Phone chats boost alumni donations

Diana Samuels

The number of alumni pledging to donate to Northwestern through the Phonathon program increased by about 50 percent this year. The program’s success stems largely from a new emphasis of caller training on forming relationships with alumni instead of simply asking for money, said Bridget Haggerty, senior associate director of annual giving.

The Phonathon program, run through the Office of Alumni Relations and Development, pays 60 students a minimum of $8.25 an hour to call alumni looking for donations. Currently callers have received about 8,500 pledges, and are aiming for 10,000 by the end of August, Haggerty said.

But, Haggerty said the calls are also about creating a connection between students and alumni, bringing alumni back to their days at NU.

Phonathon has been shifting its goals to allow alumni to have real conversations with the student callers — emphasized during a new caller training program, according to Jennie Volpert, assistant director of annual giving. Students often ask alumni about their jobs, or tell them about NU events on campus or in the alumni’s hometown.

Communication senior Julia O’Brien, a Phonathon student supervisor, said she witnessed the focus of Phonathon shift this year.

“I’ve seen how the phone conversation has changed from receiving demographic information to really connecting with alumni,” she said. “It makes the callers more excited and the calls more enjoyable.”

Students go through 10 hours of training to learn how to make a good phone call and use the computer-operated phone systems, Volpert said.

“We train them to be very respectful of the alumni,” she said. “We want both parties to come away from the experience feeling positive.”

Callers are trained to say the same things they would say if they were sitting next to someone wearing a NU sweatshirt on an airplane, O’Brien said.

Callers are given guidelines about what to say, but are never specifically instructed, because the goal is an organic conversation that lasts about 10 minutes.

“We don’t try to make it this hard-tight script, because (the callers) are smart people,” Haggerty said.

Callers first gather and confirm existing demographic information about the alumni, checking addresses and other contact information, Volpert said. Conversations often arise when they ask alumni about their current job, because students tend to call alumni who graduated from their school. Networking with alumni is one of the benefits of the job, said Communication senior Chris Bruss, a Phonathon student supervisor.

Bruss received an offer for an internship by one alumna, a writer for the television show “Scrubs.” While he turned down the internship due to scheduling conflicts, he met with her and visited the show’s set while in Los Angeles.

Bruss and O’Brien said potential employers have been impressed to see the Phonathon on their resumes.

“No matter what career you go into, having strong communication skills and the ability to communicate effectively in person and on the phone is invaluable,” O’Brien said.

Besides building their resumes, both Bruss and O’Brien said they have worked for Phonathon for three years because they enjoy the high pay, fun environment and the conversations with alumni.

“Everyone moans at the thought of telemarketers, but what we do is a lot different than that,” O’Brien said. “And based on the response we get from alumni, they feel the same way.”

Reach Diana Samuels at [email protected]