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Dollars on the Line

Riki Scanlan examines RuffaloCODY, and the people they employ to raise money on the phone.

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There is a call centre, on the top floor of the Wentworth building, that employs largely student callers under the same fluorescent lights you’d find in any callcentre in the world. They call any and all alumni. A special division in the office is tasked with calling previous donators. The people called are, by and large, happy to talk to students.

For some alumni, however, the Vice- Chancellor, Michael Spence, is a particular disappointment. Scott, one of the student callers, told Honi that “a lot of people didn’t want to donate [in 2014]—not because they didn’t like the University, but because of fee deregulation.” According to Scott, every evening he would find himself on the receiving end of multiple tirades against Spence and his support for fee deregulation.

Universities across Australia are importing more than US-style deregulated fees; they have also begun to imitate the aggressive telefundraising models of large American universities. In 2013 the University of Sydney signed a three-year contract worth over $3 million with American telefundraising company, RuffaloCODY, to raise $600 million by the end of 2017 as part of the so-called “INSPIRED” campaign.The campaign has been running since 2008, and has raised over $400 million from nearly 40 000 supporters, making it by far the largest fundraising campaign of its type in Australia.

In 2013, 60% of funds raised came from less than 1% of donors. Even so, student callers are expected to eke even the smallest donation out of alumni. Potential call centre employees are told that having long donor lists aids the University in acquiring large donations from corporations and rich philanthropists. Audrey recalls consoling a widow whose husband, the alumnus, had passed away a week earlier. In her ear, her supervisor was prompting her to ask the widow for a bequest in memory of her husband—she ignored the script and comforted her instead. Later, the manager reprimanded her, telling her to avoid ever saying “I understand” or “I’m sorry for your loss”.

USyd’s multi-million dollar investment into call centres is not out of the ordinary; RuffaloCODY also operates at UTS, where it charged a fee of $100 000 for an appeal drive that lasted only a few weeks.

In America, where Harvard University’s fundraising target alone is $6.5 billion, the figures are even higher. The American university model is driven by a for-profit mentality that treats students, staff, and alumni as statistics and key performance indicators. It is this model, from fee deregulation to telefundraising, that Sydney University is importing into Australia.

As a result of the hostile work environment, both Scott and Audrey began suffering anxiety attacks during and before work. Audrey believes that the telefundraising program “makes people really hostile to the institution.” The University is supposedly interested in maintaining a healthy relationship with alumni; in Scott’s experience they seem more interested in leveraging them as a resource, as just “another number”.