October 6, 2010

Program reviews mixed

When she got a call from the Knox Phonathon, alumna and parent Roberta Lyman hesitated.

“I have no problem with them calling me as an alum,” she said. “As a parent, I think it is a bit nerving, especially after we put down the [money] that we do.”

“But,” she said, “I always give.”

Lyman is not the only one with mixed feelings about Knox’s wildly successful Phonathon program, in which student callers solicit donations from alumni and parents. Last year, Phonathon raised over $500,000 for scholarships and student activities. This is a far cry from the $40,000 raised yearly when President Roger Taylor assumed office in 2002.

“We’ve become more systematic and more relentless about asking for money,” Taylor said. “[The Advancement Office] and I have worked…relentlessly to enhance a sense of philanthropy among alumni.”

Less than a decade later, Knox has one of the most successful Phonathons among liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. Yet it is not always happiness that radiates from Science and Mathematics Center room D-110 on Sunday through Thursday nights, when students are making calls. The job is difficult, to be sure, but many students hold a less rosy view of Phonathon than the program’s success would seem to justify.

Reasons for Success

It is not uncommon for a college to devote a large amount of time and resources to a Phonathon program. It is uncommon, however, for a small liberal arts college in the Midwest to bring in an outside firm to manage their Phonathon, as Knox does.

Three years ago, Knox chose RuffaloCODY, which describes itself as “the recognized leader in providing strategic fundraising,” to help revamp its Phonathon program. RuffaloCODY provided the college with a fundraising strategy and an on-site representative to oversee its implementation.

“RuffaloCODY offered the opportunity to engage our alumni directly with current students, and provided technology, expertise and seasoned support professionals,” wrote Brian Gawor, former director of the Knox Fund, on the RuffaloCODY website. “We have had growth in alumni participation every year, and last year we set a record for the most alumni donors ever. RuffaloCODY was a crucial part of this success.”

The RuffaloCODY strategy involves asking each alum four times for a donation during the course of the conversation in decreasing amounts. Students start at $365 and move down to $250, $100 and finally $52. In between “asks”, students concentrate on building rapport and talking about Knox.

“I think [the four-ask strategy] is intimidating when you first look at it,” said sophomore Kate Haslem. “But [RuffaloCODY] is a multimillion-dollar company. They’re trustworthy because they run Phonathons all over the country. It’s a proven system.”

RuffaloCODY also provided Knox with automated calling equipment, foregoing traditional pencil-and-paper calling sheets for streamlined software that automatically dials another number when a call is over.

“I can’t imagine how [Phonathon] was done any other way,” said Jordan Ticaric, assistant director of the Knox Fund. “Our efficiency has increased incredibly. Every year we’ve gotten better.”

Compared to other colleges in the Midwest, Knox’s Phonathon excels at bringing in donations. Of the 11 institutions that responded to requests for information, only two—Carleton College and Grinnell College—had Phonathons that raised amounts comparable to Knox’s (see table). Both Carleton and Grinnell run their Phonathons in-house but for longer periods of time than Knox’s short program, which lasts for four weeks in the fall and four weeks in the spring.

Respondents who use RuffaloCODY included Beloit College and Cornell College. Neither program is as successful as Knox’s, however, both in terms of dollars raised and percentage of total alumni donations.

Lake Forest College used to use RuffaloCODY’s services but recently decided to run their Phonathon internally, said Derek Lambert, director of annual giving.

“Having our own people in place allows us to take more time on calls and focus on long-term prospects, rather than a fast and dirty short program,” he said.

While the overwhelming response at Knox to RuffaloCODY has been positive, Ticaric acknowledges that the strategy has its flaws, especially when it comes to the ask levels.

“We emphasize that it’s not about the amount. Anything will help,” she said. “Yes, we have the ask levels, but somewhere in there they’re told [that they can give smaller amounts]. If we’re letting them go because they can’t afford $52, then that’s something we need to work on.”

The issue of the number of gifts vs. the size of those gifts is unlikely to go away soon, though. While higher alumni participation rates help Knox achieve better ratings in U.S. News and World Report, what the college needs most urgently is money.

“We got a sheet at the beginning of the training that said we don’t ask for $10, $20 donations anymore because it ‘degrades our purpose,’” one student said. He wished to remain anonymous because speaking negatively about Phonathon could jeopardize his job.

In order to ensure that Phonathon is bringing in as much money as possible, students are trained to deal with all sorts of objections, from the economy to unemployment to health issues. Unless the objection has to do with a death in the family or the birth of a new baby, students are still required to ask four times.

“I almost never do four asks. If you get down to the point where you have to do four asks, they tell you some awful story, like ‘I’m on a government pension plan.’ It’s hard to ask four times,” the student said.

“I understand why they have us ask four times, but there are exceptions when you feel uncomfortable asking a fourth time,” said another student who also wished to remain anonymous.

In a society that treats money as a private matter, many students find it difficult to talk about it openly over the phone.

“I would say the number one reason students quit is because of the belief that you don’t talk about money publicly,” said Krystal Floyd, RuffaloCODY’s representative on the Knox campus. “They didn’t know what they were getting into.”

The people you meet

Students are not the only ones who get frustrated with the four-ask strategy. Freshman Esther Farler-Westphal has spoken with many alumni who turn from tolerant to genuinely irritated by the end of the call.

“On the third ask, a guy said, ‘You’re putting me in a box. I’m sure your pushiness will help you in your future career, but if you keep pushing, the next sound you’ll hear is me hanging up,’” she said. “So of course I said, ‘Oh, please don’t do that,’ and he hung up.”

Haslem, who is in her second year as a Phonathon caller, believes that Farler-Westphal’s experience is atypical.

“Generally, people want to give, even if they can’t,” she said. “As long as you sound genuine, they don’t get too upset.”

Students who stray from the script, including Haslem, have found that adding personal touches and using good judgment with ask levels generates more success than following the script to a T.

“Anybody is lying if they say they never tweaked [the four-asksystem],” junior Gordon Barratt said. “You’re either gonna tweak it too much or tweak it the right amount.”

Learning to ask parents of current students for money requires a slightly different approach. Before Knox partnered with RuffaloCODY, parents were not called at all.

“I’m not sure why [asking them] wasn’t done before,” Taylor said. “It was probably because…there was a belief that parents with students on financial aid can’t afford to give, and that parents paying full tuition wouldn’t want to give more. That’s bogus.”

“Tuition only goes so far,” Ticaric said. “There comes a point when we have to rely on other funds.”

Last year, parents of current students and second-time donors raised over $40,000 for the Knox Fund. While this is a small portion of the total dollars raised, Taylor believes it is still significant.

“I suspect contributions from parents are going to increase in the future,” he said.

Sticking with it

Despite the difficulty of the job, nearly 40 students each year choose to stick with it, and many more apply in the first place.

“[Students] know it is a job that is impressive to prospective employers when they add it to their resumes,” Gawor said.

Most students apply for different reasons. Phonathon is, after all, one of the highest-paying jobs on campus, is open to all students regardless of whether or not they have work study, and is not restrained by the 10-hour limit on how many hours a student may work on campus per week.

“Uh, nine dollars an hour,” freshman Marcus McGee said when asked why he applied. “Plus I had previous experience.”

Those who stick with it, however, often find that the job is more enjoyable than they first thought.

“Originally, I applied because I didn’t have work-study and I needed a job,” Haslem said. “I found out I had a knack for it. It’s easy to talk to people and chat about Knox.”

Once students become more comfortable with the equipment and the strategy, they are able to relax over the phone and carry on conversations with alumni and, hopefully, achieve the prized donations. But they often find that they achieve something more.

“I see on my screen that I’m talking to a doctor of political science, and it’s like, I want to be you in 50 years,” Farler-Westphal said. “It’s inspiring to see what we can become because [alumni] were just like us 50 years ago.”

“I don’t want to knock any other job on campus, but this is real life experience,” said Ticaric. “You have a boss that expects results.”

At the beginning of each shift, students are given a sheet that outlines how much money they are expected to raise that evening. While there is no outright punishment for not reaching the goal, students who do are quickly moved into better “donor pools,” including groups of alumni who regularly donate to Knox.

“We put new callers in non-donors and it gets them down really quickly and they quit,” Barratt said. “I think it’d be better to have them start with people who have donated before.”

When students call in pools of previous donors, students can see when and how much money an alum has donated in the past. This allows them to ask alumni to “upgrade” their gifts. Getting larger donations allows students to earn more points in a team competition, in which groups of Phonathon callers compete against each other to see who can get the largest donations and the most alumni to give on credit cards. The winning team will receive a pizza party at the end of the program.

“It’s a hard job…so we’re trying to make it more fun internally,” said Ticaric.

No amount of competitions, however, can sweeten the fact that calling is not a glamorous job.

“There were a lot of people who quit in the first few days,” McGee said. “It’s a very competitive environment, and you have to get [used] to it.”

Some people, however, feel that the success of the program is enough to overcome its shortcomings.

“I just really want to stress the importance of [Phonathon],” Haslem said. “You help keep your fellow students in school…it feels good. I’m even thinking of taking a year off before graduate school and getting a job with RuffaloCODY.”

Others remain unconvinced.

“I love building relationships with alumni,” said junior Audrey Todd, “but when I have to ask them so relentlessly, I don’t really get to do that.”

Anna Meier

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