Tucked away in Graphic Arts (building 26, room 110) lies a modest, yet mighty family.
Composed of 50 students and led by three matriarchs, they contribute to the $2 million raised by the office of Annual Giving at Cal Poly, the office in charge of all gifts given to the university.
They engage in about 27,016 phone conversations each year — one of them is likely on a first-name basis with your parent or supporter.
Each conversation is an extension of their core value: relationship-building.
This is the familial dynamic of the Cal Poly Phonathon.
Overseen by Director of Annual Giving Chris McBride, Communications Specialist (and team mom) Cathee Sandstrom and Communications Specialist Melody Klemin, the Phonathon is a student-operated organization focused on reaching out to alumni and parents/supporters for pledges.
Students make calls six days a week in three and a half hour shifts.
Donors have the liberty to choose where their gift is allocated, whether it be to their former residence hall, the college from which they graduated or a club they support.
“There are over 1,500 funds you can give to at Cal Poly and that’s something we really try to stress to the people who give. People find what really resonates with them,” Sandstrom said.
Cal Poly Cares a resource that provides emergency grants for students unable to afford textbooks, housing or meal plans, is one of the many programs funded by donations gathered through the Phonathon’s efforts.
Other programs not covered by tuition, but that reap the benefits of the Phonathon, include the 24-hour study rooms at Kennedy Library, escort vans and free
Ultimately, the calls go beyond the money raised.
At the heart of each conversation, callers seek to build rapport and establish a student-donor connection, lead senior caller and business administration senior Katie McAndrews said.
“I feel accomplished when I think about my phone calls where I’ve been on the phone for 30 to 40 minutes with someone, just really getting to share my experience at Cal Poly and hear about theirs, [igniting] that excitement that we both share for Cal Poly,” McAndrews said.
Donors also receive a personal “thank you” video from the student they spoke with on the phone.
This unique trust and bond between callers and donors set the Phonathon’s cold-calling operations apart from typically impersonal solicitations.
“We try to make parents feel comfortable and oftentimes we stress to our new callers that we may be the only person that [parents] ever talk to [on campus],” Sandstrom said. “A lot of parents and donors find that there are just a lot of nice, good students calling them.”
New place, new team
At the beginning of the year, McBride was joined by Communications Specialists Sandstrom and Klemin. Before then, the Phonathon was solely headed by McBride.
“It’s kind of amazing that one staff member with a really well-organized team was able to generate that kind of response,” Sandstrom said referring to the continual increases in donations.
In mid-September, the Phonathon relocated from its cramped home in Jespersen Hall (building 116) to a spacious new headquarters in Graphic Arts. The larger space allows for improved management and efficiency.
This wasn’t the only change. The Phonathon staff also lost a significant number of students after many of them graduated last spring.
“We’re in a unique turnaround period right now, as half of our team is new,” Sandstrom said. “Of those, some are freshman who are still learning about Cal Poly themselves, but it’s a really inclusive group. The students love it because there’s such a sense of community.”
New callers are prepped for cold-calling through intensive training that involves learning each stage of the call, understanding the “negotiation ladder” and communicating clearly with the donor.
“It’s really quite a science. It’s not just this vague, ‘would you like to give?’” Sandstrom said.
An enduring community
Despite the changes in leadership, location and staff, the Phonathon team takes pride in its steadfast friendship.
Staff members begin each shift by sharing the “peaks and pits” of their week, bringing diverse student perspectives and experiences together.
“I always feel like I leave the shift in a better mood, feeling encouraged because of such great conversations I have with my coworkers,” McAndrews said. “It definitely lifts me up.”
According to the Phonathon family, the environment offers not only a comforting place to work for students, but also a tight-knit group of motivated, encouraging peers.
“I just want this to be where people want to come to work, so we can continue to get the cream of the crop applying to be a part of Phonathon,” Sandstrom said.