Fundraising Voices: Cole Swanson, Writer

Brian Gawor

Vice President of Research

March 16, 2015

ColeswansonYour message to donors is important and preparing the wording of the perfect mail, email or call is crucial. The Ruffalo Noel Levitz fundraising writing team serves hundreds of institutions and charities worldwide.

I sat down with Cole Swanson, a member of the writing team to ask about the writing process and specifically, his tips for using phone fundraising scripts.

How long have you been with
the writing team?

I’ve been with RuffaloCODY since November of 2011. Prior to this job, I assisted adults with learning disabilities at Exceptional Persons, Inc. in Waterloo, Iowa.

How did you come to this position? What do you like about being a fundraising writer?

I came to this position because of my educational background. I graduated from the University of Northern Iowa with an English Teaching degree and a Creative Writing minor. I like being a fundraising writer because it gives me the opportunity to help organizations and institutions that are trying to make the world a little bit better.

What do you like about writing scripts for colleges and universities?

The most enjoyable part about writing scripts for colleges and universities is researching each institution. There are so many great schools out there that I never would have heard of if I didn’t get this job.

What have you learned that you didn’t expect when you started?

I was surprised to learn how much work goes on behind the scenes to keep colleges, universities and other organizations running smoothly. From an outside perspective, you never hear about how hard members of annual giving offices work—there aren’t buildings or stadiums named after them—but without their hard work, the nonprofits we love would be in pretty bad shape.

What should calling programs try to accomplish in time they have each potential donor on the phone?

In the limited time that a caller has a potential donor on the phone, they should try to get that person reflecting on their connection to an institution by talking about the person’s areas of interest. From there, make a case for how that person’s gift will support something related to their area of interest. If not directly, then at least by creating the possibility for another individual to make their own positive memories. After someone commits to a gift, reinforce their decision. There’s a great article by Willis Turner on how positive reinforcement directly relates to someone’s aptitude to give a second gift.

What makes a good phonathon script?

A good script is something that’s unique to each prospect. You would think that means something very tailored and specific, but actually—the opposite is true. By creating something general or more all-encompassing, it presents callers with more freedom to get to know the person they’re speaking with, find out where their interests lie and get them to support an area that they are truly passionate about, thus increasing the propensity for them to give again in the future.

How can a caller best use a script?

The best way a caller can use a script is by making it their own. Obviously, there are important points that the charity wants to make sure are covered during a call, but a great caller is able to find those points and re-work them in a way that is easier for them to use and that potential donors respond to positively on the phones.

Any good stories for us?

Shortly after I began working at RuffaloCODY, we traveled to the on-site call center at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. I remember there was one caller who had a script printed at her desk with so many lines crossed out it looked like it could’ve come directly from the CIA. She also had hand-written pages next to it. She told me that she re-wrote all her scripts herself in her own handwriting, because it helped her to be more natural and conversational on the phones.

I listened in on some of her calls later that night with the printed script in front of me. She still covered everything, but she was doing it in a way that felt like she was talking to a potential mentor, not reciting facts to a stranger. That’s stuck with me to this day because I learned then that a script is a tool, not gospel. It’s meant to guide callers as they get accustomed to a new program or segment—training wheels—if you will.

Last question: What’s the best phone call you ever received?

Best phone call I ever received? Probably when I was eight or nine and got a call from a witch during Arlington, Iowa’s Annual Halloween Witch’s Call. She was calling to let me know that I had been chosen as a winner for a fat sack of candy and other goodies, so yeah—that was pretty awesome.

About the Author

Brian Gawor

Brian Gawor’s focus is research and strategy to help propel both alumni engagement and fundraising results of RNL clients. Brian has 20 years of higher education experience in student affairs, enrollment management, alumni engagement and...

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