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phonathon also Phonathon

noun [countable]

a fundraising campaign which involves phoning a lot of people to ask them to give donations to a particular organization, especially a college or university

'The Phonathon, a program where NYU students make phone calls to alumni for donations, has brought the university over 18,900 pledges, totaling $2,265,000 … "Phonathon is probably our most effective tool," Sheppard said.'

NYU Washington Square News 23rd April 2007

If you're a university or college graduate and you ever answer the phone to hear something along the lines of: 'Hello, I'm calling from [substitute name of where you went to college], hopefully you have received a letter from us and are expecting my call …', hang onto your wallet, you've been targeted as a potential contributor to the fundraising efforts of your old college's phonathon.

though the primary purpose of a college phonathon is raising money, there is also an emphasis on relationship-building

In a climate where educational establishments are often squeezed for financial resources, the phonathon has become a popular means of raising funds, now adopted as an annual event by many educational institutions across the world. As well as raising funds earmarked for specific purposes, such as the improvement of buildings or purchase of new equipment, phonathons often provide bursaries for students in need of financial support. They capitalize on the idea of personal contact as the most effective way of raising money, the theory being that former students should understand the pressures of student life and respond to the idea of helping the institution which provided the basis for their current career and financially more 'comfortable' way of life.

Phonathon callers (usually current students) are provided with a 'call sheet', which, as well as containing the phone numbers of targeted individuals (often referred to as alumni, a Latin word which simply means 'former students'), contains information about their college days, such as interests, what accommodation they lived in etc. This (hopefully) enables the caller to strike up a rapport with the person before talking more specifically about fundraising issues and progressing ultimately to what is referred to as 'The Ask', the moment when they are directly asked to consider making some kind of regular or one-off donation.

Though the primary purpose of a college phonathon is raising money, there is also an emphasis on relationship-building, encouraging positive contact between institutions and their former students. Occasionally phonathons pay off in other ways, such as leading to job opportunities for both student callers (who may end up calling someone working in their field of study) and former students (who may return to work where they previously studied).

Background – phonathon

The term phonathon has been in general use since the late 1990s, a blend of phone and marathon. The word marathon, referring to a 26-mile (42-km) running race, is based on the place Marathōn in Greece (in ancient history, a messenger ran the 22 miles from Athens to Marathōn with news of a victory in battle).

Marathon is often used figuratively to describe an activity which takes a lot of time and effort, and has been productive in forming a number of blends along these lines, such as aquathon (a two-stage race involving swimming and running), pledgathon (a fundraising appeal involving pledges to a radio or television station) walkathon (a long distance walking event, often done for charity) and the perhaps more familiar telethon (a long television show which combines entertainment and charity appeals).

Thanks to Sharon Creese (Macmillan editor and former phonathon caller) for inspiration for this article.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 23rd July 2007.

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