In about 2.6 million calls to members of the Alumni Association, more than a hundred student workers at Michigan Telefund, the University’s telemarketing-style fundraising program, help to collect about $3 million in donations every year.
Behind the impressive fundraising, though, is the reality of telemarketing — assertively asking for money coupled with frequent rejection.
“I hated being there,” LSA senior Matt Ford said. “Every minute of it.”
Ford said he originally thought Telefund would be paying him $9.25 an hour to do his homework while waiting on hold.
Three months later, he quit. Without calling in.
“It was easy, but I didn’t feel like asking people for money for four hours at a time,” Ford said.
Like Ford, many unassuming Telefund employees quickly discover the hidden perils of what managers call “polite persistence.”
Dialing up registered alumni, employees are required to take the potential donor down a list of donations amounts called “the ladder.”
If a non-regular donor says “no thanks” to an initial request for $250, he isn’t off the hook. He’ll have to say no to $150, then $75, and finally $25 dollars before the Telefund employee is allowed to end the call.
“You have to hang up on us for that conversation to end,” said Surair Bashir, an LSA alum who worked as a Telefund caller from 2004 to 2005.
And sometimes a hang-up is the best you can hope for.
LSA junior Phillip Moll, who currently works at Telefund, said some of the alumni he calls use him as a surrogate for the University, or unrelated problems, to vent their frustrations.
One older alum chastised Moll and demanded his personal information.
“He said that I was evil and what I was doing was wrong,” he said.
Another alum eventually revealed to Moll that she had been raped as a student, saying she would not donate to the University because it “didn’t do anything about it for a couple of years.”
Moll said he risked being written up by ending that call a little early.
“You get (awkward conversations) every once in a while,” he said. “It’s really hard to get through the call and try to find a tactful way to move on.”
In the past, Telefund would reward employees that suck it up and suffer the abuse. Long-time employees got to call priors, or alumni who have given most often in the past and would likely be happy to donate again.
Since a recent management change, though, a walk-on is just as likely as a seasoned veteran to have a million-dollar day.
And all employees can be confident that their calls are a part of something big.
“A guy like Stephen M. Ross doesn’t wake up and say, ‘I’ve got too much money. I’m going to donate millions of dollars to the University of Michigan,'” said LSA junior Mike Mikho, a manager and trainer. “It’s a trend, and we are the people that start that trend.”
According to Telefund Director Jackie Aanes, 25 percent of Michigan’s annual donors give their gifts through Telefund. Its revenue pays for financial aid, technology upgrades, marching band uniforms and billion-dollar University buildings.
But some workers still feel that the philanthropy conducted through Telefund is a moral paradox.
“You’re asking for money, especially in these times when economic difficulty plays a large factor,” Moll said. “You have to ask for money even if they have cancer, their spouse just died … it’s somewhat heartless.”
Bashir said she felt cruel “calling people up who obviously don’t have the money.”
“Some were like, ‘how dare you call me, I’ve given the University as much money as possible,'” she said.
Mikho said managers can use their discretion to make exceptions for alumni who aren’t in a position to be pressured.
“Our No. 1 goal is to satisfy our alumni,” he said. “If we speak to an alumni that has fallen on hard times, has an illness in the family or something like that, then of course, we’ll just wish them the best and let them go.”
Telefund Manager Chris Pigeon, an Engineering junior, said the positive impact of Telefund outweighs the negative.
“If they’re saying bad things about Telefund, they don’t understand the importance of what we do here,” Pigeon said.
Managers randomly monitor the fundraising calls, advising new workers and warning those who talk too fast or don’t exhaust the full ladder. Employees who buckle under the social anxiety and flake on the sales pitch don’t last long.
“At the end of the day, it is a job. Truth be told, it’s not for some people,” Mikho said. “There are some people that get there and immediately recognize it’s not for them, and there are other people that get there and excel at it immediately.”
Mikho said employee turnover isn’t exceptionally high for a work-study job. A lot of students, he said, see their Telefund job as a resume builder.
“The experience that you gain there is tremendous,” he said. “It’s huge to walk in after college and put, ‘I raised $80,000 for U of M.’ I’ve seen a caller raise $30,000 in one day — to me, that’s huge. I would rather be doing that than taking somebody’s order at a restaurant or selling somebody a T-shirt at a store.”
Moll said that some alumni are pleasant and conversational, sometimes offering student callers an internship or a position at their company.
“As a pre-dental student I was offered just last night the chance to come by an alum’s dental practice in Grand Rapids as his sons, who are also dentists at the practice, are looking to bring in new members,” he said in an e-mail interview.
While Telefund may have its perks, a new caller should walk in with a thick skin, or be prepared to develop one quickly.
“It was fun working there, but in the end, telemarketing is a shitty job,” Bashir said.
Bashir said that the laid-back atmosphere and comradery among callers helped to get her through her shifts.
“It’s not, ‘Hey look at me, I work for Michigan Telefund,'” she said, referring to her membership to a Facebook group about Telefund. “It’s like, ‘Look, I survived the Michigan Telefund.'”