Dialing Up Donations

Even the stingiest of alumni are more likely to donate if they're solicited through a personal phone call, a new study finds.
June 18, 2009

The phone rings. It's the cheerful voice of a student attending your alma mater, asking for a second of your time and a chunk of your change -- all major credit cards accepted, thanks.

Expect those calls to increase if universities heed the findings of a study titled "The ABCs of Charitable Solicitation," released last week by the National Bureau of Economic Research (subscription required). Based on an examination of all alumni donations to an anonymous university from 1983 to 2007, the researchers conclude that personal solicitations help persuade reluctant alumni to drag out the checkbook.

Starting every July 1, the institution's development office sends out at least two mailings and several e-mails to every alumnus for the next 11 months, according to the study. Come the following June, the last month of the fund raising year, volunteers receive lists of the names of alumni who have not yet donated -- and the phone calls begin.

Since the volunteers usually worked through the lists in alphabetical order, they were more likely to call alumni with last names near the beginning of the alphabet than those with last names toward the end. So they tended to be more enthusiastic toward, say, Mr. Adams than toward Mr. Zuckerman, whom they often ran out of time to call altogether. As a result, individuals with surnames beginning with A-F were 1.2 percent more likely to give than those with surnames beginning with S-Z, according to the report, which focused on the likelihood of donating rather than the size of the donations.

The study also found that gender plays a role in charitable giving. Women whose last names fell between A-F were 1.5 percent more likely to donate than those at the end of the alphabet, while men with last names between A-F were only 0.9 percent more likely to donate.

The report suggests that universities falling on hard times could harness the power of peer pressure to their advantage.

"Obviously it takes more effort to make a personal phone call than it does to send out a mass mailing. But the personal phone call, or personal solicitation, has an effect after you've asked people through mail two to four times," said Jonathan Meer, a former graduate student at Stanford University who co-authored the study with Harvey S. Rosen, a professor of economics and business policy at Princeton University.

Meer said the report has gone over well with the anonymous university, which he said is private, selective and "not a big-time sports school."

In fact, Meer said, the idea for the study came from one of the campus's professors, whose last name begins with Y.

"He's convinced the world has done him wrong because he's always in the back of lists," he said.


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