We don’t hear too often that a telephone answering service can be a useful “high tech” research tool for nonprofits, but I’ve found that to be the case.

Click on the photograph to reach the website of Grasshopper.

NTEN: Nonprofit Technology Network, an organization for which I enjoy volunteering, helps nonprofits use technology to improve their operations and communications. But few if any #tech4good specialists focus on telecommunications platforms. We need more!

A few years ago, I was hired as a consultant/adjunct staff member to help wrap-up a recently completed capital campaign, to conduct research, and to lay the groundwork for an entirely new campaign. The staff was overworked and they had little time to assist. Simultaneously, the organization’s development board decided a private dinner for top donors to the first campaign was needed. They needed to inform their leading constituents about the success of that effort, and to announce that work was underway for the next fundraising campaign.

While event logistics were fairly easy to arrange, I quickly realized taking RSVPs from some 500 potential guests would be a daunting task for a “one person” shop like mine. So, I took to the Internet. I discovered Grasshopper.

Here are a few things I was able to accomplish by using this platform.

1. I secured a toll-free response line that anyone could call, 24-7 from any location, free of charge. This was very convenient for our potential guests, who lived all over Texas. I could also have the line open for a full month. At the time, engaging Grasshopper ended up costing my organization approximately $100 from start to finish. Considering what we gained from using Grasshopper, that was an incredibly reasonable price.

2. I scripted the toll free telephone response line to include three separate recordings for: a) RSVP “yes”; b) RSVP “no”; and c) driving directions, instructions regarding attire, and the telephone number of the venue. I also kept the line open through the evening of the event out of courtesy and for a few days afterward.

3. Not only was Grasshopper convenient to my guests, who could call free of charge from anywhere at all hours of the day or night, their numerous and sometimes lengthy phone messages did NOT “clog-up” the nonprofit’s primitive messaging system, nor mine. And, a receptionist was not required to manage the process. Messages from guests could also be forwarded via e-mail to others within the organization and to those serving on the advisory board. You would be surprised how many people call after-hours and over the weekend, some of them late into the night. I also learned through the Grasshopper dashboard what phone lines they were using, and I could edit my database accordingly.

4. Grasshopper allowed me to select a “voice talent” to record the script I prepared, and I chose a woman with a clear and elegant British accent. That helped set a high tone for the dinner.

5. Once set-up, the invitation printed and mailed containing the toll-free response number, I was then able to decide when I wanted to listen to the RSVPs, day-by-day. For instance, after a long day of working on catering and other event details, I could sit down after supper and quietly listen to each individual RSVP recording, and decide how best to handle it. This was LOW stress for “yours truly,” and actually enjoyable. You might be a little like me – answering constant telephone calls during the day is jolting and breaks my concentration; by using this system, I could simply check-in now and again, during the day and after.

6. Some guests called to say they could not attend, but wished to send regards and requests to members of the staff and  development board, which was easily done. As mentioned earlier, the recordings could be forwarded via e-mail to those in question. New information about relationships was obtained, and the message recipients were delighted to be kept informed. This expanded my knowledge about the organization’s leading donors!

7. I have to admit, some people who called were curt and simply noted they could not attend. But, some donors (and potential donors), took the time to express in their recorded messages how sad they are not to be able to attend. They sometimes mentioned how much they wished they could participate, they hoped we could visit with them in the future, and the like. That information was important to our future fundraising activities and “next steps,” and to gauging who was truly interested in the organization’s work.

8. About the receptionist … in the case of this nonprofit, the person assigned to that task was kind and competent, but not schooled in development nor imbued with finely-honed “listening” skills. Subtle nuances of telephone conversations with major donors would be missed by this untrained set of ears. Given the importance of the audience, however, a better trained professional “ear” was essential: mine.

You can see why, as a major gift fundraiser, I became a great fan of Grasshopper. And I have an entirely new opinion about the role of development professionals in handling telephone messages for major gift events. Perhaps this task, which seems menial at first, is one of the most important aspects of your special event, one that should not be delegated to a receptionist, after all. Grasshopper truly saved the day. Plus, I gained invaluable information that helped the nonprofit move forward with its major gift fundraising after the event was finished.

I was pleased to be included on the “happy customer” page on Grasshopper’s website. I have been sought out by staff members curious about my use of Grasshopper for special events, and I am happy to share my experiences. If you have questions, use the secure contact form on this website to reach me.

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