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Meet the students who call home nightly, but not their own homes

For seven hours every week, these students cold-call alumni, asking for money. 

They are Duke’s Phonathon callers. 

The Phonathon is part of the Duke Annual Fund, which consists of thousands of gifts from alumni, parents and students, helping to fund everything from faculty salaries to technology equipment and repairs in the Chapel, according to the Giving to Duke website

Created in 1981, the Phonathon first operated using student volunteers, but started hiring paid “student development representatives” in 1990. The program makes more than 10,000 calls a year. 

“We believe that your Duke experience continues even after you graduate and want to ensure that it continues to both serve you and the future of the Duke community. The Phonathon is important because it can be some alumni’s only connection back to campus or the only way we can hear how they feel,” wrote Stuart Shapiro, director of marketing and communications for Giving to Duke, in an email. 

Many representatives are first introduced to Phonathon through an email sent in the summer to all first-years advertising the job opportunity. Interested students complete an application and phone interview.

Training involves learning more about Duke development and writing a script for their calls. Representatives then listen in on more experienced callers before making practice calls with supervisors. Even when they are ready to call on their own, supervisors will listen in to ensure calls are running smoothly.

Callers are responsible for, at minimum, two 3.5 hours shifts a week. There is a 20-minute break halfway through every shift. 

“A lot of the time, people just didn’t answer. The most common thing we get is people not picking up, but when people do it’s usually, like, you say hello, you introduce yourself, you tell them that you’re calling on behalf of Duke or whatever specific school you’re calling from and then you start to build a rapport with them by talking about their experience and then you get into asking them if they would be willing to give,” said first-year student Sarah LoCurto, who worked at the Phonathon for one semester before leaving.

LoCurto cited the lack of pick-ups as her reason for leaving the job.

“It was the fact that I could be at a three-and-a-half-hour shift and get four people who answered, and that’s just a really long time to be sitting and not doing anything,” she said.

The job features many incentives, including daily bonuses for successful calls, semester bonuses, $0.50 raises each year on top of the $12/hr base pay for each year the job is held and flexible hours.

Callers who stay on for multiple semesters are also eligible to apply to become supervisors—individuals in charge of running shifts on a nightly basis, training new callers and monitoring shift progress.

Senior Jessica Saunders, Lead Supervisor for the Phonathon, got the position in her sophomore year after working one semester as a caller.

“I really loved the job freshman year,” Saunders said. “I really liked talking to alumni and having conversations with them and it was a great way to help my communication skills. It was a good-paying job on campus and I knew I wanted to stay with the job.”

She expressed that her current work at the Phonathon has helped prepare her for the future.  

“After this I’m going to be working in a role that is also pretty much communication-based in working with customer service and clients,” she said, “so I think that I’ve been able to gain a lot of experience in terms of just being able to have a conversation with almost anyone.”

Junior Omolola Sanusi, who has worked for the Phonathon since her first year at Duke, agreed that the job has improved her communication skills, noting that callers are given limited information about the people they call—including where they live, past giving patterns, the year they graduated and their major—and with that basis need to become close enough with them to ask for donations, and quickly.

“You learn really quickly how to talk to people,” she said, “which I really appreciated because I realize now that there’s not really a good place to learn how to talk to people, but here’s somewhere you can try! And you’re doing the hardest thing, which is asking them for money.”

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