Conversations spark new UC connections

Students' alumni outreach strengthens bonds, cultivates support

By Cindy Starr

Graham Bourne

Photo/UC Foundation Graham Bourne, A&S '25

Graham Bourne, A&S ’25, never considered himself a master conversationalist. He says he was “pretty shy” in high school. That changed last fall after he began working at UC’s Digital Philanthropy Center, where student associates reach out to thousands of Bearcat alumni each year to share campus news, extend invitations to events, and request donations for scholarships, research or any of the many programs that support the pursuit of excellence at UC.  

During a three-hour shift, Bourne makes dozens of phone calls to alumni and typically ends up speaking with four or five people. Not only has that led to what Bourne calls “a massive amount of practice” in speaking with people he doesn’t know, it has also enabled him to give something special back to UC.

“When you really connect with the person, that can be a great conversation,” says Bourne, who plans to attend law school. “It’s definitely helped me develop a lot of skills, specifically building rapport and thinking on my feet. It’s been rewarding to have these great conversations, talking to people, making sure their opinions are heard, and then connecting them with ways to help future students have the same or better experience than they had.” 

Connecting students and alumni

Kathy Marthi at the Digital Philanthropy Center

Photo/UC Foundation Kathy Marthi, CEAS '23

Kathy Marthi, CEAS ’23, an international student from India who is earning her master’s in electrical engineering, says that working at the DPC is “one of the happiest things I’m doing.” Her experience has exposed her to new ideas and disciplines that she wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

“I had a person talk to me once about investing in stocks,” she says. “He talked to me for 15 minutes about stocks, and said he really, really liked stocks. I learned a lot from that conversation.”

Bourne and Marthi are among more than 50 student associates who work part-time each semester at the Digital Philanthropy Center, or DPC, which plays a key role with the UC Foundation’s Annual Giving team. These dedicated students have logged nearly 10,000 total conversations since August 2021.

“UC students working in the Digital Philanthropy Center are compelling storytellers connecting alumni, parents, faculty, staff and friends with UC,” says UC Foundation President Peter Landgren. “These students also learn the value of giving back, creating a new generation of philanthropists.”

UC students working in the Digital Philanthropy Center are compelling storytellers connecting alumni, parents, faculty, staff and friends with UC,

Peter Landgren President, UC Foundation

In a previous iteration, the DPC had been known as UC Telefund and was managed by a third-party company. It came under the umbrella of the UC Foundation in 2020 and is now overseen by DPC Manager Emily Kelly, CECH ’19, who worked for UC Telefund for four years as an undergraduate. Kelly loved the experience and fondly recalls connecting with such alumni as a DAAP graduate who helped create the very first Star Wars toys, one of the first African American graduates of the UC College of Medicine, and Jason Kelce after he and the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl in 2018. 

The majority of gifts secured by student associates are between $25 and $500, Kelly says. While alumni choose to support many areas of UC, funds supporting scholarships, programs, research, athletics, the UC Alumni Association, and each of the colleges are most common.

Beyond honing students’ conversational skills, working at the DPC also prepares them for philanthropic efforts supported by the companies or organizations they’ll work for one day. “Whether they are a nurse or social worker or an English teacher, they may have a job with a philanthropic component,” Kelly says. 

Caller qualifications: Love for UC, easy-going manner

As Kelly prepares to interview applicants for the coming school year, she’s on the lookout for two prime qualities: enthusiasm for UC and the ability to withstand rejection. “It doesn’t matter whether you major in communications or clarinet, as long as you have an interest in and passion for UC. Then, secondary to that, we’re looking for students who can handle the word ‘no,’ because it’s the nature of fundraising to hear it frequently. Being able to handle that and start fresh with the next interaction is important.”

Bourne and Marthi agree that calling strangers can be difficult. “It’s hard to cold-call people you don’t know, and it’s out of the blue,” Bourne says. “Asking for money is not the easiest thing to do. But it’s worth it! When I have a great conversation with an alumnus and help them make a gift to UC, I feel like I’m making a difference.” 

Emily Kelly, Digital Philanthropy Center Manager

Photo/UC Foundation Emily Kelly, Digital Philanthropy Center Manager

The challenge of asking for support has been tempered by DPC’s transition to an in-house operation, Kelly says. “We have been able to switch the focus of phone calls to relationships that we build with our alumni. We want everyone feeling good about the conversation, regardless of whether a gift is made. This has made the job more enjoyable for students and also for our alumni. Those we call understand that we care about them as a person and fellow Bearcat, not just as someone who can make a donation.”

Student associates are randomly assigned to call alumni from all UC schools, but they have found that connecting with a graduate from their own school can have special meaning. “Last year when I started, the first person I called picked up the phone, and we talked for 15 minutes,” Marthi recalls. “He was in electrical engineering as well. I still remember that conversation so clearly. It was so sweet. Alumni just want to talk to us — the Bearcat students of today.”

Student associates have scripts to guide their discussions, but they’re also are free to take some liberties with the conversations as they unfold. They are permitted to ask alumni for career advice and to ask how they got where they are today. And the back-and-forth often turns to the alumni’s memories of UC.

“They still remember the smallest details about UC,” Marthi says. “It’s really beautiful to see how people recall their time here.” She admits that such exchanges make her wonder which aspects of UC she’ll hold onto as an alumna.

Bourne encourages fellow students to apply. “No matter what job you have in your future, you can build skills here that will help you in any field,” he says. “And you can’t argue with the merit of what we do. We do great work in helping fund projects, research, scholarships. One of the most important things we can do is ensure that the students who come after us have opportunities to do bigger and better things than we were able to do. This is a way to make sure that happens.” 

The DPC is actively recruiting undergraduate and graduate students for part-time positions offering competitive pay, bonuses, incentives and semester raises. Currently enrolled UC students can apply online or email Emily Kelly.

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