Tresa Joseph

While the number of alumni from whom the University solicits donations continues to increase, fewer donated last year than in any year in the past two decades.

In keeping with a national trend, alumni donations to the University, and specifically Yale College, have been steadily decreasing both in total number of donors and percent participating, according to a report from the Office of Institutional Research. In 1994–95, nearly 50 percent of solicited Yale College alumni gave back to the University. But alumni participation has decreased markedly since then, bottoming out at 33.7 percent last year. At the same time, the number of solicited alumni — roughly a measure of all living graduates the University can reach — has increased steadily to more than 73,000.

Still, University administrators were not alarmed by the downward trend, saying total dollars raised by the University have dramatically increased over the past 20 years. Yale’s alumni participation remains above or on par with other Ivy League institutions, excluding Dartmouth College and Princeton University. University President Peter Salovey, as well as several alumni interviewed, said that at present, Yale must compete harder for alumni dollars given the number of philanthropic options to which graduates now have access.

“I think there are trends in society today that probably work against participation,” Salovey said. “Nonetheless, participation by new donors is very important and I would love to see that trend at Yale reverse. High rates of participation are good for the University financially and create a sense of psychological commitment by alumni to the University.”

Lynn Andrewsen, managing director of the Yale Alumni Fund, said that while Yale is supportive of alumni donating to nonprofits, the increase in the number of such organizations has led to “a lot of competition.”

Andrewsen said another explanation for the decline is that over the past seven to 10 years, the University has focused more on soliciting money from established donors rather than on expanding the size of its donor pool.

Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Joan O’Neill said that while she is working to reverse the negative trend in alumni participation, honing in on existing donor relationships has proven to be more cost-effective. One of her office’s most important responsibilities is to retain existing donors, she added.

Still, Salovey emphasized that while it is true that a greater percentage of donations can be raised from “the top of the donor pyramid,” he also places significant value on increasing total alumni participation, which, unlike the size of certain gifts, fosters a stronger alumni community.

Andrewsen said that in preparing a “game plan” for the coming year, she has developed new methods of outreach to ensure all alumni have the opportunity to give to the University.

And in an effort to halt the decline, Salovey said O’Neill and Eileen O’Connor, vice president for communications, are developing new approaches to capture alumni attention. O’Connor said her goal is to ensure that alumni feel more engaged not only with Yale happenings generally, but also with the specific areas in which they are most interested.

“A byproduct of good communication is that people give,” O’Neill said. “We’re trying to look at a more robust alumni communication strategy, particularly focusing on both the broad-based message and connecting with our most engaged volunteers. They are the people carrying messages out and back. We want to be communicating with them as much as possible.”

Andrewsen said that other than Princeton and Dartmouth, which reported alumni participation rates of more than 40 percent last year, Yale is “neck-and-neck” with the rest of the Ivy League and actually tends to perform better than the University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University, for example.

A member of the Alumni Affairs and Development division, who requested anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic, suggested the possibility of a “David Swensen effect”: as returns from Yale’s endowment reach historic highs, alumni fundraising may have taken a back seat to other institutional priorities. Swensen, Yale’s chief investment officer, has brought the University endowment from just over $1 billion in 1985 to a staggering $25.6 billion.

“Perhaps our whole machinery for raising money adjusted itself to the fact that our endowment just beat the crap out of everybody else’s,” the source said.

But Salovey disagreed, hypothesizing that a “David Swensen effect” has only helped the University. Because of Swensen’s financial acumen, Salovey said, alumni feel confident that their gifts will be well-managed and are more likely to donate as a result.

Alumni interviewed offered a variety of explanations for the decrease in participation, with several echoing Salovey’s point about the abundance of nonprofit organizations to which alumni can donate.

Alison Brody ’95, who serves on the Board of Governors of the Association of Yale Alumni, said the decline in donations in no way reflects a lack of love for Yale, but that alumni feel there are worthier causes for their money.

“What I hear from my peers in their 40s is that writing a check to a local nonprofit feels more impactful than writing the same check to an entity with a $25 billion endowment,” she said. Some alumni don’t understand the restrictions on endowment spending and that a donation directed to financial aid, for instance, is meaningful and not a drop in the ocean.”

Both political science lecturer Jim Sleeper ’69 and Scott Williamson ’80 said that the increasingly international makeup of the student body may have negatively impacted alumni donations. Sleeper said undergraduates may now share fewer of the cultural assumptions, practices and convictions that once generated bonding among Yale students, which would weaken their connection to the University itself.

However, Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02, a history professor who teaches a course on the University’s history, said alumni ties to Yale are as strong as ever, despite the dropping participation rate. He said that his experience speaking at various Yale Club events has shown him that alumni remain highly enthusiastic about Yale.

Williamson, a former member of the AYA Board of Governors, said that enhanced alumni relationships are positively correlated with alumni willingness to give.

“AYA is in the friend-making business, and the wallet follows,” Williamson said.

Salovey said he would personally be interested in measuring alumni participation in ways that account for engagement beyond financial support — including alumni interviewers, community members who advise students and graduates who serve on various advisory committees.

Yale has not held a major fundraising campaign since the Yale Tomorrow campaign ended in June 2011, after raising $3.881 billion for the University.