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Bradley hanging up Calling Outreach Program in spring of 2024

Where it all happens, The Calling Outreach Center. Located in Sisson Hall, Room 219. Photo by Ian Cunningham.

At the end of the 2023-2024 academic year, the Bradley Fund will disband its Calling Outreach Program, marking the end of 33 years of student-run over-the-phone fundraising. The decision reflects a trend toward alternate fundraising methods in higher education and the program’s declining return on investment.

The Bradley Fund is Bradley’s division for soliciting and processing donations to the university. The Calling Outreach Program was created to reach out to alumni and other potential donors by phone. The call center employs 25 student callers and three student managers.

“I got the job right away. I went to the job fair freshman year. So I’ve been working at the Bradley Fund my whole time here, and I have really enjoyed it,” junior biochemistry major Chelsea Smith said. “From meeting the student managers, and team leaders at the job fair and at my interview, I felt like it was like a place that I would like to work.”

Photographs of former student caller teams surround the call center’s white board. “We have old team photos, and we hear stories because … current callers worked with [former] callers. So, I think that … it’s so special that we get to be that last group, but they still have left their mark on the call center as well,” Chelsea Smith said. Photo by Ian Cunningham.

Student callers and managers have made the Calling Outreach Center’s office in Sisson Hall a second home, decorating the room with a different theme each year and planning activities throughout shifts.

“[The Bradley] Fund has been a big part of my experience, partially because of … the time commitment, but also, because of the friendships that I’ve made,” Chelsea Smith said.

Many students have put down roots at the call center over their years of work there. The change is leaving some students wondering what is next for them.

“When I took on that manager role, I was kind of like, ‘Now that I’m in it, I might as well stay here all four years.’ So I kind of just imagined it being my on campus job all four years. So when [Senior Director of the Bradley Fund] Shelly [Smith, no relation to Chelsea Smith] announced it to us … that was kind of like my first thought … ‘What is my Bradley experience without the Bradley Fund?’” Chelsea Smith said.

Despite the center’s closing on the horizon, Chelsea Smith and her colleagues are going into this year hoping to make it the best in the call center’s history.

“I’m definitely bummed that it’s not going to be there, but … this is what I told the returning callers, ‘Think about how special it is that we get to be the last group to experience this,’” Chelsea Smith said.“In life, you never know when it’s going to be the end of something, but we have that year’s advance notice. So, I want to make it the best year possible.”

The decision to close the Calling Outreach Program was made early this year after reviewing the program’s cost effectiveness and trends in higher education. When the program began 33 years ago, the approximate cost to raise one dollar through the call center was 10 cents. Today, that cost has risen to 36 cents per dollar raised.

“The ROI is not there anymore – not like it was 30 years ago, 20 years ago, okay … He [Vice President for Advancement Jason Petrovich] said, ‘We need to be more cost effective. We need to replace this phone program with something else.’ So, it’s going away, but we are looking at what we are going to replace it with,” Shelly Smith said.

Universities like Augustana University, Valparaiso University and Stanford University have all retired their student-run call centers, opting for more cost-effective fundraising methods.

In recent years, the Bradley Fund has started integrating online donation platforms into their approach, including adding QR codes and directions to their online platforms in mailers that used to require a mailed check to process a donation.

“When I came here 33 years ago, the way you traditionally raised money in an annual giving office [was] … you would speak to the student [caller] and get an update about what was going on in the university, and then we would follow up and send you a pledge card. You’d write a check and send it to the university. Flash forward … your generation doesn’t have a checkbook,” Shelly Smith said. “What’s changed has changed in the industry.”

In the last fiscal year, 71% of donations were made via an online platform (QR code, giving link or the giving website), while 29% were made by check. The shift to online fundraising has included the Day of Giving, a 24 hour fundraising campaign which utilizes social media and peer-to-peer interactions to encourage alumni to make donations. Last year, the Day of Giving raised $444,388 from 722 donors in a 24 hour period.

“So this [the Day of Giving] is an example of what we’re doing to sunset the phone program – by bringing in new and innovative ideas,” Shelly Smith said.

Bradley’s current budget deficit has prompted reflection and greater financial scrutiny on programs all around campus.

“The Bradley Fund phone outreach program being cut is really not part of the university’s $13.1 million deficit cuts … This is a cost effective measure,” Shelly Smith said.

Initiatives like the Day of Giving will continue to raise funds for the university while reaching more donors through online campaigns and reducing the cost to raise funds.

Since its inception, students have enjoyed the call center as an opportunity to get involved on campus. Its closing represents the culmination of 33 years of call center history and the work of hundreds of alumni.

“It’s so special that we get to be that last group, but they [alumni] still have left their mark on the call center as well. So I think all of us who have ever worked in the call center are a part of that,” Chelsea Smith said. “I really hope that we really do make it the best year and leave a good impact. Because I know that they put in the work too, when they once worked there … They are a part of why we are going to miss it so much.”

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