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March 16, 2006

Making Pitt work: Telemarketer Rich Gordon

Few people would put a conversation with a phone solicitor at the top of their list of pleasant pastimes, but Pitt Telefund representative Rich Gordon aims to change that.

A 20-year veteran fundraiser, Gordon has been at Pitt since 1989. Prior to his arrival here, he worked for the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Carnegie Museum. Soft spoken, with a relaxed manner and a keen interest in good conversation, Gordon’s days are spent asking alumni to support the University.

Each day, Pitt Telefund representatives dial an average of 200 calls from a list of contacts they receive at the start of their day. Those tries typically generate 25 or 30 conversations leading to decisions to either give, pledge or refuse to donate, Gordon said. Contacts include current donors, non-donors and those who have donated in the past but who are not current donors.

At an average of 200 tries a day, a conservative estimate adds up to some 800,000 calls dialed over Gordon’s 16-year career at Pitt. Based on the number of people he’s spoken with, “I should be pretty well-known around Pittsburgh,” he said with a laugh. And, while his name may not be a household word, he makes enough of an impression that some donors say they remember him from prior years’ calls.

Out of about 50 Telefund staffers, he’s the most successful, typically raising over $100,000 annually. This year has been particularly outstanding for Gordon: He’s raised more than $200,000 in donations since July. At that pace, he could reach $300,000 by the end of the fiscal year in June. To put those numbers into perspective: Telefund representatives are expected to raise approximately $72,000 per year, Telefund coordinator Maureen McNulty said.

She adds it’s very unusual for someone to perennially be at the top, consistently bringing in donations totaling in the six figures.

While Gordon has done his share in helping the University meet its decade-long $1 billion capital campaign goal, he’s never brought in a single huge gift. The largest donation he’s received was $3,000, with many more in the $1,000 range.

While many would consider his job stressful or perhaps even unappealing, Gordon enjoys it, saying he relishes the chance to speak with people who have Pitt connections and enjoys “just having a good conversation with somebody.”

The 64-year-old Wilkins Township resident didn’t set out to become a fundraiser. He earned a business degree in accounting at Duquesne University and worked as an accountant and systems analyst before being laid off from his systems analyst job in 1980.

“I thought I would do part-time work while I looked for another job,” he said. A fan of the arts, he was lured into the symphony fundraising job with the employee benefit of free concert tickets.

“I thought, ‘This would be an interesting job while I’m looking for other work.’” He’s worked in fundraising ever since.

To prepare for fundraising calls, Gordon and his co-workers draw from staff meetings and computer information screens for facts about the University. Gordon said he also stays informed about what’s happening at Pitt by reading University publications and Pitt-related stories in the news media.

Conversations with donors, which can last from 5 to 20 minutes or more, can be wide-ranging, an aspect of the work that Gordon enjoys.

Gordon credits his professional manner and ability to develop rapport with potential donors for a good part of his success. “With all the calls people receive, I believe it’s very important to be very careful when you talk to people so we don’t come across as arm-twisters,” he said. His natural conversation is easygoing but businesslike with an understated assertiveness that he says brings results.

“I have a strong belief in the University and a respect for the people who work here,” he said. “People will donate because they recognize the educational experience it provided has been valuable to them.”

A native Pittsburgher, he has a knack for finding connections and common ground with the people he calls.

His prior work in business and manufacturing has given him a wealth of professional experience to draw on in conversations with alumni. He’s also traveled extensively, giving him familiarity with many of the towns or regions he calls, another advantage when it comes to making small talk.

He also possesses an excellent memory for detail, which helps him quickly hone in on connections that make good conversation starters. One prospect he phoned was a doctor in New England. “I’d bought an insurance policy from his father….His uncle was one of my dad’s friends.”

With another, when he learned the donor’s street address, he realized he’d known the former residents of the giver’s Squirrel Hill home. With another alumnus, he’d known the man’s father and his uncle was a fraternity brother.

The thing that works best is our family connections,” he said. “I like bringing a surprise to some people that I know something about their family.”

Other “small-world” experiences of Gordon’s are serendipitous. Not recalling exactly how the conversation turned to football, Gordon got chatting with a dentist about a long-ago football game he’d attended and filmed. It turned out the dentist had played in that same game. After a pleasant conversation, the man donated $1,000.

Of all the calls he makes, Gordon enjoys speaking with professional people most, he said. One of his frustrations is that doctors and other medical professionals often are difficult to reach, although he can program a callback for evening hours if he fails to connect with a particularly promising prospect. (As a permanent part-timer, he works five 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. days, plus three evenings from 5:15 to 9:15 each week.)

While Gordon has his share of enjoyable conversations with donors, not everyone is happy to hear from him. He said he feels disrespected when donors don’t want to speak to him, but want him to send information in the mail. “They probably get calls from so many organizations, they already have established an image of the person who makes the call and it’s not good. But they haven’t talked to me. It’s not fair to me because it doesn’t give me a chance.”

And, while some harbor negative preconceived notions about telephone fundraisers, others have a beef with the University and are ready to tell him about it.

“Some people are upset, say their kids didn’t get accepted,” or perhaps they have another problem with the University, he said. He deftly defuses the negatives by empathizing, then suggesting the caller solve the difficulty directly by contacting the proper people who can help.

“I pull out the staff directory and find someone,” he said. “I feel that’s the best I can do.”

Still, the positives far outweigh the negatives and Gordon said he has no plans to retire. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself,” he said.

“I really do believe in the University. I feel like I’m working for a good cause.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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