Telethon calling leaves students and alumni cold

Colleges need to re-think their fundraising

The chances are that your college had a telethon this September. This form of fundraising is about as Oxford as punting or sub fusc.

I struggled to understand exactly why colleges with endowments larger than some hedge funds needed even more money, but I signed up anyway. Attempts were made early on to explain why the fundraising was necessary, and they were believable – if it were a poorer college with a smaller endowment. Why exactly colleges like Trinity College, Cambridge needed one, with an endowment of £1.1 billion, I’m not exactly sure. I didn’t question the ethics of it too much though (and I’m a sucker for free food). Telethons are sold to students as their feel-good nostalgia hit of the summer. An opportunity to reminisce with old alumni on their time there, and with any luck bag yourself an internship if they went into the city. The reality is far bleaker. Most evenings are spent essentially cold calling old members of the college, who are either in the pub or in bed.

Needless to say, most of them do not want to talk to you. After a day at work, the last thing people want to hear about are the new bike sheds behind the hall of a college they left 15 years ago. Many are also up to their eye-balls in student debt, so the thought of giving a monthly donation after having forked out over forty thousand on tuition fees already must feel a bit like a slap in the face.

I write not to moan about gripes of a soul-destroying job though, but rather shed some light on the industry that makes this level of fundraising possible. Yes, for all this complaining, telethons are phenomenally successful. They invariably raise six figure totals, and campaigns with targets of a quarter of a million are not uncommon. Not bad for a couple of students with headsets and notepads. Their success is not down to a deep affinity the alumni have for their college. While some loved their time there, many are at best indifferent, and the majority I believe would not give without prompt. Telethons are more than just a prompt, they are a big jab in your side, saying “give us some cash.” They’re the product of cleverly crafted, highly scripted phone calls, which aim to squeeze money out of you, say thank you and then do the same next year.

While the cause is always the college, the entire process is often outsourced to private fundraising companies who sometimes work on a commission basis. They have specially designed software and huge databases of individual’s donation history. Alumni are referred to as ‘prospects’ and commonly ranked by their earning capability and matched with students with similar interests.

Callers are essentially encouraged to bargain and maximise the amount they can get out of an individual. Charity is meant to be an active gesture, an individual showing they care enough about a cause to part with their money.

Telethons use scripts, guilt trips, and a refined formula to achieve this. While they are successful, incessant calling and bargaining can leave alumni with far fewer fond memories of their college.

So regardless of whether you think colleges are causes worthy of giving to, telethons are not the way to give to them. Save on the small talk, cut out the middle man, maximise your gift, and donate straight to the college.