An Ahoy Moment

In the early years after Alexander Graham Bell’s big discovery, people couldn’t agree on how to respond when the telephone rang. About half the people said, “Hello!” (That was the option pushed by Thomas Edison.) About half the people would say, “Ahoy!” (That was Bell’s suggestion.) It took a decade or so to sort out what today seems like such an obvious protocol.

I think we’re in “an ahoy moment” in history right now. New forms of communications are everywhere, and we don’t always know how to react.

For example, if someone “likes” my post on Facebook, do I thank them, do I ignore them, or do I “like” them back?

If someone says something nice about me on Twitter, do I “re-tweet” that? (My grandmother used to say, “Self-praise is no recommendation.” Re-tweeting great things someone says about you seems an awful lot like self-praise, but perhaps I’m being totally twentieth century.)

And if someone “recommends” me on LinkedIn, is it common courtesy – or transparent and gauche – to recommend them right back, a mutual admiration for the whole world to see and, perhaps, to chuckle about?

A lot of us text-message our family members and close friends. Is it okay to text business contacts? And is using text abbreviations helpful or distracting? (U C what this does 2 U?)

Is a text more urgent than an email? A phone call more urgent than a text? If either of these is true, do we need to reserve those forms of communication for truly urgent messages?

Can people still be relied on to check their voice mails? Or do the voice mail messages vaporize because there’s no written trail? (That’s been my experience lately.) How long do you wait before you leave another message?

Is it okay to phone someone you don’t know well without first setting up the call by email? (It seems so cumbersome to write first to set up a call – but that seems to be the expectation lately.)

How do we end an email exchange cleanly? “Thanks very much – you were great!” I write. “Thanks for your thanks,” comes the reply. “But you were terrific, too.” Do I need to thank that person for the thanks for my thanks, or can I simply let it drop? (It was easier back in the day when we could just hang up the phone.)

And, for our purposes today, how do we overlay this morass of communications confusion with the genuine need by nonprofits to contact donors?

The old rule of thumb was that the way you built relationships (and attracted larger contributions) was to call donors and invite yourself over for a visit. In that face-to-face meeting you would catch them up on the organization’s news and ask for a donation. That was a simple process in simpler times.

I advise organizations that the more personal the contact, the better. An email is better than social media. A phone call is better than an email. And face-to-face is the best and most critical contact of all. I stand by that advice. But how do you get those meetings set up? I hear more and more organizations say that they run into resistance when they call donors to arrange a meeting. Some donors don’t even like getting a thank-you call after making a gift: they consider an uninvited phone call to be an intrusion into their privacy. But if, on the other hand, you try to set up a meeting by email, that gives the donor an easier opportunity to ignore the request, or to say no.

So what should a nonprofit do?

My answer is unequivocal: it depends.

In general, you need to ascertain from people how they like to be contacted. Some like email, while others are so overwhelmed with keeping up with their in-box that they resent you adding to that pile. Some don’t mind calls at work, but prefer not to have calls at home. Or vice versa. The tricky part, of course, is that you don’t know until you know – and that’s a process of trial and error with each donor.

There are three keys to making that process successful. First, no matter the form of contact, begin by acknowledging that this is an intrusion, and say that you hope they don’t mind the call or email. Second, where appropriate use a mutual friend (ideally, on the board of directors) as the initial contact. And third, once you know the donors’ preferred form of contact, you need to make a record of that for yourself and for others at your organization so that you don’t annoy them in future exchanges.

I’ve worked with a few elderly donors over the years where the informal protocol we established was for me to send a handwritten note by mail to say that I would be calling the next week to set up a meeting. This approach was polite and respectful, certainly, and it also gave the recipients a chance to remember who I was and what I was going to be calling about before the phone actually rang.

The one thing we know for sure: one size does not fit all. You need to be sensitive to each individual’s way of coping with communications and to each person’s need for control and privacy and respect.

Which brings me back to the telephone. In the old days, the phone used to ring and we’d answer it. Now we screen calls with caller ID. We only answer when we know the person and feel like talking. And if, say, it’s my friend Bob calling me, I answer not be saying, “Hello?!” but by saying, “Hi-ya, Bob!”

Or maybe next time he calls I’ll just say, “Ahoy!”

Copyright Alan Cantor 2012. All rights reserved.

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