What’s a “home” phone number?

Many nonprofits have already noticed a trend in how we communicate with people by phone. The old school organizations – and many types of businesses still fit this model – require customers to give a home phone number, and a work phone number.  Some are more progressive, and ask about a “cell phone” as well as the first two types. All of this is very 20th century thinking. We can do better.

Nonprofits trying to reach their supporters, their clients, or anyone else they need to communicate with shouldn’t be asking about a “home” number or a “work” number. The client knows how they want us to reach them, so let’s just ask it this way:

What is your preferred phone number?
Do you have a second number you’d like us to try?

No one really cares if that phone rings in someone’s pocket, a kitchen, or a workplace. What matters is keeping our supporters in control of how we communicate with them so they continue to hear from us. One of the laws Jeff Jarvis suggests we adopt in What Would Google Do? is to always understand the user is in control of the experience. If we don’t explicitly give it to them, we implicitly ask them to choose to leave if they don’t like our systems. In the case of many nonprofits, supporters may actually have good alternatives which help them have control, and may go there instead.

There are practical reasons to begin moving toward a user-centric system of asking for data beyond just the respectful relationship. As of the end of 2012, most U.S. homes don’t have a traditional “land-line” they answer, or they don’t have one at all. The trend is only growing, and nonprofits who ask for “home” numbers are going to get a mishmash of answers that just produce bad data. Many households with two or more people are going to have that many phone numbers (or more).  Each person asked for a “home” number will give you a different answer, despite having the same address. It doesn’t mean they don’t live together, it just means they don’t have a single phone number for a group anymore. (Addendum: Last names aren’t always shared anymore, either. Despite the desperate hope of mail-houseses that keep sending junk to a partner using the wrong last name and changing a prefix.  Sigh.)

Your database may still ask for a home phone number, but you don’t have to be bound by the naming conventions of an outdated system. You can work around such things with a simple agreement within your organization. “Home” phone in your system means first preferred number. “Work” means second preferred number (which may in fact be work, but again – it doesn’t matter where it rings). If a client doesn’t want you to call them at work, they can simply not give you a second number.

This is just a small example of understanding the world has changed, but each such effort from the nonprofit helps set it apart from others. It sends the message that the organization understands how people live now, and helps embed that understanding in your nonprofit culture.