CoolData blog

25 May 2010

Is the Do Not Call List bogus?

Filed under: Annual Giving, External data, Phonathon, Predictor variables — Tags: — kevinmacdonell @ 9:41 am

Logo of Canada's Do Not Call registry service.

Last week I told you how I obtained a list of phone numbers from Canada’s Do Not Call List (two million phone numbers!). I matched these up with phone numbers from an alumni database in order to create a potential new predictor variable for my models. Today I reveal my rather unexpected findings.

To recap: In 2008, Canada introduced the National Do Not Call List (DNCL), which gives consumers a choice about whether to receive telemarketing calls. Anyone can add their phone numbers to the list, and telemarketing companies are forced to avoid calling those numbers. Canadian registered charities, including universities soliciting donations via calling programs, are exempt from the DNC list. However, any organization may access the list — which we did, for the purpose of research. Similar registries exist in the U.S. and around the world.

The results of my little experiment looked odd right from the beginning. When I matched up phone numbers, I discovered that a whopping 42% of living alumni with a home phone number in the area codes of interest had in fact signed up for the Do Not Call List. That seemed awfully high to me — but, oh well, I certainly didn’t lack for comparative data. Any differences between the DNC group and all other alumni were bound to be significant.

Or not! Check out these findings:

  • The two groups (DNC / not DNC) hardly differed in their age distribution. The very oldest and the very youngest alumni registered at the lowest rate (37.6% and 38.9%), but participation in the List was nearly equal across all age levels.
  • Alumni who signed up for the DNC list were slightly more likely to be donors. (Counter-intuitive, I thought.)
  • When I narrowed the definition of ‘giving’ to gifts received recently via the calling program, I found no difference in giving between the DNC and the non-DNC group.  I had expected that people who object to being called by telemarketers would also give less in response to a call from alma mater, and I was very surprised with this result. Average pledge and rate of participation were almost exactly equivalent across both groups.
  • The number of alumni who were coded ‘do not solicit by phone’ were about equal for both groups, DNC and non-DNC.
  • The number of alumni who asked not to be solicited by affinity partners (credit card, insurance, etc.) was also about equal for both groups.

The problem was not that the results were unexpected; unexpected is almost always interesting. No, the problem was that the results were impossible to interpret. The intersection of the DNC list with the alumni database was distinguished by an almost total lack of pattern or tendency. There were three possible conclusions to draw from this, one of which must be correct:

  1. The two data sets were completely unrelated due to some undiagnosed error in the analysis.
  2. The two data sets were related, but alumni draw a complete distinction between telemarketers and our student callers. They want off the calling lists of marketers, but this has nothing to do with their attitude toward alma mater and its fundraising efforts. If true, this would be good news indeed. But somehow I doubt it!
  3. The DNC list is a random data set. The near-total lack of distinguishing features strongly suggests that the DNC list is just a random sampling of the Canadian population. In other words, the list has been diluted by the mass uploading of phone numbers, despite security measures in place to prevent that from happening. If numbers are being added to the list without householders’ knowledge, the data do not represent people’s attitudes and intentions and are therefore worthless for the purpose of analysis.

Regardless of what the answer is, one thing is certain: We must never allow the DNC list to be applied to charities and nonprofits without a fight. This (possibly bogus) list will cut indiscriminately across a broad cross-section of anyone’s donor base, and a ban on calling would seriously harm any phone-based fundraising effort. Fortunately there does not seem to be any intention to extend the reach of the DNC list at present.

Getting back to the matter of finding new predictors: Every once in a while I get it in my head that the potential in our database is tapped out as far as new predictors goes. There HAVE to be other sources of data on our constituents that will provide amazing new insights into their behaviour. Sometimes going outside the database is worthwhile (survey data, for example) and sometimes  it just isn’t.

The lesson might be: Unless the data you covet relates directly to your constituents’ relationship with (or attitude towards) your institution, it may not be worth a great deal of time or money to acquire it.

Postscript: I’ve just had an opportunity to run the same lists of phone numbers against another and much larger university database. Once again, the binary variable “On the Do Not Call List” behaved like a randomly-generated number. I found that almost a third of the alumni population with phone numbers in the database is supposedly on this list, but the tiny fraction of a difference in giving behaviours between the DNC and not-DNC groups were not statistically significant.


  1. Hi Kevin
    I really enjoy your blog and that’s coming from a marketer, not a data person. I do think your answer is #2. I’m not sure about Canada, but in the U.S., the do not call registry doesn’t enable you to distinguish between types of calls. It’s all or nothing. So, I think you’re right, that alumni and donors, frankly, make the distinction between commercial telemarketing calls and calls from the organizations they support.

    Phyllis Freedman

    Comment by Phyllis Freedman — 25 May 2010 @ 11:20 am

    • Hi Phyllis, always glad to hear your thoughts. I hope you’re right that alumni aren’t partly thinking about Phonathon when they sign up not to be called by telemarketers. It’s ‘all or nothing’ in Canada, too; the exempt organizations are limited to registered charities and businesses that the household has had prior recent dealings with (for example, a newspaper calling lapsed subscribers is exempt). I haven’t quite given up on exploring what the DNCL might teach us: I hope to someday test a fresh list against a different alumni database. If there still seems to be no connection, I will be very happy with that result.

      Comment by kevinmacdonell — 25 May 2010 @ 12:42 pm

  2. Hi Kevin,

    I found your post interesting. I was looking at a model for donor acquisition yesterday and looked at the significance of an opt out code in someone’s record. I excluded people that were coded “don’t contact” or “don’t appeal” from the sample as I don’t have a means to appeal to them. But I wondered about people who were coded “don’t e-mail” “don’t phone” or “don’t mail” meaning they could be reached but not through all channels.

    I suspected it might be a negative correlation, but didn’t come up with anything statistically valid either positive or negative. That was good news in my eyes, keep trying to reach people through their identified channels. Nothing earth shattering for sure, but worth taking a look at. We haven’t looked at the do not call list.

    Enjoy your blog… thanks for taking the time to keep the conversation going.

    Comment by Brian Bates — 25 May 2010 @ 10:06 pm

    • Hi Brian – Exclusion codes can definitely be predictive and should be tested, as you’ve done. I’ve found that a lot of significant, regular donors are in the “don’t phone” group. (To state it positively, they’re in the “by mail only” group.) They tend to be older, they tend to give on their own terms, and they don’t like being prompted by a call from a Phonathon student. Also have a look at Phonathon refusal codes, if that data is available. Certain reasons for refusing to pledge are predictive. (Predictive of giving by mail, that is.) Sometimes what we assume to be negative (“don’t contact me this way”) can actually be an indicator of engagement – anyone who bothers to state a preference (without closing the door entirely) must care to some degree. Even people who request not to have the alumni magazine mailed to them might actually be highly engaged: They take the trouble to download the PDF from the site, due to personal preference or for environmental reasons! So much to explore …

      Comment by kevinmacdonell — 26 May 2010 @ 5:59 am

  3. I would probably be considered a fairly consistent giver by my alma mater and I am on the US national do not call list. My preference is to NOT be called by organizations that use paid services for phone banks. I have stopped giving to many national organizations that use professional fund raising services. My experience is that once one of the paid ‘fund raising’ consultant gets their hands on an organization’s phone list, they sell it all over the place. It doesn’t matter what type of privacy agreement they have with the non profits they are soliciting for. They match those lists up with public records and then claim them as their own to sell as they please. I will never make the mistake of giving money to an national organization that uses outside, paid phone bankers.

    my alma mater, on the other hand, has multiple functions for its call center. They keep their records up to date and the student callers update me on department news. And they NEVER, NEVER, EVER go into cheap salesman mode if I’m not ready to give. In other words, its obvious which callers are getting paid on commission and which are actual volunteers with some tie to the organization.

    Comment by artem1s — 26 May 2010 @ 11:20 am

  4. There has been some research on these DNC lists and charitable giving (I think Charity Navigator has written on this).

    Basically, one of the findings is that people who regularly donate do not wish to be solicited randomly, but have already formed long-term relationships with the organisations they support. Opting out is not about not wanting to donate but about managing relationships.

    Secondly, an observation (although the time frame may be too short, 2008 to 2010) … if people change their telephone numbers and it gets recycled to someone else does that number remain on the DNC list?

    Comment by Gavin — 15 June 2010 @ 5:40 pm

    • Well put. Such a finding, echoed by other comments here, might suggest further research for we who find these DNC people in our databases. If they are donors, and are indeed actively managing their charitable relationships, then we might find that they are consistent, long-term donors and perhaps candidates for Planned Giving.

      Regarding “inheriting” DNC status from someone who registered your phone number before you receive it: I have no idea. There may be a resting period before a phone number is reassigned, and if I’m not mistaken one’s phone number stays on the DNC list for a limited number of years before you have to re-register. Between those two limiting factors, it may be that very few people acquire a new phone number that is already registered. That’s just a guess, though.

      Comment by kevinmacdonell — 15 June 2010 @ 7:52 pm

  5. Im not sure how i feel about the DNC list. I feel like it isnt real, and if people are willing to pay for contact information there are ways to get it.

    Comment by data mining courses — 15 June 2010 @ 7:48 pm

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