Some Advice for Apostolates in a Time of Recession

Deal W. Hudson
February 12, 2009

Chuck Piola has been called “The King of Cold Calls” by Inc. Magazine. In 1986, he and his business partner formed NCO Financial Systems. Over twelve years, NCO grew from sixty clients to 80,000; $70,000 in revenue to over a billion dollars annually; four employees to a staff of more than 20,000 internationally. He is the author of Going in Cold: How to Turn Strangers into Clients and Get Rich Doing It. Chuck and his wife, June, live in West Chester, Pennsylvania and have been blessed with four children and three grandchildren, with one “on the way.”

With the current economic crisis, a lot of Catholic apostolates are in great financial danger. I talked to Chuck about what they can do to survive the downturn. This is a major issue right now, so if you know anyone involved in a Catholic non-profit organization, please send them this interview.

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Deal W. Hudson: How can non-profit apostolates keep going during tough economic times like this?

Chuck Piola: First, you must trim down fixed costs. For example, you can stop staying in hotels – stay in people’s homes and avoid paying hotel bills. The other thing you have to do is look at all your donor lists, including all the people who have not donated to you in several years. You must start a full-court press, call the entire list personally, and try to get another donation, even if it is half of what they formerly gave you. Tell donors the positive things that happened because of what they gave you.

Get a credit card number at the end of the phone call – close them right there. You will lose a certain percentage of donors if you let them mail a check. After the call, using your letterhead, immediately write an expression of thanks for the amount pledged. Put it in a hand-addressed, stamped, card-sized envelope – this is the type of mail that people open.

What do you say to the people working for your apostolate?

Make sure the people who are working for you are doing their jobs. I had a sign in my office for years and years: “The people you need shouldn’t require to follow up, if they do, you can’t afford to have them around.” You call a meeting and tell everyone working in the organization that donor follow-up is critical to everything you do.

We tend to think it is enough to have a mailing list. However, that’s not the case; it is the personal phone call and the personal note that get results. The best fundraisers will send personal follow-up notes; they have donors’ and potential donors’ birthdates and send cards on those days.

How do you handle the conversation where donors tell you they have lost money?

In the final analysis, donors can still give you something that won’t hurt them. If you ask for much less, they will be motivated to help you keep things going. When you ask someone for $500 who gave you $5,000 last year, it shows just how difficult your financial situation is. Ask for their credit card number right then and there. Follow up in a couple of months with how things are going for your apostolate and add, “I hope things will soon be better for you, too.”

You have to keep the list alive, and you do that by getting some level of donation.

What kind of sales approach works best at a time like this?

Kindness works best. It shows empathy with the donor. Get them to buy into your organization, its mission, and its work. “I have a lousy job here, I have to keep the cash coming in, and it’s hard. If you can give us something, anything, we would appreciate it.”

If they don’t give anything initially, ask if you can call them back in a few weeks, or a month, and I guarantee they will say yes.

Another thing you can say is, “What am I doing wrong?” A donor might answer, “What do you mean?” “Well, when I ask for money usually I get at least 50 or 100 bucks.” See if that response generates a donation, even a small one.

What mistakes should be avoided at a time like this?

I double my effort and avoid slowing down. I would not advise drifting from the script and definitely stick to the point. There is a really good old adage in direct sales: How many phone calls did you make? How many times did you get the person you wanted to talk to? It can take ten phone calls to get money from one person, so if you make 20 phone calls you can get money from two people. If this seems like a lot, make them over the period of a week, four calls a day; anyone can do that. When you are comfortable with that, you can start doing five or six calls a day.

You seem to be aware of the difficulty of making calls to ask for money.

Oh, it is brutal. That is why the best opening line is, “I wonder if you can help us out?” It keeps the communication from being confrontational.

You have to confront the dragon. The number-one emotion in this country is fear. You need to realize that. That’s why you should use a script if you need one. Don’t be reluctant to tell people that raising money is hard, but tell them it needs to be done.

What advice do you have for laypeople who raise money?

Show your commitment to what you are doing. Make sure donors know that your apostolate’s mission is making a difference. Story-telling is very important in convincing people they are helping. Never exaggerate, never lie. You don’t need a big story; you need a compelling story, a story the donor can relate to. It is important to notice when you have made the sale: Don’t keep talking – don’t be overly consumed with hearing your own voice.

What makes a story compelling?

It must be succinct and must be told with enthusiasm, and it must relate to the person you are talking to. You have to find a story from within your organization, about where your apostolate made a difference.

Is there such a thing as too much enthusiasm?

Yes, if you’re nuts!

Is there some common mistake that fundraisers make?

Yes, they can come across as almost too Catholic. In order for me to give you money, I have to buy in and know that your apostolate is making a positive difference in the world. If I don’t, then I won’t. It is not enough to preach to the choir, you need to be an agent of real change.

If you have good stories, you are reaffirming that what you are doing is effecting change for the good in the world, which pumps you up. The key is the work; concentrate on the work – that is where the energy will come from. The key is also having good “war stories” that will make a difference. If you don’t tell the stories, no one will hear them – nobody will know what you’re doing!

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