United Way’s Skype Surprise of a Lifetime

| Dave Johnson


In the offices of United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley, it was whispered about, hoped for, tantalized—but none of us could ever see a way to do it. How could we capture the moment.

Every year, United Way gives out Marian L. Heard Scholarships to a selection of incoming college students from Boston, through the Merrimack Valley. The scholarship money is pivotal for these kids, most of whom are the first in their family to go to college. It’s a big deal and we always hear after-the-fact that the recipients go crazy when they learn they get the scholarship. (As an added benefit, MLH scholars are matched with e-coaches, community volunteers who offer guidance and encouragement through the students’ new college experience.) That was the moment.

How could we find a way to see these kids’ reactions in real-time? That was the Golden Ticket. Some ideas included conference calls and a Publisher’s Clearinghouse-like door-to-door surprise, but were quickly dismissed because of either lack of emotional heft or logistical impossibility.

Finally the solution presented itself: Skype. And that led us to our pals at Microsoft New England. After a flurry of emails, a plan crystallized: we would tell the scholarship candidates they needed to Skype us for one final round of interviews before a decision could be made. Then, we’d drop the shocker on them, that they had actually already been selected for the scholarship.

Granted, this bit of subterfuge may have been stressful for the scholars, but we were confident the payoff would be worth it. And it was. You couldn’t script this stuff any better. Through the course of the afternoon, United Way staff, set up expertly in one of the NERD Center conference rooms dialed up the students, built up the suspense then hit them with some of the best news of their young lives. Reactions varied from boisterous laughter to stunned disbelief to grateful weeping. But, we won’t spoil it for you. Take a peek at the video and see for yourself.

So big thanks to the NERD Center (and super-tech Kevin McPherson in particular) for setting up the conferences and processing the video footage. What came out of that room that day was an experience no one will forget.

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