Who’s taking your donation when you call in a pledge?

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(Photo: rentvine.com)

(Photo: rentvine.com)

We recently held a voting round for our Currently Curious series, in which we ask readers to submit their questions about public media. Out of the three questions we selected, the winner was: “What’s it like inside the call centers that handle public media pledge drives? How much do they cost stations?”

CurrentlyCurious_lrgLOGOThe question came to us from Andrea Silenzi. Silenzi works now in the for-profit media world as the senior producer of Mike Pesca’s Slate podcast The Gist. But she’s a veteran of several public media stations, which left her with fond memories of the volunteers who came in during fund drives to answer phones and take donations.

In an email, Andrea wrote:

During pledge drives, I would always chat up volunteers for feedback and ideas. … Every time I work in membership funded media, I’m amazed by how much energy I get from seeing the volunteers every year. I understand logically why some stations hire a call center… but it feels like the end of an era in public media?

So to find out what it’s like inside a call center, we need to find one to visit, right? I envisioned a trip to a nondescript office building in the suburbs, where I’d immerse myself in an environment of cubicles and tedium and emerge with a David Foster Wallace/Pale King–esque chronicle of the life of a call-center employee. Bring it on.

But after a few calls and emails, I learned that, unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The wrinkle is there may not be any actual call centers to visit. A call center can now be completely de-centered.

Employees of these “inbound telemarketing” companies take calls in the comfort of their homes — and they can work anywhere. So when a donor calls to make a pledge, the person who answers could well be a guy in his pajamas thousands of miles away from the local station, not a pastry-chomping good Samaritan in a phone bank set up steps away from the studio. And they’re getting paid in real dollars, not donuts.

I told Andrea what I’d learned. She replied, “I don’t need to know what kind of coffee they serve in the call station cafeteria to have my question answered.” (And I totally would have nailed that detail.) “The names, best practices, reputations and fees of these companies paints an interesting picture for sure.”

We’re on it, and soon we’ll deliver a closer look at these questions. But while we’re getting started, we’d like to hear from you. Do you work at a station that uses a call center, er, “inbound telemarketer”? What are the pros and cons of working with one? Maybe you’ve had an experience as a donor whose gift was handled by one of these call takers, or maybe you’ve even worked an inbound telemarketing gig yourself. If any of these situations apply, email me at mike@current.org and share the details.

You can also submit your own question to Currently Curious in the form below. It could be investigated in a future Current story.

  • Ann Alquist

    I think the more interesting question is how stations are addressing the lack of a need of volunteer phone banks anymore (less so in public television, where they perform a visual function and rural stations where volunteers are truly integral to the station’s operations.) When a third or more of a station’s revenue is coming in from monthly donors, it’s hard to justify a phone bank with 12 volunteers, when a better use of staff time might be identifying more meaningful ways to engage the community that involves more than answering phones.

    • Yes, and the increasing number of online donations is also reducing the need for on-site volunteers. I’m hearing people at stations say that they don’t want to bring in volunteers for shifts when they just won’t have much to do.

      • Ann Alquist

        The last radio drive I produced at Alaska Public Media was 94% online donations (we hammered avails with calls to contribute for over 2 weeks). We did do a day where people could call in, because those people are still out there and we should accommodate them. And the last drive I helped produce at KDHX was a very similar model and entirely online – not even an option to call in and they crushed their end of year giving goal. For stations that don’t rely on volunteers for programming, I would like to see creative ideas about harnessing community involvement. Actually, I’d love to see community radio stations evolve that concept too!

        • John Bell

          A great use for phone volunteers is outbound thank you calls. Great engagement and more fun thanking people then taking credit card numbers. And one doesn’t have to start at 6am.

          • I actually have talked with one station membership director who said that they had trouble getting volunteers who were willing to do that — they were more comfortable being called than having to call out.

      • Barry Nelson

        There are a number of aspects of pledge drive volunteering that require reflection. They include the generational aspect: Greatest Generation volunteers who lined up to give blood or stockings during the war were happy to answer phones when ad-hoc fundraisers began in the 1970s. I don’t see Boomers, GenX or Millennials wanting to engage in that way; they will want a deeper relationship with the organization, and more responsibilities. Donor security: Pledges should no longer be taken on paper by computer-phobic volunteers and entered into your PCI-compliant form. Call centers follow a rigorous compliance regime. Opportunity costs: re-assigning staff members to manage volunteers during Pledge takes them away from the important work they were hired to do, hampers productivity, and pays those staff members their salary or hourly wage to do the work of a temp. We can engage volunteers in more meaningful, safe, and fiscally-responsible ways. Melody Kramer is working on a project called, “Media Public,” which explores innovative ways to engage donors in productive tasks or services, and rewards them with membership. http://current.org/2015/07/new-models-for-public-media-membership-melody-kramers-nieman-report/

        • Aaron Read

          FWIW, a few years ago at RIPR I implemented a new VoIP/laptop system for taking pledge drive calls. Instead of landline phones managed by our internal PBX, I got four rebuilt Win7 laptops for a couple hundred bucks each (we use them here and there for things besides pledge drive, too) and some USB headsets. I created an account within Callcentric.com that manages incoming calls from our tollfree number and routes it according to which/whether instances of (free) PhonerLite software is running on any of the pledge laptops. To “log out” and stop taking calls, just close PhonerLite.

          All pledges are logged through a website interface (we use Springboard from NPR:DS) which is functionally identical to the normal website giving form. The URL is slightly different so we can track if a pledge came from a caller vs the web, though.

          The biggest limitation is that Callcentric’s “call treatments” functionally limit your call group to five people, maximum. I could get around this by having incoming calls merely ring all extensions and then having a LOT of extensions. But I can’t do that and have overflow calls go back out to the call center; have to use hunt groups for that…and you can’t hunt to more than five extensions before routing out to an external number. You also need to make sure you purchase enough outbound call routing to handle the theoretical maximum of simultaneous calls going back out to a call center. That can get a little pricey; inboard channels are free but there’s a monthly fee from Callcentric per outbound channel. I think we have 15 at the moment, and we’ve never been above 12. (if we ever did have more than 15 outbound calls at any one time, the 16th would just get an error message…which, of course, is *bad*)

          FWIW: In a pinch, we’ve also got PhonerLite installed on several employee’s desktop computer so they can take pledge calls from their desks if needed…but this has been problematic. It’s tricky to manage which extension/account PhonerLite connects to, and you can have two computers logged into the same extension, but it barfs completely when someone actually calls and both instances of the software try to answer one call. This is problematic because I’ve had a lot of employees that wanted to answer calls at their desks and I can’t easily manage that when there’s seven employees but only four or five extensions they can log into.

          For a small-ish pledge drive overall schema like RIPR’s, this works pretty well. If you need something bigger it won’t work at all for you, though. I’ve yet to find a system that builds on this, conceptually, that can handle more extensions. Not without running my own PBX (like Asterisk) which can be fearsomely complicated.

          • Have you considered using an inbound telemarketing company such as ACD Direct?

          • Aaron Read

            We do use one…I forget which at the moment. We have an outbound telemarketing company, too…I also forget which but it’s a different company.

  • Aaron Read

    I don’t want to speak too much for our membership crew, and since we start a pledge drive tomorrow they might be unable to respond to this story for another week or two. But I know that in RIPR’s case we have a small cadre of pledge phone volunteers but we’re so “new” (we’ve only been an independent entity since 2007) that the cadre is very small. It’s not easy to organize everyone’s schedules into covering even the major AM/PM drive shifts, never mind mid-days. We make up the gap by having staff answer phones here and there, too.

    But the reality is that we also just don’t get all that many calls. I don’t know the ratio of web vs phone donations, but it’s skewed towards web by quite a bit, IIRC. And we typically don’t get more than one or two calls at a time, except maybe during some mornings when we can see a spike of up to 6 to 12 calls at once. That usually only happens when there’s a big challenge grant or sweepstakes prize going on that hour; something like that. It might only happen once during an eight-day drive.

    Also, having a call center means we have the ability to take pledge calls after-hours as well. Again, not too many of those, but it’s nice to be able to do it.

    So while it’s nice to have local pledge volunteers around and we do try to have the phones staffed by local folks who know the station? There’s DEFINITE advantages to having a call center as well.

  • This is for a better programming.