As a Phone Program Caller for the Office of Development, I am becoming uncomfortably familiar with the relentless drone of the phone dial. Every shift, I solicit more than a hundred alumni from Yale’s graduate or professional schools for donations, mainly to support Yale’s two-year initiative to raise $250 million for financial aid. Most of my calls go to voicemail. When people do pick up (and don’t immediately hang up on me), I already have their personal profiles and giving histories open on my laptop. I adjust my script depending on who they are — non-donors, lapsed donors or regular givers — mix the appropriate amount of professionalism and friendliness into my voice, and hope for the best.
There is something aggressive about this process. If an alumna does not answer the phone, her name remains on the calling list. My coworkers and I keep calling her over and over again until we get a definite yes or no answer, day after day.
And the no is hard.
We are encouraged to introduce ourselves by name, by residential college, by anything, to remind prospective donors that solicitors are real human beings at Yale. We remind them of the privileges they enjoyed here, and repeat just how thankful we would be if they contributed any dollar amount. I hear guilt, or at least nervousness, behind many alums’ voices when they finally refuse to donate after — I scroll down the calling history — 11 missed calls in the past 20 days. “I’m so sorry,” they say. “I hope you understand.” Many others cave in to get Yale off their back, at least until the next fiscal year.
The group can raise upwards of $1,000 for Yale every day. Phone solicitation is fast, easy and effective. It is also comical when uninterested alumni recognize Yale’s caller ID and struggle to speak before we do, lest they fall victim to our honeyed speeches. “Why hello there, Yale University. You’ve come to ask me for money again, haven’t you? I’ve been prepared for this! The answer is no!” The line disconnects and I lean back in my seat, momentarily lost for words.
One gentleman asked me to tell my supervisor that he would make a contribution once Yale divested from fossil fuels. Another demanded that Yale improve alumni resources. Diversify faculty. Et cetera. Their assertiveness and desire for change are admirable, but abstaining from donating as an activist gesture is unfortunately ineffective because of Yale’s sheer number of alumni. We simply mark people as refusals and move on. The overwhelming majority of donors do not care about Yale’s apparent shortcomings. Callers just want to feel good about donating.
A few others criticize the whole system. “Yale has too much money. Why are you even asking for donations?” Or, “You should be asking the Bush family to give, not me. I’m trying to make ends meet.” One woman said she would rather donate to her local university because it was “actually suffering.”
It’s a shame that so many graduates share this sentiment, because Yale does need money to maintain its quality of education and student services. Most of my coworkers are working at the Phone Center to cover the student income contribution of their financial aid. It’s their job to raise money for financial aid. There is the lingering thought that maybe, if we got enough donations, Yale would be able to support us enough so that we wouldn’t have to call so many people.
But other times, my work is gratifying. Some alumni ask me to send them a pledge card right away. A widow pledged to donate annually on behalf of her late husband, an alumnus of the Yale Graduate School. A Canadian exchanged stories with me about being an international Yalie before making a generous contribution. An excitable man told me about mixing Bloody Marys for his house party later that night, slurring his words a little as he explained how ripe and beautiful his tomatoes were. He donated $100 as an afterthought. Hopefully out of real generosity rather than drunkenness.
Though solicitation may be uncomfortable on both ends, donating to Yale is ultimately a very good cause. Beyond reducing financial burdens on low-income students, Yale uses alumni contributions to conduct high-end research, hire eminent professors in all academic fields, renovate facilities and maintain different student groups and fellowships. Everyone benefits from generosity. So we shouldn’t be nervous about the first solicitation call coming our way after we receive our Yale diplomas. When your phone rings, greet the Phone Program Caller on the other end and contribute to the best of your ability.
Vicky Liu is a freshman in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .