On the line with Mondial’s Ashley Rose

Mondial’s chief executive Ashley Rose recently joined the FIA Code Authority as a service provider representative. In this Q&A, he talks about how a hospitality major fell into fundraising, the joys and challenges of running a call centre and ‘over-the-fence’ conversations with donors.

You’ve got a degree in hospitality. How did you end up in fundraising?

Destined for a life of international hospitality, I was into hotels, restaurants, and I’m a foodie. By my final year of university, I had been a chef, worked in heaps of restaurants and even served as a sommelier to the Queen.

But in my final year, I took a course in global food policy, which was fascinating. At the time, the only person writing on this subject was the professor teaching the class. It was also the only course in my entire university career where I had to read all the books because the guy who wrote them was the one marking the papers. He was fantastically knowledgeable.

This professor discussed the concept of food miles – looking at how far food travels from its point of origin to manufacturing and the effects on the environment and the economy. This thinking introduced me to the world of the have-nots, and it had a profound impact. I knew then I didn’t want to work in fine dining or hotels anymore.

After university, I travelled and spent time in South America, becoming more closely acquainted with the have-nots. They weren’t on paper and in books anymore; they were visible. My skills didn’t lend themselves to fieldwork, and when I got home, I applied for a job with the first fundraising agency in the UK to do face-to-face fundraising.

What work did you do?

I became an account manager and was responsible for several clients. I worked on the first UK face-to-face fundraising campaigns for Greenpeace, August and Amnesty International. As the account manager, I worked between the guys on the street and the charities. Face-to-face fundraising was an unknown in the UK, but Greenpeace had done it successfully in Austria in 1996.  As their telephone fundraising supplier, they wanted us to try it. We did have some reservations before the first teams hit the street, but we gave it a go.

We took a bunch of telephone fundraisers, and they did their telephone fundraising pitch on the street. Surprisingly, we had people queuing up to become regular givers to these charities, and face-to-face took off from there. The genie was out of the bottle. That’s why I’m wedded to the phone and face-to-face fundraising: they work.

You’ve always worked agency-side in fundraising. What’s the attraction for you?

I love change. If I woke up tomorrow and the first decision of the day was we have to change everything on a campaign, I’d be in my element! The idea of being sedentary and having to stick with one plan and see it through is something I know would bore me. In the world of agencies, nothing stays the same. There are so many variables in telephone and face-to-face fundraising, and I’m at home there.  

One day I might like to go in-house, but right now the biggest contribution I can make to the not-for-profit world is to remain where I am rather than drive an in-house charity team to distraction! My beleaguered team at Mondial are very loyal, and they put up with me. We’re doing something right.

What attracted you to move to Australia to head up Mondial?

I had previously set up a phone agency with four guys in the UK called Pure (the name comes from the initials in our last names) It was the first phone agency for almost a decade in the UK, and we did things differently, like automating our call centre. Until then, agencies were reliant on printed paper leads and call sheets, a separate data entry department. We removed the manual process, saving costs for our clients and us. This process also allowed us to focus on conversations with a much tighter operation. It was successful and a lot of hard work. I enjoyed the set-up and frenetic craziness. But after a couple of years, it was all feeling a bit too easy for me, and I wanted a change.  

In 2006, a friend who was also a competitor was meant to become Mondial’s CEO. But he pulled out at the last minute when his wife decided she didn’t want to move to Australia. He sent an email to a group of people asking if anyone wanted to move to Australia. I asked my wife if she wanted to go, and she said yes. She’s from South America and tended to hibernate in the UK winter! That email came on the sixth of January, and I was on a flight to Australia by the 20th. The challenge and opportunity attracted me. It was early days with regular giving in Australia, and the chance to do things differently was an attraction.

The business was in Brisbane when I arrived, and I later relocated it to Sydney as we were commuting too much between Sydney and Wellington, where we have most of our clients.

What is a typical day like for you?

Busy! We have a small team in the back-end for sales, data and marketing, and there are about 60 fundraisers in the call centre.

At the moment, I’ve based myself in the call centre, working directly with our fundraisers to develop our product – which is how the conversation should sound. We’re tearing up the rule book of what a call should be, to one that a donor would like to receive and how we should speak to them. It’s going against the perceived wisdom of heavily scripted and formulaic campaigns with a single objective:  we’re a team of fundraisers who can speak about a broader aspect of the charity and cause.

In 2015-16, around the time the UK fundraising sector was imploding after the Olive Cooke scandal, we stopped in our tracks and questioned the work we were doing. At this point, I’d been doing telephone fundraising for around 16 years. I realised then that what we were presenting to the public were phone calls from 1997. We had innovated in databases, predictive dialling and email, but the basic framework of the conversation was still the same. It was just so formulaic and scripted. The language, tone and training needed a makeover.

Since 2016, we have recreated the DNA in how we manage, coach and get the results we do. We are hiring people with personality and letting them use it. With your neighbours, you often find yourself having a chat with them over the back fence. You might not have anything in common, but you’re in the same geography, and you still chat.

We take that as a principle and try to have over-the-fence chats with donors. The rationale is to work towards a decent conversation to see if the donor can be asked. There’s more freedom for the fundraiser in the discussion, and the conversation style builds trust and confidence. Yes, it can go off on a tangent and yes, the donor knows there is an ask coming, but they don’t get upset when they get asked for money through this process. It’s about making them feel more comfortable to say yes or no. It’s not a typical call centre reading where you ask this, and they say that, and then you move to paragraph three. That’s the difference.

What skills does a telephone fundraiser need these days?

Life experience and maturity. It’s not necessarily about age. The average in the call centre is 40 plus, and there’s a fair bit of grey hair in the room. But there are also some wonderfully mature 20 somethings working at Mondial who want to give something back and be rewarded.

We have staff who’ve been on the receiving end of Salvos or Mission Australia assistance and have known hard lives themselves. I like to find these people and give them a home here. They might not have much work experience, but they have life experience and a genuine passion for the causes for which we fundraise. That’s the special sauce.

What’s the major challenge in the telephone fundraising work environment?

Ironically, one of the hardest things about working in a call centre is communicating with staff. They turn up 10 minutes before a shift begins, and by the time they’ve made a cup of tea, switched on the computer, and then started their conversations with people, they don’t tend to stick around later because they’re exhausted after their shift. It’s difficult. As team leaders, we use tools like Slack to be able to add to the water cooler conversation. Because of the nature of the work, we don’t tend to have those water cooler conversations so much, so they have to happen elsewhere.

Telephone fundraising is more of an individual event than a team sport. You don’t have 60 people working in perfect union. They’re on different campaigns, different shift patterns. And they’re different individuals.

What are some of the advantages of telephone fundraising?

The speed at which you can change it. If something is not working, you change the data, the proposition or even the person making the call. There’s a lot of flexibility in telephone fundraising. It’s not like an appeal letter or email which you can only send once to everyone. Once you’ve sent that letter, you can’t bring it back.

We can change the approach literally every minute and every conversation. Telephone fundraising is scalable and flexible. It’s also cost-effective because we’ve never run an unsuccessful campaign. We stop the work if it starts costing more than it’s earning. That’s why you’re unlikely to lose money running a phone campaign. If you see a campaign is not performing, you should be able to change it up or press stop.

Do you have any favourite campaigns?

UNICEF Australia is always great on the campaign front. The work they have done with us and vice- versa is worth its weight in gold. Their ability to track the performance of campaigns and retention rates is incredible. All of their programs are brilliant. They let us trial different approaches and their confidence in us has soared. We’ll bleed for them. UNHCR, CARE and Guide Dogs are also terrific clients. We have heaps of loyal and engaged clients working with us.

What are the joys and challenges as a chief executive?

The joy used to be the results. These days, it’s the people – seeing them flourish and enjoy their work having great conversations.

The challenge is also the people, both internal and external. Keeping ahead of the media, regulation and politics which impact the fundraising landscape is always a challenge

The channel has come in for criticism over the years. Is changing the conversation the solution?

The medium had become a formula. The only metric where it’s been measured against is one-year ROI. That tended to squeeze out any ability to innovate and change. It’s a brave organisation that’s willing to jeopardise the perceived wisdom. That’s where the phone is its own worst nightmare.

Every TV show has done the call centre jokes and flies-on-the-wall scenario. I’m guilty myself of a lack of innovation and awareness of what we were doing. Before, you would run through a rigid structure to get someone to say yes, not daring to change.

That’s why I moved from sitting with my sales, data and marketing team to sitting in the call centre with my fundraisers. You don’t innovate by acquiring more campaigns and more clients; you innovate by having better conversations. That’s what we’ve been working on since 2016.

Does that mean going off script?

From hello to the actual ask, capturing, recording and saying goodbye, 90 per cent of the conversation is not going to be scripted. It’s having the training and confidence to do that. There is a script, but it’s a guide to the conversation, and we undertake excellent training with the charities we are working with, so fundraisers are fully aware of what the organisation is doing and what we are asking donors to do.

That’s where telephone fundraising can distinguish itself from other telemarketing. With telemarketing, the tactics are designed, so the only outcome is someone coming over to sell you something like double glazing.

For us, we’re concerned with the quality of the conversation and the by-product is the donations. That’s where we distinguish ourselves. We won’t upset you, so we’ll save ourselves time and effort. By improving the standards and innovating, hopefully, we improve the press we get and stop practices that aren’t generating a net positive impact.

There’s a lot of rejection. How does the team cope?

From day one, our objective in training is about having great conversations with donors and reshaping the focus of what we do. Most agencies go wrong by just focusing on the ask. The person at the end of the line then doesn’t like or trust you because you haven’t given enough of yourself.

We moved the goalposts; it’s not about rejection. Of course, that still happens a lot, and it’s only about seven out of 10 calls where people actually pick up the phone. But the fundraisers are there to engage and put the right proposition across. While the charity’s objectives are fundraising and donations, our goal is engaging conversations with donors. We find our quest to achieve the right conversations invariably meets the aims of both charities and donors.

You’ve recently been appointed to the FIA Code Authority. How vital is sector volunteer work for you?

This is the first thing I’ve volunteered for since moving to Australia! Fundraising is my livelihood, and I want to play a part in maintaining and sustaining it for the future. The Code Authority monitors compliance with the FIA Code and its important work in promoting ethical best practice across the board.

I’m happy to be better engaged with FIA because previously I didn’t have much to do with the organisation. The former chief executive Rob Edwards and Scott McClellan, the Code and regulatory affairs manager, played a big part in that engagement.

In my work, we frequently deal with what the Code might be attempting to improve. From my perspective, it’s great because the more exposure the FIA Code gets, the greater the gravitas and the easier it is to do our job.

Mondial doesn’t become the only mouthpiece if all charities can espouse great best practice and treat the donor in the best possible manner. The cumulative effect of the Code should make everyone’s fundraising and marketing better.

You’re bringing the service provider’s perspective?

To date, the Code Authority hasn’t had a great deal of representation from the supplier’s perspective. What I might add to the mix is the actual practicalities of mine and my team’s experience with fundraising, directly engaging with donors and the public, as opposed to being two or three steps removed. We’re at the coalface of donor sentiment.

FIA is considering a supplier membership category. What are your thoughts about this?

I’ve had conversations about it with FIA. It’s got merit. If suppliers don’t support FIA and sister organisation PFRA, then who do they turn to for support and advocacy? There’s not much out there. If suppliers aren’t committed to FIA, the people who are going to be making decisions that matter aren’t going to be us. There have been times when codes and guidelines were developed, and we weren’t in the room. We’re important to the sector and need to be part of the discussion about sector sustainability.

What do you hope to accomplish during your time on the Code Authority?

Ensuring best practice and bringing forward my perspective on compliance is the baseline. As a sector, we have to over-deliver, aim for what’s out of reach and die trying. Doing everything legally and being compliant, of course, is vital but it’s about pushing forward and being the absolute best in the race for the top – as opposed to everyone just toeing the line.

What do you do in your spare time?

I like to walk my dog. He’s a boxer, and they have the longest puppyhood of any dog. Every day we walk for an hour in the morning and another hour again at night. I also love movies and food.