From a young age, my mother impressed upon me the importance of the stories we tell ourselves. She’d had a hard life and had overcome much difficulty simply by changing her outlook, or the story she told herself about what she’d been through. It’s a trait I’ve taken into my adult life, and something I carry into our Veritus coaching.

Okay, but what does this have to do with fundraising? As we work with clients, I find so much of our work is helping people address the stories they tell themselves… those stories they create in their head.

Let’s talk about some of the stories we hear often, and then sort out the realities. Before I share these stories, it’s important to remember that The Veritus Way is all about building personal relationships. Until you know a donor’s communication preference, you’ll attempt to contact them by mail, and then follow up by phone or email. That’s where this first story comes from. It goes something like this:

“No, I haven’t connected personally with any donors this week; they won’t answer the phone.”

That’s one story. The cold, disinterested, unengaged donor just watching the phone light up and choosing not to answer.

Another story is: “I’m not sure how good our phone numbers are. I have a caseload full of donors who don’t answer so these numbers must all be wrong.”

Another one is: “Gosh, I’ve left a ton of messages. Surely if they wanted to talk, they’d call back.”

Or, how about: “Maybe they recognize my number is the organization and they think I’m calling for money.”

Now, there may be kernels of truth to any one of those stories, and there may be some donors to whom they apply. You can either entertain and foster these stories and feel defeated… or we can look at them more closely and rewrite the story we are telling ourselves.

So, what’s really happening? What’s the truth here?

You’re calling when it’s convenient for you, not for the donor. I once had a fundraiser say no one was answering his calls. When I asked about how he’d been scheduling his week, he then proudly told me he was calling regularly on Tuesdays from 10am to 2 pm.

If you’re trying donors at the same time every time, they’re not answering because this is about your schedule. We recently wrote about how being a fundraiser is not a 9-to-5 job. If you’re going to connect with donors, you may have to make phone calls outside of your self-subscribed schedule. You may need to call outside of that window, or even outside of your normal business hours.

You may be leaving terrible messages. I once asked a client who complained no one was calling her back what she was saying in her message. During a long, three-minute narrative, she shared that she left a hurried thank you and a detailed update on the latest and greatest at the organization, plus how pleased she was to be calling and could the donor please call her back. Honestly, I was exhausted. I had a pretty good idea why they donors weren’t calling back. She was taking valuable time and focusing on the organization, not on serving the donor.

When leaving messages, you have to be wise about their length and content. A simple, “It’s Lisa from Veritus calling to follow up on a letter sent last week about how we can best serve you; I’ll try again, or you can call me at…” will suffice. I think one story we may tell ourselves is that this message is the only chance we have to download our entire catalog of thoughts. This is a process and a relationship. This message is just one part of our strategy to connect.

It’s possible that you’re not putting in the leg work to find easily available information. I’m a bit of a data nerd and I appreciate good, clean data so I empathize with those whose systems spit out utter nonsense related to donor records. Still, when I work with a fundraiser struggling to connect and we suspect bad data, my first question is: what have you done to find new information? Sometimes the answer is nothing.

See, it’s easier to tell the story about bad data and lament than it is to open a browser and do a search. There are plenty of free services to help you search for contact information. I’m not talking about going down a rabbit trail online. I’m talking about a simple electronic search to see if you can find a donor’s information easily or contact them another way, like via LinkedIn.

Finally, you’re not being creative or giving your donors credit. I’m sure there is a scientific study somewhere, but based on what I hear from fundraisers, my analysis is that half say donors are more apt to answer the phone if the caller ID is the organization. The other half say it’s better if the call is from a personal cell.

There may not be an exact science to this, and I don’t fully know what the truth is here. What I do know is that donors are real people. They think, learn, and adapt, just like we do – that’s part of being human. So, if you suspect someone is avoiding a call because of the caller ID, be sure to leave a concise message that connects you as a person to the organization, “It’s Lisa from Veritus; I hope the next time you see this ID, you’ll pick up.”

Or, going back to the first point about timing, you can think creatively about when to call and how to break through barriers like caller ID. Have you thought leaving a short voice message with specific details? Something like, “This is Lisa from Veritus. If you’re like me, you screen your calls. I’ll try to phone again for a quick chat around 7:00pm, or feel free to let me know if there’s a better time to connect? My number is (222)333-1234. I’m excited to share with you the difference your gift is making for those we help.”

There are as many reasons as there are donors to explain why a call is left unanswered or unreturned. Rather than make up stories in our heads, which can lead to defeat, inactivity, or deflection, let’s work to overcome those obstacles and so you can begin to create those meaningful connections that will benefit the donor, you, and the mission you serve.


Lisa Robertson is Director of Client Services at Veritus Group. She has over 25 years of experience in non-profit leadership, serving as an executive, program director, and special event coordinator. Lisa has been responsible for fundraising, donor/constituent relations, marketing, and internal communications. She has a dual degree in Communications and Political Science from the University of Washington and worked as a sports reporter and editor before entering the non-profit sector.