Reaching alumni one call at a time
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Working in an office that includes pop music and a cotton candy machine sounds like a dream job for a college student. For University of Iowa Foundation Telefund student employees, it’s a nightly setting.
Approximately 60 UI students employed by the foundation’s Telefund program arrive in the basement of the Levitt Center every day at 5 p.m. and make phone calls to alumni for over four hours. Each student makes roughly 230 calls a night.
The program, which is a joint effort between the UI Foundation and RuffaloCODY—a firm specializing in telefund program management for universities and nonprofit organizations—has two main goals: interact with over 260,000 living UI alumni and raise money for the university.
On April 22, the UI Telefund program celebrated a milestone by reaching $1 million in pledges for 2013. Enter the cotton candy machine as a reward.
Adam Link, a RuffaloCODY employee who oversees the UI Telefund operation, knows the connection between the university and alumni is important.
The Oelwein, Iowa, native graduated from the UI in 2008 and hopes other alumni appreciate the efforts put forth by the student staff.
“The UI has more than 250,000 alumni, and we want to find ways to reach out to as many of them as possible,” Link says. “Telefund allows us to do that.”
Nearly everyone dreads the so-called “telemarketing call,” but these interactions are different. Even though asking for a donation, no matter the size, is part of the phone conversation, the main goal is for the alumni to realize the university still wants to know how they are doing.
“It’s just as important to have a pleasant conversation with the alumni,” Link says. “We want the phone call to be an enjoyable experience. They can ask questions and talk to a current student about anything from restaurants that are still open to sporting events. It’s all about keeping that connection open.”
Dustin Comried enjoys working in an environment that directly impacts his education. Photo by Bill Adams.
Dustin Comried is a UI student from nearby Center Point, Iowa, and has worked at Telefund for three years. For Comried, who now serves as a student supervisor, the job opportunity seemed like a no-brainer.
“We try to promote a great atmosphere,” Comried says. “That really shows through the students when they make the phone calls.” Link and Comreid partner together to create a fun and exciting work environment for the student employees. The room spills over with enthusiasm, caused by up-tempo music, the famous “Telefund coffee” and the students’ desire to touch base with alumni.
“I’m looking for social, outgoing people to be on the phones,” Link says. “It’s hard to combine the connection with alumni and the donation part. We encourage our students to spend time talking with people and getting to know their stories.”
—Adam Link, UI Foundation Telefund
UI alumni have responded very well to the approach. Approximately $1.2 million has been raised on an annual basis since the UI began working with RuffaloCODY in 2011.
Unlike most donations that size, the majority of Telefund gifts are in small pieces.
“We get $1 million and we get that in $20 increments,” Link says. “Any donation makes a big difference and that’s what we try to tell people. We try to get 15,000 people to give $20. That’s going to have a big impact.”
Telefund does serve one other major goal and that’s personal development for the student employees.
“Our students develop communication skills in this job that they can’t get anywhere else,” Link says. “It’s hard to do sales, but it’s even harder to get people to give donations.”
Comried is well equipped for life after college because of lessons learned with Telefund.
“The biggest thing we learn here is how to be tolerant of others,” Comried says. “We really work together in this room and that teamwork will carry over after graduation. Being able to meet new people, make new friends and work with anyone is a great skill.”
Telefund goes against the stereotypical telemarketer approach. Is one of the goals to get a donation? Of course. But that’s not the point of the initial phone call.
“One of our biggest goals is to represent the university and be a steward to the alumni we call,” Comried says. “If we raise dollars, that’s great. If not, most importantly, we want to continue the relationship.”
And maybe learn how to make a little cotton candy in the process.