Sometimes about connections

Sometimes about connections

Noah Indianer, 8, talks to a donor on the phone. (Chronicle photos by Sam Oshlag)
Noah Indianer, 8, talks to a donor on the phone. (Chronicle photos by Sam Oshlag)

(Editor’s note: The Chronicle sent correspondent Ilana Yergin to this year’s Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh FundFest to write a first-person account of what it’s like to solicit money for Jewish charities over the phone.)

This year’s FundFest started off like many of the previous Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s annual fundraising drives: Cold and snowy.

“Another FundFest, another snow storm,” joked one volunteer as she greeted an old friend Sunday morning, Jan. 26, in the Federation’s Oakland offices.

As I sat and familiarized myself with the pledge card and phone script, some two dozen people trickled into the room and the scene replayed itself over and over. FundFest, it seems, is a reunion of sorts for these veteran volunteers.

“Most of these people here do come year after year, but this is also a great opportunity for us to engage new volunteers,” said Sally Stein, the manager of corporate and government relations for the Federation.

I’m one of the few new volunteers at the first morning phone bank session. At first, the information seems daunting. The pledge card contains a significant amount of information to help the callers reach out to each potential donor, going far beyond a simple name and phone number. The card is new this year, but one helpful tidbit of data that is back is the inclusion of the potential donor’s most recent donation amounts and dates. That way, when the donor asks: “Well, what did I donate last time,” the caller has the answer right in front of them.

After a brief introduction from Evan Indianer, the marketing chair, most of the group is ready to jump in and make calls. Stacks of pledge cards are passed out and the phoning starts. Still a little unsure of what I’m doing, I take Indianer, who is a Chronicle trustee, up on his offer for some additional training. We go into a quieter room and he walks me through the paperwork more closely and gives me some pointers on making the calls.

As a seasoned phone bank caller (he’s been volunteering since he was a teenager) Indianer has two helpful pieces of advice for me. First, smile. Always smile when you’re on the phone soliciting a donation. The person at the other end will hear your smile.

Second, don’t be nervous about making the calls.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” Indianer asks. “They’ll say no and hang up.”

With that, we head back out to the main room and take our seats. I’m sitting next to Indianer and his son, Noah, 8. Noah’s been an annual donor since he was born, and a volunteer at FundFest for the past three years. Last year, he was a runner, meaning he collected pledge cards and passed out raffle tickets.

Noah starts the day by calling his older brother Adam, who goes to college at Indiana University. Adam doesn’t answer, but Noah is confident he’ll call back and pledge later.

I have a rocky start, as well. My first stack of pledge cards is of all young adults who seem to be having a sleepy Sunday morning. It takes me about an hour to get my first pledge of $40; mostly because all but a few of my calls went unanswered. The other volunteers seem to be having much better luck. I keep a smile on my face and bring in a few more donations before the end of my shift, totaling my donation collection to $168. Not much of the 2014 goal of $13.5 million dollars.

I can see why people enjoy volunteering here year after year. The staff is excited, the volunteers are energetic and the overall atmosphere is one of pride. The money being raised helps fund many of the valuable Jewish organizations in Pittsburgh throughout the year. The Agency for Jewish Learning, the Jewish Association on Aging, and Jewish Family & Children’s Service are just a few of the beneficiaries.

FundFest lasts just shy of one week, and the Federation hopes it will net $250,000, or 5.5 percent, of the overall goal for the year.

Bradley Stamm, campaign associate for the Federation, says that FundFest looks like it’s off to a good start, and with 250 volunteers signed up to help throughout the week, he hopes they’ll meet the goal.

Occasionally, while making the calls, rather than receiving a donation, the caller is able to have a more direct impact.

“We’ve called folks who might need help, they might need support from Jewish Family & Children’s Service or from the Food Pantry, and sometimes with this first phone call has been a way to direct people to the services they need,” said Stein. “Sometimes it’s not about raising the dollars, it’s about making connections and getting people help.”

(Ilana Yergin can be reached at