It’s Your Call: Work the Phonathon & Rock Your Career

Ramsay Leimenstoll
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Calling people I don’t know and asking them for money terrifies me, so I never even considered working for a Phonathon in college. But I’m kicking myself after interviewing Ramsay Leimenstoll for this post. Ramsay currently works as the Marketing and Sales Manager at Keep&Share. She shares how working for the Phonathon at Smith College became a highlight of her college experience—and gave her a huge advantage in the working world.

What was your college, major, and graduation year?

I graduated from Smith College in 2011—I was a Comparative Literature major (French and Jewish lit) with a minor in Jewish Studies.

How did you find out about the Phonathon position? What was the application process like?

Phonathon, at Smith, always advertises at the beginning of each semester. Since I relied heavily on financial aid, I started applying to jobs as soon as I got on campus my senior year so that I’d have enough money for books, etc. I had to fill out an online application, and then had a follow-up phone interview, where my soon-to-be supervisor Maddy asked me how I’d react in different situations, what experience I had talking to strangers on behalf of someone or something else, and how I felt about the idea of cold-calling alumnae. (I say “alumnae” and not “alumni” because Smith is a women’s college).

What appealed to you about that position before you started and how did that initial impression compare to your actual experience?

Actually, I wasn’t especially interested in the position over other work study options—at first.

A few friends had done Phonathon during peak seasons but only temporarily, and they thought it was… fine. I needed a work study job so I applied. I didn’t think I would love it, but I knew that I could do it—I’d made calls to restaurants on behalf of the health department at a previous job, and had done a lot of standing at booths outside grocery stores to raise money for my high school marching band. I’d also cold-called a few journalists at my internship the previous summer (I was a publicity intern at Penguin in 2010). I was only slightly nervous about calling strangers, and I knew that they had scripts for us and would train us for the job.

The actual experience was wildly different from what I expected. I’d imagined just a job, not particularly fun and sometimes awkward, but which would stabilize my financial situation. In reality, I fell in love with it.

The whole group was very supportive of each other, including my fantastic supervisors Nicole and Maddy. The training was actually really fun for me—we role-played Phonathon caller and alumna prospect, and got to practice our talking points. We were well-prepared, and initial nervousness quickly dissipated after I started. I loved coming to work every evening and would talk to my friends about it when I came home at night.

What was a typical day at the Phonathon like?

We’d start around 5:30 or 6 at the call center, in the basement of one of the residence houses. We’d put on our headsets and the system automatically dialed a new alumna’s number for us—if they picked up, we had a script we started working with. Alumnae are broken into groups—women who give every year, who give some years, and who’ve never given (plus other groups broken down by “ask” level). They started us out with people who’ve never given, because then there’s nowhere to go but up!

There are always three “asks”—you start with the highest number, and if they decline, you address their reasons why and bring the ask down. If you get a gift, you got a chance to play one of the games—we had hangman, Squares, Smith Candyland, all sorts of things! We had fun making up our own games too, and playing on teams kept a friendly competition going. (Free candy kept us energized, too!). If you got a certain percent of your prospects to make a gift to the college, or a certain percent of your gifts were on credit cards (always preferable), you got a bonus for that shift.

What did you like about the position? What did you dislike about it?

The emphasis was always on connecting with the alumnae and bringing them closer to the college—NOT on just getting the gift. I loved getting to know these women over the phone; hearing about their time at Smith, the fun they’ve had at reunions, their successful post-Smith careers, and their interest in what my life was like as a Smith student was fascinating. I had great conversations with the women and even stayed in touch with some of them via email after speaking with them for Phonathon. They had great advice for me as a student and soon-to-be alumna myself, which I still keep in mind these days. The camaraderie I felt with the women I was calling and the women I was working with was really the highlight—I really believed in what I was doing, and so did everyone else.

I really didn’t dislike anything about the Phonathon—truly. Even alumnae who didn’t give back to the college were fun to talk to—the occasionally bristly person was more than offset by every other interaction. Something I thought would be at best dull, at worst terrifying was something I looked forward to and found that I was passionate about, and gave me the chance to develop skills I’ve gone on and used in my post-college career.

What are some of the most important things you learned from the experience?

I learned how to talk to strangers without hesitation or nervousness. I learned how to pinpoint what was most important to them, and show them how giving a gift to Smith would help that cause or purpose that they held dear. I learned how to read people’s emotions and qualms just over the phone. I learned how to represent something other than myself, and get people to listen. More importantly, I learned how to listen to other people.

Phonathon, like networking and sales, is not about making them listen to all the stuff you want to say—it’s about listening to what they want you to hear, and figuring out how you can strike the right chord with them—not trying to strike every chord until they feel compelled to respond.

Now that you’re working, how have you been able to use the skills or experience you gained at the Phonathon?

At the end of senior year, I was talking to some younger students. I told them that working at Phonathon was the best choice I made in college, and I’d say it again today.

Not only does my Phonathon experience influence my current job, but it got me this job, and other positions I’ve had before it. Phonathon really taught me a lot about networking and how to present myself to others as someone who was interested in them, and therefore interesting to them. It taught me how to position my skills and experience in the best way for that person, to make a connection with them. This didn’t necessarily lead to a job—just like any call where you established a rapport with an alumna was a successful call at Phonathon, any time you can establish a rapport with someone who’s a professional is positive. They can teach you things—maybe for the career you want, or maybe just about work life in general. They might be able to put you in touch with someone else who can teach you more, or get you a job—and you might be able to help them, too.

I think something like 80% of jobs are found via networking—Phonathon taught me how to network.

Now, working in sales and marketing these days, I can call on my Phonathon experience when I’m trying to figure out what an individual needs (if I’m talking to a person face-to-face), or what might make a whole lot of people respond—if I’m writing copy for our website.

Ramsay Leimenstoll is the Marketing & Sales manager at Keep&Share, and she also blogs at Glued to a French Post. She also tweets about marketing and helpful stuff for young professionals: @gluedtoapost

P.S. Still not sure if working a Phonathon is the job for you? Check out what Melanie Graff, Senior Recruiter at Yammer has to say about why she loves job applicants who’ve worked in development or fundraising.

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