4 Things Cold-Calling Taught Me About Philanthropy

August 7, 2017

When I was in college, I earned extra cash working as a cold-caller for my University alumni phone-a-thon. No matter where you graduated from, I’ll bet you’ve received a call from a student at your Alma Mater asking for money. Here’s a look into what’s on the other side of that phone.


Useful Fact: Did you know that the software many Universities use will only stop calling you after 20 missed calls? If you really don't want to give, just listen to the pitch and say “sorry, I’m not going to give this year.”


Three nights a week, I would strap on my standard-issue headset, log into Salesforce-like software, and call hundreds of alumni. Most people recognized the area code and sent me straight to voicemail. But every once in a while, I would get a bite. 


My job to was to spend a few minutes building rapport with the alumni, and get them to donate money to the school.


While this sounds like a nightmare for most people, I treated the experience like an anthropological study. 


Giving isn't about how much you can afford


When I was a “new caller,” I was given easier lists of alumni to talk to. I called older folks who’d been getting these calls for 20 years, and most gave $300 out of habit. These people understood the importance of giving back to their University and had stable enough careers that sending in a check every year didn’t break the bank.


But after I mastered this pitch, my manager moved me into a considerably more difficult pool – young alumni.


Calling young alumni was a reality check. After so much success with baby boomers, I assumed that I would rake in donations from the younger grads. I quickly learned however, that young people have a much different set of expectations around philanthropy.


After calling hundreds of recent graduates, I learned one powerful yet overlooked lesson: philanthropy is about participation, not how much you can give.  


My conversations with 20-somethings always started out more, or less, the same way. If they picked up, their college experience was an important part of their identity so, we would reminisce about the friends they made at school and that time some kid drove his car into the lake their freshman year.


The ask is an art


After a few minutes of conversation my manager would give me a sideways glace, cross his arms, and point to the script in front of me:


“Thank you for sharing your experience at the University with me. Would you like to make a contribution of $250 this evening?”


At this point, one of a few things would happen:

Click. They would hang up.

Crickets. They would go silent.

Uhhh… They would start listing all the reasons they couldn’t give.


Most of their excuses were completely fair, like “I’m still paying off my student loans,” but I also had a few, “sorry dude, last night got weird and I ordered $90 worth of poke bowls on Grubhub.”


Even if they laughed in my face, I never really worried about it— who could blame them for being mad about being asked for $250 nine months after graduation? But there was one response that really irked me. They would go quiet for a while and sheepishly ask, “What if I can only afford $15?”


Of course, we would accept the donation. But I could tell they felt betrayed that I was asking for so much, and at the same time they felt like a chump for only being able to afford 5% what of what the script required me to ask for.  


Small donations don't mean you're cheap  


This interaction didn’t sit right with me and I started to notice a trend in the young alumni donors – a year or two after graduation, they stopped taking our calls. We were essentially taking people who were passionate about the school and making them feel like Mr. Krabs for only being able to give a few bucks; when in reality, any donation is a great donation.


I approached my manager and told him that by asking for a lot of money from people we know can only afford a small gift, we were damaging their opinion of the University. Year after year, these enthusiastic donors remember less of their experience in college and more of the uncomfortable experience of being hit up for $250 by a stranger on the phone. His response?“I’ve got quotas, that’s not my problem.”


Working at the call center helped me see a prevalent, yet problematic mentality in philanthropy today. To participate, you’ve got to be able to drop cash. Lots of it. This exclusive view of philanthropy is wrong because you cannot commoditize peoples’ beliefs and values. If I give $5 and my classmate gives $50, does she love our Alma Mater ten times as much as I do?


Participating in philanthropy says more about our love and appreciation for the cause than the dollar amount we give. University fundraising departments need to recognize that young alumni can’t be treated the same as their parents.


We need mobile donations


This process is an absolute nightmare. I’ve found that getting cold-calls on my cell phone actually dissuades me from wanting to give. It’s like that annoying friend who sends you a $2.27 Venmo request for “one taco.” To capture these participatory donors, Universities need to make it way easier to give small donations.


Using GiveTide to support your Alma Mater is as easy as giving your spare change. Just roundup your spare change during the week and donate the sum to the school.




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