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Credit: Irina Bit-Babik

In a nondescript house on Chestnut Street, the Red and Blue Call Center hardly bears the appearance of a fundraising center that brings millions to campus each year.

Inside the center, however, Penn students work around the clock soliciting donations from Penn alumni over the phone, with their efficiency advertised all over the walls. Their goal is a striking one — $2.6 million in donations by the end of the fiscal year, coming from 14,000 pledges and with 42 percent of donations made on credit cards.

The main room is decorated in the exuberant, peppy style of a classroom, with motivational quotes printed on neon paper and fundraising thermometer charts filled incrementally with red and blue magic marker. Banks of jet-black computers stretch from the front to the back, on which headset-equipped students cajole alums in persuasive, regulated cadences.

Christina Mattioli, the program center manager, periodically updates progress on goals on a glass pane separating her office from the main room. “I think this is all very doable,” she declared to the Wednesday evening callers as she made her adjustments in dry-erase marker.

On a given night, Mattioli weaves among the 28 stations offering feedback, with the air of an upbeat, relentlessly dedicated coach. Even from her office, she continued hollering encouragement: “Guys! Credit cards are awesome!”

Callers laugh and joke among themselves, and there always seems to be food lying around. “[I] train … all of the new callers we get on the phones,” she said, “and look at stats to see where we call on a given night.”

Mattioli added that callers have stories of alumni encounters both delightful and bizarre.

“There was one time I called, and the person picked up and was trying to sell me something,” student supervisor and College senior Amira Yeiser said. She added that another time she was cursed out.

Bruce Watson spends his time at the Center shadowing Mattioli and taking note of her tactics as he trains to be a Program Center Manager at the University of Delaware call center. His enormously tall frame moves with ease and humor from station to station; he may stop to offer callers a cupcake — if they meet their credit card threshold.

The callers themselves are a mixed lot — in addition to the clutch of undergraduates the Center employs, “[We have] a few [students] from GSE, one from Engineering. We’ve had Law students before, we’ve had nursing students before,” Mattioli said.

Mattioli, a graduate of Bucknell University, also started as an undergraduate caller, and said her experiences were overwhelmingly positive. She loved having the opportunity to connect with alumni and hear their stories, she said, in addition to persuading them to make a donation. Watson agreed, adding that it is the wonderful interactions you remember and share later with your friends, and a caller finds no shortage of them. 

However, donations must be elicited efficiently as well as pleasantly — Mattioli and Watson hit the floor, together this time, in full fundraising mode. They circulated alertly as phone receivers clacked into place and callers’ voices rose and fell in a chorus of courteous tones. “You’re hanging up that phone harder and harder every time,” Watson quipped, as one caller finished soliciting a donation. “She’s gonna make five-thousand dollars,” rebutted Mattioli, “and it’ll be amazing.”

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