Judging by the way Mark Dollhopf ’77 greets visitors in his new office in the Rose Alumni Hall on York Street, one would think he had been working there for years.
Upon entering his office, the new executive director of the Association of Yale Alumni moves his arms frenetically and gestures to the bookshelves — stocked with current bestsellers and Franklin Covey self-help books.
“This whole place used to be the DKE house,” he says, with a hearty laugh. “My office probably used to be a bar. George Bush was probably getting inebriated in this very room.”
As Dollhopf discusses his feelings about Yale, his hopes for the coming year, and the challenges of working with college alumni, his enthusiasm for the job is apparent.
Dollhopf, who took over the position in July, said he regards the AYA directorship as less of an occupation than a way to express his gratitude for a place that set him on his career track.
“I love Yale, and this is my way to give back,” he said. “I did not come from an Ivy League family. My parents were immigrants. Yale was huge — a great experience. This is my opportunity to give back, to change lives.”
After graduating from Yale with a degree in religious studies, Dollhopf went to work in the Development Office, a job which he said reminded him of the work he had done during his undergraduate years as the business manager of the Whiffenpoofs. He went on to pursue a career in nonprofit work, and in 1993, he founded Janus Development, a firm that counsels nonprofits on a wide range of issues.
“If I could influence Yale students, I would encourage them to get involved in nonprofits,” he said. “It’s not all about the money.”
Dollhopf looks at the Yale alumni constituency in the way he might view a nonprofit organization — as individuals in need of connection.
“Alumni are passionate about this place,” he said. “Like any family, the question is how do you balance the needs of the different family members. The AYA is all about keeping the family together.”
Yale President Richard Levin said he thinks Dollhopf’s background in nonprofit work — much of which involved consulting for colleges and universities — makes him a good fit for a job coordinating alumni affairs.
“Dollhopf is uniquely well prepared for his new position,” he said. “He has built a career around advising colleges and universities on alumni affairs.”
Yale Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeff Brenzel ’75, who served as AYA executive director for eight years before assuming his current post last fall, said he has advised Dollhopf to be patient in his attempts to generate consensus among alumni.
“Alumni are as diverse in their backgrounds and perspectives as students, and like students they have many very strong feelings about Yale,” Brenzel said. “The good side of this is how many alumni make an extraordinary commitment to continual engagement with Yale, through a wide array of activities. The challenging side is that there are so many ideas and possibilities that the [AYA] might pursue, that setting priorities and building a consensus around those priorities is a compelling task.”
Conner Fay ’51, vice president of the Yale Alumni Chorus, said he believes Dollhopf’s dedication will be a significant asset in his new position.
“He is a highly creative person,” Fay said. “He’s driven by an extraordinary vision for what he wants to accomplish, one of these rare people who has vision and then sees it through. … He has a vision of how to have respect for the University’s affiliation with alumni.”
Dollhopf said he is concerned that many alums view their ties to Yale with a “club mentality,” believing that they should receive benefits due to their status as Yale alums.
“It’s not what you get as alumni, but what you give,” Dollhopf said.
The alumni association is embarking on a year-long strategic planning effort, which Dollhopf said will help formulate a vision for the AYA and its long-term goals. Because the AYA is not involved in soliciting money from alumni, it is focused on motivating people to “donate” their time or talent, he said.
Dollhopf said he hopes to help foster greater ties between alumni and the University by developing a greater number of shared-interest groups, or, as he calls them, “SIGs.” In 1997, Dollhopf founded the Yale Alumni Chorus — the SIG archetype — which has attracted more than 1,000 alumni and facilitates many international singing tours.
“Alumni are choosing to involve themselves in new ways,” Dollhopf said. “We’d ideally like to become an enabling platform, to allow alumni who have a certain shared interest to come back and be a part of that now.”
Dollhopf said the alumni chorus has given alumni the chance to re-connect with the University.
“I’ve seen grown men crying after [alumni chorus] performances,” he said. “[Whether] it is music, politics, athletics, entrepreneurism, social causes, personal identity, career networking or intellectual and educational endeavors, alumni are seeking new ways to connect to one another and to Yale, not so much around what they might have done at Yale, but around what they are interested in doing now.”
Dollhopf said he will spend the first year of his new job researching alumni programs at Yale’s peer institutions, forging discussions with Yale students and community members, and meeting with the Board of Governors.
Levin said he believes Dollhopf’s greatest challenge will be to connect recent Yale alumni to the University.
“The traditional Yale Club format in major cities continues to be successful, but many younger alumni prefer other forms of connecting with Yale, such as Internet services and involving with affinity groups composed of graduates with like interests,” Levin said.
When asked why he believes alumni maintain emotional connections to their alma mater decades after they have left Yale, Dollhopf takes a deep breath and smiles. When he answers, one gets the sense he is not just speaking from the point of view of a new executive director with the challenge of placating an ever-growing alumni base, but rather from that of an Eli, a Bulldog, a Yalie.
“After you leave Yale and after you graduate, the initials become a part of you,” Dollhopf said. “The initials are a part of you.”