“Besides the fact that we’re all strong women, I feel connected [to Barnard alumnae] because I lived where they lived for four years, walked the same halls, and even ate in the same spots,” says sophomore Tiffany Kontoyiannis ’16, one of 24 Barnard students who participated in the Student Phonathon last semester.
Now in its second year, the Student Phonathon is a program of Barnard’s development department in which current students call alumnae to solicit gifts to the College. Working with Harris Connect, a professional telemarketing company that oversees telephone fundraising efforts, the goal is to utilize the unquestionable bond between students and alumnae for the benefit of the College and its future.
“The bottom line is that students love talking to alumnae and alumnae love talking to students,” says Amy F. Leveen, director of annual giving. “We’ve worked very hard to have the conversations start in such a way that they go in a positive direction. The students are trained very well on how to listen and how to respond.”
Leveen and Harris Connect’s Sasha Houston review the résumés and interview all the students who apply for the positions. Students have six hours of training before making phone calls that begin with alumnae who have either never made donations to Barnard or have had a long lapse since making a contribution. Houston then does follow-up training and mentoring, and monitors performance.
“The greatest challenges have been when alumnae are not ready to give or are just bogged down with all the calls they receive,” says Sydney Everett ’17. “The greatest reward comes when I speak to alumnae who loved Barnard so much that all they want to do is talk about the amazing times they had. I love hearing stories from the past and how Barnard helped alumnae learn and grow,” she continues.
Leveen says the student callers—who each work three shifts per week for a total of 10½ hours of work—have been quite successful in getting alumnae to give for the very first time. The average gift is about $150. Some gifts are less, some are more, and sometimes there is no gift at all, but the calls are still worthwhile: often a call is an alumna’s first contact with Barnard in years. “Even if the conversation doesn’t result in a gift, if the alumna is happy when she hangs up because of the interaction she had with a student, we’re happy because ultimately that alumna is now more likely to make a gift than she was before,” says Leveen.
There are definitely motivations for the students, as Houston has them play games to win gift certificates and creates an upbeat environment to alleviate stress. “Sasha makes us focus on the positive conversations we’ve had and always finds ways to keep the job exciting. It’s crazy because I look forward to going to work,” says Kontoyiannis.
“My favorite question to ask alumnae is, ‘What is your favorite memory from Barnard?’” says Anna Espinola ’17, one of several student callers who came to the job through the College’s work/study program. “It always makes alumnae stop and think and almost always takes them off the defensive.”
The student callers are unquestionably immersed in history lessons about the College, from the frustrations felt by commuter students in the days when there wasn’t enough dormitory space, to other issues that arose during an alumna’s time at the college. That information is recorded and shared with the development office. Depending on the nature of the concern, Leveen will sometimes ask someone from the office to follow up.
“Even people who might not have had a really positive experience when they were here…appreciate what their Barnard education has done for them in terms of their professional careers,” Leveen says. “That’s what they want to give money for, to help students have that same advantage.”
Another question asked by the student callers is how an alumna’s studies at Barnard impacted her career. The students say they’ve learned about the diverse range of careers that alumnae have pursued. “Speaking with many alumnae has made me think about what I want out of a Barnard education and what lasting impact I’d like to make on campus,” says first-year Ayele Messan Hilla ’17. “I feel like I have learned so much about academic and student life back then and now. I also feel like an expert on all the things that are happening here, [such as] information about classes, advising, and financial-aid awards because this is information that student callers update alumnae about.”
Dina Morris ’15 doesn’t see her job as asking for money; rather it’s about making a connection, which isn’t always easy. “I feel I’ve learned some wonderful people skills along the way,” says Morris. “One thing that has definitely changed is how I deal with others who are employed in a position where they have to interact with people.”
Leveen sees the student callers developing self-confidence before her eyes. They also learn problem solving and, she says, in the long term they will be effective advocates for the College.
“When I applied, I was focused on finding any on-campus job that would fulfill my work award. Little did I know I would come to develop critical communication skills, network with Barnard’s...unique alumnae pool, and love phone calling,” says Shannon Browning ’16.
“Talking to alumnae, you start to notice that there are things that transcend the age and time gap,” says Katherine Moran ’17. “As a first-year, it’s great to hear that so many people love Barnard, even years after graduation. Love and pride...is something that connects all generations of Barnard women.”
The student callers called for 10 weeks during the fall semester and for four weeks at the beginning of the spring semester. Going forward, the Student Phonathon may be expanded to more weeks in the spring. “By talking to a student, it reminds some alumnae the College is still educating smart, talented young women,” says Leveen. “It reminds them of who they were when they were younger.”
It even shows that some things haven’t changed a bit over the decades. “I’ve learned so much about what it means to be a Barnard alumna,” says Browning, “full of passion, a little impatient, and self-assured.”