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Surviving telethon: The unglamorous side of Cambridge wealth

Not even Cambridge is above a good marketing call


Some students work during interviews, some do open days, and some do summer schools. However, the art of the telephone fundraising campaign is tried and tested, offering students the chance to network with alumni and maintain their relationship with college.

When you think of alumni donations, I’m sure it evokes an image of a wealthy alumnus bestowing ridiculous amounts of money upon their former college, and probably getting an eponymous court or building in return. What you don’t know, however, is that a fair amount of this cash comes from broke undergrads asking 22-year-olds for money over the phone.

Having burnt my bridges with my sixth form hospitality job after A-Levels, when the email came through promoting my college’s telephone campaign, I stared at it wide-eyed. Getting to stay in college for another two weeks? Free food and snacks? Paid training, light hours and Fridays off? Why weren’t people falling over themselves to do this? The money offered was enough to cover a holiday I had planned, various May week shenanigans, and (as I impulsively decided in the middle of exam-term) apparently a Beyoncé ticket. I needed the money and didn’t fancy being at home that much, so it seemed like an amazing deal.

Remember how Buzzfeed used to be seen as some idyllic workplace because they had beanbags and free snacks, before the Why I Left Buzzfeed videos started rolling in? Or perhaps did you ever get a weekend job a bit too easily which resulted in some important character building? There are lessons to be learnt from this – if it’s too good to be true then it probably is, and if you get hired on the spot you are in for some BS.

Term ends, everyone leaves, but I stay. The next day I’m up at 9am sharp for my training, and we have a quick crash course on how our college finances work. As far as colleges go, we’re meant to be on the better end of things financially. But Covid has meant we’ve not been making as much from conferences as we once did, and it seems that we’ve been haemorrhaging money to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds per year. There are also access initiatives and planned renovations we need to find the money for, as well as hardship funds and bursaries for students in need.

The way was explained to us made it seem as though college was in urgent need, and if we underlings didn’t do a good enough job college would go under and it would be all our fault. As someone who’s benefitted from college funds before, I obviously see a need for fundraising and took this very, very seriously. Horror stories of Lucy Cav’s finances flashed through my brain.

Cambridge Colleges, for the main part, have plenty of side hustles when it comes to raising money. Whether it be renting out gifted land, selling their souls to conference guests, or straight up owning the O2 arena, generating money is no issue at all. As I have since discovered, realistically in the distant future, we’ll probably sell a load of land we own to some gentrifiers and be able to eat off of that for the rest of eternity. They kept that very quiet.

The software would present us with an alumnus’ name and number, and we’d chit chat about their life at college and trajectories, before going in with a plea for a specific amount. For what it’s worth, the rare fruitful conversation was something I genuinely enjoyed. I’d had conversations with the nephew of a former college master, bonded with another over a niche lower league football trophy, spoke to an MP and even someone who’d attended in the 50s. This however was the minority of calls, with 90 per cent of rings either going unanswered, or mysteriously cutting out after we’d introduced ourselves.

Perhaps my most shameful moment was pretending to be sympathetic to a Covid denier, who called me refreshing before agreeing to increase the amount he was already donating. Why the hell would I do that, you might ask? At the start of each calling session, we’d get told how much we raised the session previously and how much worse we were doing compared to the year before. We’d get given notes with individual stats and targets which put all of us on edge about our failures. We all had to get increasingly more manipulative and creative as the campaign went on, which was awful as many of these conversations were enjoyable, but it was all an act before we went in for the kill. By the final days us callers were referring to the calling room as “the sweatshop” – atmosphere at mealtimes was dire, with our social batteries and faith in humanity being completely drained.

In the middle of a cost of living crisis, with Covid and a difficult job market delaying the start of many careers, it felt incredibly tone deaf when people who had graduated in 2022 came up in the algorithm. Many of them were living at home, still trying to find their feet, yet we were still encouraged to offer them the pamphlet about putting college in their will. I couldn’t tell which felt worse – asking fresh grads with uncertain futures to give money to an institution worth millions, or asking pensioners living paycheck to paycheck to consider giving us their money after they die. There were several spouses of alumni who told us that they were very frail and felt our calling wasn’t appropriate, and I found it hard to shake off the predatory feeling of engaging the old and lonely about their lives before asking for their money. One man thanked me for calling, saying he really needed the chat, and while feeling satisfied I felt hollow. You’re meant to be a lifelong member of your college, but no matter the wisdom and stories of these alumni, it felt like the only thing that mattered was if there were card details to type down or not.

I often think about whether I’d donate to college if I was on the other side of the line. Between what former generosity has done for my life chances –  and worker solidarity – I think I would. However, I hadn’t realised the personal cost of participating in a campaign like this. I am now acutely aware that college is only trying to build us up now so we can pay it off later. There may come a day, when I’m widowed and broke, when a young student eagerly entertains me about my life and college days, only to end the call and roll their eyes when I’m not in a financial position to get their supervisor off their back. In the eyes of the development office, the financial support allowing me to wholly participate in Cambridge life is making me a net negative, and it is my duty to earn it back.

Before starting the telethon, everyone I’d spoken to who had done it said they’d recommend it for the experience and money but would never do it again, and I completely agree. The people it had got me in contact with, and the experiences it funded were completely worth it, and perhaps under different conditions it could have been a great time. At the end of the day, selling your soul to a well-paying tedious job is kinda what this place is all about, isn’t it?

The University of Cambridge has been contacted for comment.