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April 28, 2008 11:05 am

Human touch motivates fund-raisers

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While large gifts may be landing at the doors of business schools, the task of telephoning alumni and others to ask for money can be gruelling and often disheartening.

Adam Grant, an organisational behaviour and strategy professor at University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, decided to conduct research into what could be done to motivate fund-raisers.

Having worked as a caller before going into graduate school, Professor Grant had first-hand experience of the process. “I knew how difficult it was to stay motivated when you were constantly being rejected,” he says. “So I was interested in organisations where people were doing similar jobs.”

With the help of an undergraduate, Prof Grant started to look at what was happening in a call centre at Michigan University, where callers were contacting alumni to ask them to give money to the university.

Part of the problem was that callers had little knowledge of how the money they raised was to be used. To counter this, Prof Grant identified an inspiring scholarship student and asked if he would be willing to speak to the callers and share with them letters of thanks he had written about how his scholarship had made a difference to his life.

In the experiment, Prof Grant divided callers into three groups: those who would see the student speak, a group that would just read letters, and a control group that had no information given to them.

A month later, callers who had listened to the student’s talk had more than doubled the amount of calls they were making, more than doubled the time they were spending on the phone and tripled the amount of money they were raising every week. “When you can picture the student and have a human connection, you’re willing to go above and beyond,” says Prof Grant.

Interestingly, no change was seen in the group that simply read the letters. However, in a subsequent experiment, Prof Grant found that, if callers were allowed to deviate from the standardised scripts they normally used, the impact among the group that read the letters was similar to the group that met the scholarship students.

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