Before James Kempner ’79 and Cynthia Kempner ’79 married, they did not only fall in love with each other. They fell in love with Yale.
Housed in residential colleges just a block apart — Davenport and Jonathan Edwards, respectively — and both athletes on Yale varsity teams, they developed an affection for their college experience. And today, they want to give back.
From their home in Greenwich, Conn., not far from New Haven, James Kempner had trouble containing his enthusiasm.
“In my family, Yale goes back to my dad’s generation — my brother also went to Yale — and so I have a great affinity for the school, and what it meant to me,” he said. “Now we have a son who is there.”
The financial contributions made by the Kempners to their alma mater were born of motivations similar to those of thousands of Yale graduates. In the last year, the University received more than 100 donations from each class since 1940, in addition to continued endowments from some 19th-century graduates. Vice President for Development Inge Reichenbach said alumni who donate are often motivated by the idea of doing good for the University.
“They want to help make sure that Yale continues to be the kind of place that they experienced, and they appreciate it and they want to preserve it and help make it even better,” Reichenbach said.
In fact, the enthusiasm is so strong that some families said the efforts of Yale’s Development Office, the office in charge of fund raising and soliciting gifts, were largely unnecessary in encouraging them to donate.
“I can’t say their efforts really motivated me,” Cheryl Brod ’85 said. “Starting a family tradition did.”
But in October, The New York Times published a fiery column by Ben Stein LAW ’70 that questioned why one should donate to a university with the second largest endowment in the world, rather than to a charitable cause that is struggling to pay its bills due to limited funding.
“I love Yale, [but] why bother giving to it?” Stein asked in the piece. “Why not give where it makes a difference?”
Stein later apologized and clarified his comments. And out of nearly two dozen Yale alumni, many said Stein’s point was misguided. Although specific reasons for donating varied, most said that at the heart of their desires to give were the incredibly fulfilling experiences they had at Yale.
This Yale camaraderie has put the University’s Development Office in a privileged position. Many donors said that when Development Officers solicit donations, they are always gentle in their requests and assure donors that the purpose of the donation is to reconnect to the Yale community, rather than to provide sorely needed funding. In response, contributing alumni said they think back to fond residential college experiences, Yale Political Union debates and secret society memberships, close relationships with professors and college masters, and the many intimate friendships developed in cafeterias and common rooms.
The money trail
Regardless of their motivation for donating, Yale alumni must choose between restricted donations — perhaps to their residential college or a particular program or department they were fond of — or general contributions to the Yale fund.
James Kempner said his decision to donate to specific athletic teams was made due to his and his wife’s experiences playing squash and soccer. The Kempners gave at least $25,000 last year — placing them in the highest donor bracket — according to the Yale Office of Development Web site. Other alumni who have made extraordinarily large donations said they often engage in extensive conversations with University officials before making their decision in order to find a cause they value over others.
Reichenbach said alumni events, such as reunions, are a good way to keep alumni involved and to help them find a good outlet for their donations.
“You bring [alumni] back and you show them what life at Yale today is about,” she said. “You expose them to what the faculty is teaching. When donors meet students, they are very proud that the students today are so accomplished and do so many things. [They are] exposed to that and have an opportunity to interact with people that represent the campus and influence where the campus is going.”
But not all alumni said they are convinced by the Development Office’s plugs for donating to Yale.
Abigail Disney ’82 said she was not satisfied by the office’s advice as to where to direct her money, but after speaking with Gus Speth, the dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental, she found a home for her restricted donation of more than $25,000.
“I contacted the Development Office for some thoughts on where my money would be useful, and I wasn’t quite sure that they really understood what I was looking for,” Disney said. “So I finally settled on the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies … It was really a question of being a good member of my community, and because I’m grateful to Yale for being a great part of my growing-up experience.”
Noah Kazis ’09, a member of the Undergraduate Organizing Committee, said donors must always be aware where they direct their funds, since he said Yale is sometimes unwilling to allocate funds for undergraduate causes like financial aid.
“Yale is a very, very big institution, and so you can be giving money to a lot of things,” he said. “If I were to donate money to Yale, I would earmark it.”
Robert Rosenkranz ’62, whose contributions included funding for the Rosenkranz Writer-in-Residence program and funding for 20 new science and math courses for undergraduates, said his donations were prompted by a desire to give back. But instead of simply offering an unrestricted donation, he said he listened to University demands and sensed a need for more quantitative courses.
“My parents were not in a position to make any meaningful contribution, and Yale’s generosity then prompted mine,” he said. “Realistically, there is no way an alumnus can alter Yale’s priorities. But one can be a careful listener, and if things Yale wants coincide with his own predilections, it is possible to be a catalyst for ideas or initiatives that might not otherwise come to fruition.”
In the 1970s, William F. Buckley, Jr. ’50, former chairman of the Yale Daily News, founder of the Party of the Right and member of Skull and Bones, argued for more admissions preference to legacies of families that had donated to their alma mater in any significant capacity. Since his son Christopher Buckley graduated from Yale in 1975, his views have not changed. He said he thinks that if the applicant is a child of an alum and can do the work, legacies should be admitted.
“Those who spend a lot, financially and in other ways, are correctly, in my judgment, to be thought of as people with potential Yale legacies,” William Buckley said.
Reichenbach said she also thinks legacy status is a reason people stay involved with Yale.
“I think that’s a strong motivator,” she said. “When people leave after four years, more retain a lifelong connection with Yale.”
But other alumni said they donate to Yale not to achieve a certain result, but simply in order to honor friends and family who treasured their time at Yale.
William Bray III ’74 said the strong sense of tradition that came out of his Yale experience translated into a desire to memorialize his father, William Bray Jr. ’50. The Brays set up an undergraduate music fund that they donate to each year, to which any undergraduate musician can apply for a grant.
Another group of alumni recently raised $20,000 in order to honor their friend who died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
“Yale was where we met when all of our friends got together,” said Alexander Setness ’00, who helped establish the fund. “It’s the one thing that connects all of us.”
Many alumni said the Development Office’s Class Agent letter-writing program, which builds upon such Yale friendship bonds, helped to inspire their donations. The program calls on particularly active members of the class to solicit donations from other alumni.
“We have friends who ask us to give money, and we want to do it simply because they are friends of ours,” Elizabeth Thompson ’89 said.
Like many alums, Elizabeth Pressman ’00 said she donates to the general Yale fund. But she said she will also donate restricted funds to the History Department and to Saybrook College. Pressman said she thinks she will not become a millionaire, but will always donate to Yale.
“I’m a high-school teacher, so I’m never going to be someone who can give a building or who can pay for the renovation of a residential college,” she said. “The point isn’t the monetary amount. The point is the participation of alums, and alums showing they care enough about the school, in recognition of their own experiences.”
Pressman said she donates to the Yale institutions that left an imprint, but does not leave any instructions for how her money must be used.
“My Yale experience is why I donate, and the Development Office just does a good job reminding me of the fact that the money I do give goes to making that experience possible for someone else,” she said. “I have faith for the University to use my money in ways that it needs to be used.”
Nevertheless, some still agree with Stein that wealthy Yale donors would better benefit society if they were to direct their money elsewhere, especially in the case of general donations.
“It depends on whether you know where exactly your money is going,” Tamar Kreps ’09 said. “But there are people who need the money much more than we do.”
But Bray said she thinks Stein’s contention is “ridiculous,” noting that the difference between alumni sentiment at Yale and some of its sister institutions, including the University of Pennsylvania, his wife’s alma mater, is clear.
“Yale works hard to keep alumni in the loop, feeling a part of Yale,” he said. “[The University of Pennsylvania] doesn’t work as hard on that. The impression is, at Penn, that you’ve graduated, and so you’re less important than the things we’re dealing with on campus.”
Bray said this strategy is intrinsically tied to alumni nostalgia for the Yale experience.
“The issue is less of donating because Yale desperately needs the money,” Bray said. “In Yale’s case, it’s a sense of wanting to give back to the school, appreciation for how wonderful the experience was, and wanting to make sure that the experience stays just as wonderful now and for those who are there 20 years from now.”
But Jason Pare ’07, who said he would likely only donate after graduating to the organizations he enjoyed, such as club wrestling, rejects the idea that in order to be an ideal ex-Yalie, one must donate to the Eli cause.
“Especially since there is a such an economic gradient … it should be a personal decision, and never expected,” he said.
But Reichenbach said that for many alumni, donating to Yale is an important personal decision.
“They feel a sense of obligation to Yale so that other students similar to them have the same benefits,” she said. “It’s almost giving from one generation to the next.”