The telephone’s light was flashing when we got home. My wife checked it out. “It’s just Notre Dame calling again to ask for money,” she announced, pushing the delete button.
“Ya know,” I said, “they don’t do that anymore.”
“It’s true,” I said. “Really. They just call to talk now.”
They don’t even ask for a donation at the end of the call. They just want to chat a little — and listen. I knew because I’d heard the backstory.
The decision to stop the solicitation calls came for several reasons. One is that it wasn’t working. With people more diligently screening their calls, those ringing phones weren’t being answered. The “pickup rate” was less than 4 percent, and the “yield rate” among those who answered wasn’t too good either.
Notre Dame wasn’t alone in this. Other schools, from Stanford to Dartmouth, have dropped their call centers because the payoff wasn’t there. People have grown weary being asked for money, and it’s not just colleges and universities making serial appeals. We’re all swamped in requests for donations.
Notre Dame fundraisers had gotten another message in recent years. Alumni were saying “too much” — too many “asks,” too many sales pitches, too much communication with money as the bottom line. It was as if money was foremost on the University’s mind, and the place — as widely perceived — had plenty of money already. “We were doing more damage than good,” one development officer told me.
So in late August development took a different approach. They told the student callers to stop asking for money.
There are now three teams with three purposes — to say thanks, to listen and to take incoming calls. “We listen, learn and love,” the development officer says, adding, “Once people know we care, the relationship is so much better.” Too many people, he admits, had come to believe the University didn’t care, except to cultivate them as donors.
The new initiative is called ND Listens, and the students are listening. One student spent an hour on the phone with an alumnus who said he’d had a bad day and started reminiscing about his student days, how good they were, what they meant to him.
Another heard a story from an alumnus who’d been threatened with expulsion as a freshman and whose father had pleaded with the student’s rector to change his mind. Years later, long after the young man had earned bachelor’s and law degrees from Notre Dame, he hoped to marry in the basilica but had to meet with the rector there. It turned out the basilica rector was the same priest who’d given the freshman a second chance. Another student caller discovered she was talking with an alum who lived right next door to her back home, both unaware of their ND connection.
The phone calls have occasionally turned into acts of kindness — candles lit at the Grotto, for example. Then there was the guy who said he missed the view from his Flanner Hall window, so Ilianna Almada, a junior from Rancho Cucamonga, California, found the floor, the window and the view, took a photo and sent it to him. Another alum told Nadezhda Braun, a senior from Morristown, Minnesota, that it was Ernie Bartell’s birthday and that the Holy Cross priest was now living at Holy Cross House. So she led a band of ND Listens students to the CSC retirement home across St. Joseph’s Lake and sang happy birthday to him. “We had the most incredible conversation with him about his life, and the impact people have on your life,” she recalls. “This is what I love most about ND Listens; we get to have conversations like this on a daily basis.”
Melvin Osanya, a junior from Ames, Iowa, who has worked in the phone center for a couple of years, recalls the old approach as pretty simply to “generate dollars,” which didn’t encourage lingering on the phone with no gift in sight. While he enjoyed the competitive nature, the new philosophy has its own rewards. “ND Listens is a way for us to engage alumni and not just bother them for fiscal purposes,” he explains. “Conversing with alumni and hearing their stories helps me understand what Notre Dame means to so many people.”
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.