With locked doors, slim windows and shut gates, secret societies at Yale do their best to keep out of the public eye, though their tax information is hidden in plain sight.
Senior societies, secret societies and other exclusive social groups like the Elizabethan Club must file taxes with the Internal Revenue Service as nonprofit charitable organizations, and their financial information appears on GuideStar, an online database for nonprofits. Yale has 43 senior societies and eight junior societies as of 2015, and in fiscal year 2014, the assets of a few of these organizations numbered in the millions. Topping the list is Scroll and Key — filed under the name Kingsley Trust Association — with total assets of $10,771,828.
A list of the seven richest secret societies was first published by Business Insider on Jan. 5.
Still, according to members of various campus societies, inequality in wealth between the groups does not translate to discrepancies in the value of the society experience, nor are the societies all alike. Some groups, like St. Anthony Hall — a literary society with members ranging from sophomores to seniors — host free, public events like concerts and lecture series, and its members are not sworn to secrecy.
“St. Anthony Hall is unique in that our building is public,” said Andrew Schmidt ’18, a St. Anthony Hall member. “It may not make us better or mean we have more fun, but it definitely makes the fun we do have more visible, which affects public opinion.”
Older societies with larger assets are viewed as more prestigious, Schmidt said. Even as new societies are formed, Schmidt said he is fairly certain that older, landed societies would “always have a higher social status.” No matter what happens inside, on an immediate level the buildings imply a level of history and prestige that a landless society lacks, he added.
According to GuideStar, contributions to Scroll and Key in 2014 alone reached over $1 million. Below Scroll and Key in wealth is Wolf’s Head, which boasts assets of almost $7 million. The next three richest societies in descending order are Book and Snake, the Elizabethan Club and Skull and Bones, each with over $4 million in assets. St. Elmo, a secret society with a house on Elm Street, has assets of around $90,000. Scroll and Key’s mission statement, listed at the top of its profile on GuideStar, claims the group acts as “academic support for Yale University,” while other societies emphasize social and professional development among members.
Even if located on Yale’s campus, the societies operate very independently from the University administration. Dean of Student Engagement Burgwell Howard, who oversees student organizations — including sororities, fraternities and the cultural houses — said he knows “very little” about Yale’s societies at this time. Howard assumed his position at the beginning of this academic year.
Yale College Council President Joe English ’17 also said he is unaware of any existing contact between YCC and Yale’s societies.
“My first thought was that Dean Howard was the official or unofficial administrator, but if he isn’t, I’m not sure anyone really does oversee the societies,” English said. “As for the YCC, we have no contact or relationship with societies.”
There are 15 seniors currently in Scroll and Key.