage and steward alumni, update contact information, conduct research, promote events, secure appointments, or simply to remind alumni that their alma mater is filled with resources, programs and networks that can be valuable for them.

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