Alumni participation down, figures up

Although some Yale alumni have felt the effects of the economic recession, alumni gifts to Yale have not taken a hit.

The percentage of Yale alumni who donate to their alma mater has dropped by about eight percent over the past six years. Still, the Yale Alumni Fund raised more money last year than in any previous single year: $23.4 million, a more than $2 million increase from the year before. Inge Reichenbach, vice president for development, said participation in alumni giving is only part of the fundraising equation.

“The other very important side of the coin is that giving itself has grown very significantly,” she said.

Jack Thomas ’80, chairman of the Yale Alumni Fund, said they were able to set a record last year because alumni who still had the means to donate “stepped up” and gave more when they realized that others would not be able to contribute while the economy is down. Therefore, overall giving has increased even though the percentage of the University’s alumni who donate has declined from 41.8 percent to 33.9 percent since the 2004-2005 fiscal year, with the figure among Yale College alumni falling from 47.9 percent to 38 percent.

The decline in participation roughly coincides with the launch of Yale Tomorrow, a major fundraising campaign begun in 2006. Managing Director of the Yale Alumni Fund Lynn Andrewsen said the Yale Tomorrow campaign may be changing alumni giving patterns, since some may be opting to give one large donation to Yale Tomorrow rather than multiple smaller gifts to the Yale Alumni Fund. Like the Yale Alumni Fund, the campaign has been highly successful — by June, only five years into the six-year initiative, Yale Tomorrow had already surpassed its original goal of $3 billion.

Thomas said the psychological effects of the economic recession have had a natural depressant effect on some people’s alumni giving. But, he said, it has been extremely encouraging that total dollars donated increased last year. He added that the goal for this year is even higher than last year’s goal.

Reichenbach said that six years ago, before the beginning of the Yale Tomorrow campaign, the average annual total giving was $285 million. With the campaign, she said, that average has grown to $505 million.

She added that the serious recession of the last two years has impacted donors, in particular younger alumni, but she does not expect the drop in participation to be a permanent change.

“Our alumni have really responded incredibly generously,” she said.

Eight alumni interviewed said they thought the decline in participation had to do with the economic recession, though five out of eight said they have given every year for the past five years. Three said they had donated money to Yale during this time period, though not every year.

Besides the pinch of the economic recession, several alumni offered other reasons for the drop in participation.

Mary Greer ’78 MUS ’86 said some alumni may have thought their contributions to Yale would not make a difference. Until three years ago, she said, the endowments of all schools like Yale and Harvard were doing so well that alumni might have felt their donations would just be a “drop in the bucket.”

Jan L. Shifren ’84 said other charities might be taking donors away from Yale.

“Sometimes I wonder whether it’s more important to give to Yale, with its huge economic advantage, or to something else that really matters to you,” she said, adding that although she has given to Yale annually, she has given more generously to Doctors without Borders and Partners in Health.

The alumni interviewed said the news they hear from Yale has never discouraged them from donating.

Janet Kirby ’85 said the new residential colleges may not be popular with alumni, though she hasn’t heard anyone say they were not going to give because of the new residential colleges.

“People I talk to loved the residential college life, but they’re not all thrilled with the new residential colleges that have been proposed,” she said. “It’s hard on some alumni, because it’s not going to be the campus they knew.”

The Yale Tomorrow campaign will end June 30, 2011.

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