By Brooke Schultz
Elm Staff Writer
Amidst the sound of shuffling papers and murmuring voices, a bell rings.
“First pledge of the night,” Annual Giving Specialist Valerie Bardhi ‘15 said.
In Bunting Hall, a few students sat around a long table, files and phones in front of them, making their way through possible donors. Phonathon meets nightly, calling alumni, parents of current students, parents of graduates, and other friends of the college such as community members to receive donations or gifts for The Washington Fund.
The Washington Fund is an annual giving fund that supports a myriad of things for campus from beautification to academic support services to student scholarships.
“The Washington Fund benefits all areas of campus, and so it is critical that we have a Phonathon program to reach out to donors so that Washington College can continue to be the special place that educates the next generation of creative critical thinkers and leaders,” Bardhi said.
When Bardhi was a student at WC, she met John Beck, associate director of annual giving, during Alumni Weekend and learned about Phonathon. “He told me about this cool program he runs, Phonathon, and I love to chat. [I’m a] very, very enthusiastic person,” Bardhi said. She got the job and enjoyed being able to connect with alums, friends, and family, along with the variety of students she was working with across different majors and backgrounds.
Phonathon runs both semesters, Sunday through Thursday. The callers go over their goals for the night, figure out the important news going on around campus to tell alumni about, and then start calling. They update contact information and, employment history, get to know who they’re talking to by asking them questions and talking about campus. Then they ask for a pledge. When that pledge is granted, the ringing bell tells the whole room.
“Our goal here is to achieve high participation,” Beck said. “One of the things that matters most to WC is alumni participation. It’s a factor in things like US News and World Reports, those college rankings. They look at alumni participation as a proxy for alumni satisfaction.”
Junior Tracy Kamen started working with Phonathon her freshman year. She was always interested in nonprofit organizations, so learning how to fundraise seemed beneficial for her. Kamen works as a supervisor, coaching new callers and making phone calls herself.
“The important piece that people forget is that we are here to keep the WC family close. Calling older alumni who may not visit Chestertown very often helps give them a sense of what is happening on campus and keeps them in the loop. Just like any college, of course. We need to raise money, but we also deeply care about our graduates’ interests and involvement here at WC, even beyond their years on campus,” she said.
Building rapport transcends just the phone calls and seemed evident in the room itself as the students were preparing to contact donors. There was an air of casualness. Bardhi was chatting with everyone, discussing who students would be contacting, or just having a regular conversation. “The students create games to keep the calling fun and interesting,” Kamen said. “All the callers want each other to do well.”
The students are matched with alumni who they may have something in common with to help the conversation progress naturally. “With six people in the room, we can only cover so much but that’s certainly when it works the best. It’s when an English alum gets to talk to an English student or maybe we were both in the Model UN or both have an experience with Greek life, so we try to hire callers from a wide set of backgrounds,” Beck said. He also mentioned that donors also send back thank you notes along with their gift. “That makes me really proud – the caller was so genuine and engaged in the conversation, the alumnus wanted to thank us for taking the time to call and ask for a gift.”
Sophomore Allyson Scott just started working with Phonathon this year and so far has been enjoying talking to the alumni. “I feel like I’ve really gained the ability to talk to people about various things, above small-talk, and get a little slice of their life from the stories they tell me about how they’ve been since graduating,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll look at someone’s information and think there is no possible way for me to be able to relate to them, but normally it’s not as hard as I feared it would be.”
Phonathon has rolling applications, and students can apply by visiting the College website, searching Phonathon, and scrolling to the bottom of the page to where it says, “Join Our Team.”
Beck said that joining Phonathon offers students the ability to learn a slew of skills including attention to detail, people skills, data management, sorting records, and understanding what you’re reading and then turning that into a useful piece of the conversation.
“One of the cool things about Phonathon is seeing that growth students experience. What that really reminded me of was how in a lot of ways, this is one of the best internships you could find,” Beck said.
Bardhi agreed. She said, “I find that my job is really rewarding. I love getting up and going to work every day because I know that if we all do our part, someone who would not otherwise have an opportunity to come to WC, will be able to join Goose Nation the following year as a direct result of a Phonathon call that resulted in a gift towards student scholarships through The Washington Fund.”