Montpelier: James Madison University Magazine

Chatter Power
Montpelier Fall 1998

A trailer near the Convocation Center is abuzz every night with chatter and cheer. Colorful graphs, winning streaks and calendars decorate the walls. The atmosphere is electric and filled with laughter. It's the ultimate chat room, an electronic party, and everyone's invited - professors, alumni and parents.

The hosts are the students of the Madison Connection, who, for 125 evenings each year, are on the phone with their guests, talking, sharing stories and building relationships. With headsets on, a computer in front of them and a university to support, this is a good time with a serious purpose. Madison Connection students call JMU alumni, parents, professors and friends and ask them to pledge their financial support to JMU.

"We ... don't fit the description of a typical telemarketing institution," says senior finance major Devon Cavanagh ('98), Madison Connection manager and former caller. "We don't ... just ask people for money. We want conversation."

Cavanagh's goal is to raise private gifts for JMU's Annual Fund and Duke Club. Out of 124,243 phone calls last year, Madison Connection callers have had 38,320 personal conversations, which resulted in 15,395 positive responses and $691,609 in pledges for the Annual Fund and $200,371 in pledges for the Duke Club.

"Students are the backbone of Madison Connection, and that makes a world of a difference in JMU's fund-raising success," says Marife Ramos, director of the program and assistant director of Annual Giving. "Because they are students, they have a genuine love for JMU. Their pleas for pledges are heartfelt, not driven by commission," she says. Just like other JMU student employees who work in the library or in dining services, Madison Connection callers make an hourly wage. And also because they are students, Madison Connection callers have a stake in their own success.

"They are in the classrooms, checking out library books and walking on campus. They see the impact of their hard work and the donors' support," Ramos says. "That tangible evidence increases their enthusiasm and motivation when they get back on the phones again. And donors pick up on that and respond.

"You can tell when there's a good session because the trailer is loud," she says. "There's that synergy, that electricity. There's laughter."

Each week, Madison Connection's 40 students spend up to nine hours on the phone, which adds up to almost 400 hours of calling power a week for JMU fund raising.

While receiving pledges is their ultimate goal, Madison Connection staffers say it's the contact with alumni, professors and parents that keeps them enthused.

Cavanagh, for example, loves to ski and recalls talking to an alumnus from Colorado for more than 20 minutes about the slopes. "I also love calling California because everyone is always so excited," he says.

Glenn Borgmann ('98) talked to a 1976 graduate who lives in Dallas and hadn't been back to JMU since his graduation. "He was interested in what was going on. I explained the changes going on, the recreation center, the stadium, CISAT [College of Integrated Science and Technology]. He was really excited and amazed at the growth, the enrollment. After hearing all that, he said he wanted to visit."

"It is fun talk to alumni and parents," says Danielle Moore ('98). "They have so many things to tell you about JMU you just didn't know.

For senior political science major Jeff Ward ('99), who started his Madison Connection career during the second semester of his sophomore year, that camaraderie often turns into pledges to JMU. Like most of the callers, he takes satisfaction from seeing the immediate results of his efforts. When a new printer shows up in a computer lab or the library receives a new collection of books, he knows he had something to do with it.

"Our job is so much more important than the bottom line of some company," he says. "Many people assume that state funding and tuition cover JMU's costs, but they don't. Alumni support is the foundation of JMU. They allow us to go above and beyond," he says. Therefore, "it's frustrating when people won't let you explain the importance of giving," he says. "We need them now more than ever."

Like all Madison Connection callers, Ward has a passion for JMU that he says is reciprocated by the majority of alumni and parents he calls. They comment on the sense of community and positive attitude that has existed at JMU since its start.

Ward says he makes it his personal mission to get people to understand how crucial it is for alumni and parents to support JMU. "It's not good enough that we're now nationally recognized. I want to see JMU become the best college in the state of Virginia," he says. "How can anyone spend four years here, meet ... friends and not take something away from that?"

Individually, Ward has raised close to $30,000 for JMU just by making phone calls during his time with Madison Connection. The Madison Connection record for the largest pledge is $5,000. Since its start in 1989, the student calling program has raised approximately $4 million for JMU.

In addition to asking for pledges, students share information and answer questions about JMU honors and achievements, professors, new programs, Homecoming, reunions, Parents Weekend, graduation, the academic calendar and more.

"Sometimes we're the only person - the only connection - they have talked to at JMU in over a year," Ward says. "We're the sounding board in some respects. In a way, our job is about university relations as well as fund raising."

Alumni "were here for four years," says Danielle Moore ('98). "They want to know what's going on. I'm a student, I know what's going on, I can tell them ... what's happening with Dr. Carrier or about new buildings.

"I can't tell you how many freshmen parents I've talked to," she adds. "It's their first semester, they've never sent a child off to school before. And they say, 'I don't know what to do about my daughter, she's scared.' It's so nice to say to them that I had that experience, or I know someone like that. ... You talk, and sometimes they have a total turnaround. They say they feel so much better about the situation. ... When we call, ... we always feel connected to them, want to be able to help them. That's important. ... It's very rewarding. They understand you're not there to badger them or to interrupt their dinner.

"Of course we're here to raise money," Moore says. "But we love JMU. I feel strongly about it. It's part of me, and it's part of you. It's something you should want to help."

That devotion to JMU plus personal ambition provide the extra motivation that Madison Connection callers need to be successful.

"Our callers are over-achievers," Ramos explains. "They like to compete with one another and want to be the best."

"There's a friendly competition that pushes you to earn the most and be the best, but it's not pressured," Ward says. "It's more of a team feeling."

During calling sessions, callers shout out their pledge results, managers praise what they call "heavy hitters" (students who help alumni increase their pledges from the previous year or who get a credit-card pledge), and students' voices are charged with excitement when the person they call is willing to listen and talk about JMU. That excitement carries through into their noncalling hours. Callers go hiking together, have picnics and parties, support local charities and go out for dinner and movies.

Working in such a friendly environment eases the initial intimidation students may feel when gathering the courage to make that first call to a faculty member or alumnus to ask for money. And the positive response students receive from parents, alumni and professors soon makes the fear fade.

Junior accounting major and caller Faith McDougle ('00) says, "It's rare that alumni aren't excited about JMU. Most are very excited to hear from us even if they're not able to give."

McDougle, however, has had great success in encouraging parents and alumni to pledge their support to JMU. Just last semester, an alumnus pledged $40 over the phone. A couple of hours later, the person called back and changed the pledge to $500. "I don't know if our conversation had something to do with it or not, but it really makes you feel good," she says.

After calling for three semesters and becoming a Madison Connection manager, McDougle says she has already learned some important lessons. "Had I not been a part of Madison Connection, I might not donate as much when I become an alumna, but now I definitely will," she says. "I realize how much $100 per year is, and I know it's not going to be wasted."

Not everyone can do the Madison Connection job, and some callers don't last. Nationally, it's rare for a caller to remain with a university telefund for more than two semesters, Ramos says. "But we have callers who stay on for four and more semesters. Other telefund directors often ask me how we retain them. Well, it's part of this love for JMU. The competition. The conversation and friendship building with parents and alumni."

In this Madison Connection dynamic, everyone benefits. JMU receives private gifts. Alumni and parents get conversation and university information. And callers, in addition to conversation, receive professional rewards.

Callers acquire tremendous skills they can take with them into the job market, Ramos says. Employment recruiters often call her for names of students involved in JMU's telefund effort.

"They are amazed at their persistence and communication skills," Ramos says. "These students have talked to people of all backgrounds - homemakers, CEOs and senators, for instance. They adapt their communication skills, are very persuasive, eloquent and confident - and successful, too. Five-semester caller Katie Joyner ('99) raised $43,000 in seven months of calling, while othercallers have lifetime records of $100,000 each for the university."

Erin Cipperly ('97) got her job because of the communication and marketing skills honed in four semesters as a Madison Connection caller. Today, she is an area sales manager for Hecht's in Tyson's Corner, where she oversees $2.5 million of the store's business.

"My calling experience came up a lot in interviews last year," Cipperly says. "They said that if I could raise a lot of money for my school, I could do anything."

Former caller Glenn Borgmann ('98) says, "They'd always ask for an example of a time when a prospect didn't want to give and how you turned it around. 'It's not really as important that someone did or didn't give,'" Borgmann would explain to potential employers, "'but that when they hang up they have a good feeling about JMU.'"

His answer apparently was as valid for Aerotech as for Madison Connection. Now Borgmann is a recruiter for the company, which matches technical professionals, like engineers, drafters and medical personnel, with private firms for contract- or project-based employment.

Marketing major Moore landed two internships because of her Madison Connection experience. "It has helped me in my major," she says. "It has helped me get a job."

Moore, who will graduate in December, says she tells potential employers that Madison Connection has helped her communication skills. "I used to be terrified. When I went for my [Madison Connection] interview I was so terrified I was ill. I know now how to talk to people. It has definitely helped me with that. ... You're constantly forced to interact with people, to be honest with people. ... I can say [to employers] 'I helped my school and raised X number of dollars for JMU.'"

While speech communication major Elliott Burres ('00) can fully expect his calling experience to one day help him in his search for a public relations job, for now his mind is on JMU and the people he's calling.

"I don't think of it as work," Burres says. "You don't really have to convince them of anything. People who are going to give remember the good times [at JMU] and understand the value of giving. As the school gets better, that makes their degree better. They're excited about JMU when you call. 'Oh, James Madison,' they say when you tell them who you are. And you can hear it in their voice.

"I think of it almost as being an ambassador for the school. Not only do we raise money, but we get to find out about the people we call. We can reassure parents that their kids are in good hands. In a lot of ways, it's really reaching out to the JMU community. That's one of the most important things - keeping up the good feelings about their school."

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