When the Association of Yale Alumni was founded in 1972, Yale’s alumni body looked very different than it does now: nearly all members were white and had graduated from Yale in all-male classes. This group, while not the ideal admissions haul of today, tended to give back to the University in much higher numbers than current graduates do.
“There was a supposition that there were things that you did,” Acting AYA Executive Director Jenny Chavira ’89 said. “And you did them because you did them.”
Today, Yale’s young alumni are more diverse than ever before, but from the point of view of the Office of Development, potentially also less engaged than ever before. Alumni participation rates in giving hit an all-time low of 33.7 percent this year after dropping 25.61 percent in the last decade — the biggest fall in the Ivy League. And this decrease has primarily been concentrated among the younger classes: In the past 10 years, there has been an 11 percent increase in the number of alumni solicited, but a 26 percent decrease in participation.
But donations only tell half the story of alumni engagement. In order to examine how alumni relationships with Yale have changed over time, it is necessary to consider all the ways in which alumni can engage, and how robust Yale’s alumni departments are compared with decades ago. Given a changing technological landscape and shifting attitudes of young alumni, Yale’s alumni outreach bodies have been forced to change their strategies to engage as many alumni with their alma mater as they can.
“Seventy-five years ago, you just communicated a different message and the engagement was probably less complicated,” Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Joan O’Neill said. “[Now], we need to find many more diverse ways to engage [alumni] with Yale, and keep Yale relevant in their lives.”
As Yale as an institution changes, its traditional alumni engagement bodies have been forced to change too.
Over the past several years, structural changes have uprooted the AYA, the primary channel of communication between Yale and its graduates. With former Vice President for Strategic and Global Initiatives Linda Lorimer’s departure last spring, Yale’s two main alumni branches — the AYA and the Office of Development — have moved to report under a single administrator, O’Neill. Previously, these organizations were part of separate divisions, reflecting the notion that the AYA solicits alumni “time and talent, not treasure,” as AYA Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives Steve Blum ’74 put it.
Blum acknowledged that having solicitation and alumni activities under the same division could blur the lines between the mission of each individual body.
“We worry about that,” Blum said of the administrative shuffle. “We do worry that the message could get in the way of the effectiveness of what we do.”
Still, both Blum and O’Neill conceded that development and other forms of alumni involvement are naturally linked, as people who are more engaged with Yale are more likely to give at higher rates and to feel good about their giving.
The administration has also been slow to fill the leadership gap created by the departure of Mark Dollhopf ’77, who served as executive director of the AYA since 2006. A search for a new executive director has been ongoing since last spring, and Michael Madison ’83, who chairs the search committee, said in February that the search is not governed by any specific timetable and that the AYA will wait to find the right person for the job. Nearly a year later, that person has still not been found.
Furthermore, unable to maintain financial stability in the absence of adequate revenue, the Yale Alumni Magazine became a University department in July 2015.
Amidst all this change, the AYA has been working to rebrand itself in a light favorable to young alumni. Blum described a renaissance of programs catering to alumni in recent years, such as the Yale Alumni Service Corps, the Yale Global Alumni Leadership Exchange and the Yale Day of Service. The latter program is one of the best examples of an initiative that has gone from its infancy to one of the University’s most prominent alumni events over the course of a few years, especially for recent graduates. The Yale Day of Service is held at locations around the world and is coordinated by a different group of alumni for each service site. The first Yale Day of Service was held in 2009, and it has maintained an attendance of over 4,000 participants for the past two years. In the past 10 years, the AYA has also created Careers, Life and Yale and Students and Alumni of Yale.
One of the reasons these programs work so well, Chavira said, is that they give alumni the chance to take control of an initiative for a relatively short period of time, and then be done with it. She said this attitude is different from that of older alumni, who might seek more permanent, established positions. Blum also spoke to this new entrepreneurial spirit among younger alumni seeking to make a meaningful, hands-on contribution to a program that matters to them.
Indeed, young alumni are attracted to these events in high numbers: 34 percent of the participants in last year’s Yale Day of Service in May had graduated in 2000 or later.
Blum said empowering alums by allowing them to take charge of AYA-generated initiatives is one of the ways in which the organization can ensure sustained engagement with Yale. This mentality seems to carry over into the development world as well, where young alumni are more likely to want to be involved in the process of where their donations are going, according to O’Neill.
“All of us like to know where our money is going and that it’s making a difference,” said Elizabeth Knuppel, president of Skystone Partners, a higher education fundraising consulting firm. “It is more exaggerated in the younger generation.”
Administrators spoke to the importance of “meeting alumni where they are” and remaining in touch with their needs and wants. In order to address the enormous number of nonprofit organizations to which Yale alumni can donate, O’Neill said it is important to illustrate exactly how a specific contribution can help support causes important to alumni. For example, she said, if alumni are concerned about the environment, the Office of Development would demonstrate how that contribution can support research in that particular field.
As the Office of Development competes for donations, the AYA increasingly finds itself competing for alumni time and attention. Social media services like Facebook make it unnecessary for alumni to read class notes — updates on classmates’ lives printed bimonthly in the Alumni Magazine — or attend reunions to see which of their classmates have gotten married, had children or passed away. LinkedIn allows graduates to circumvent traditional networking events — one of the AYA’s most common events — to find Yale alumni working in relevant fields near them. At the very least, these phenomena make it easier for people to retreat into their own respective circles, rather than engaging with the class as a whole.
Tony Lavely ’64, class secretary for the class of 1964, said class notes for younger alumni classes are typically far less thorough than those for the older classes. He said this confuses him, since social media fosters connectivity among his class that would have been more difficult without it.
“It puzzles me that for the classes that are most inclined to use social media, it doesn’t seem to translate,” Lavely said. “It just seems like in those late pages of the magazine, the columns get pretty skinny.”
Still, in some ways social media has made it easier for Yale to communicate with and engage its alumni in events and new initiatives. The inexpensiveness of email means that AYA officers can email more frequently for a lower cost. Reunion data shows that attendance among every age group has increased over the past 20 years, with a higher number of young alumni attending their fifth reunions now than ever before.
Tommy Rosenkranz ’17, class secretary for the class of 2017, saw social media not as a factor that would render alumni associations obsolete, but as a tool that can be used to broaden their reach.
“Platforms such as LinkedIn and Facebook can be used as powerful tools to promote consistent, targeted engagement between graduates and the Yale alumni networks,” he said. “As long as class representatives incorporate new forms of social media into their long-term engagement strategies, they will benefit from their scope and precision.”
When Chavira graduated from Yale in 1989, she did something almost unheard of in her time: She went to work at Yale.
“Literally, people could not compute that somebody was still in New Haven,” Chavira said. “The idea that somebody could actually still be here and working here, living in New Haven, having a career — it just didn’t occur to them.”
She said it took around 10 years for her to stop having interactions with fellow alumni in which they were surprised that she was working at Yale.
That perception seems to have been completely flipped around in the wake of a new way in which alumni engage with the University. Now, Yale is consistently one of the top employers for each graduating class, beginning in 2013 when the Office of Career Strategy began collecting data. Last year, 50 recent graduates went to work at Yale after graduation, with the majority in research positions. However, the Office of Undergraduate Admissions, the Yale College Dean’s Office and the Office of Development all hire recent graduates to work in administrative positions at Yale immediately after graduation. One of the most prominent programs in this respect is the Woodbridge Fellowship, which typically brings in between three and 10 graduates per year to work in Yale departments. The fellowship was founded in 2005 by former President Richard Levin.
Alumni interviews, too, are a growing field in which alumni can become involved with Yale. This year’s number of alumni interviews set a record, with 20,228 administered to prospective students. The Alumni Schools Committee, which coordinates the interviews with the Admissions Office, is one of Yale’s most robust alumni associations, with 6,500 active volunteers.
Laura Farwell ’85, an ASC director for the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, said that her ASC involvement has made her feel more connected to Yale than anything else since graduation. But it remains uncertain as to whether one of type of engagement — financial or otherwise — truly replaces the other. Administrators interviewed generally believed that both are part of meaningful engagement, rather than one being supplemental to the other. Farwell agreed.
“To me, giving time versus giving financially as different pieces of the same pie,” Farwell said, “not one as a substitute for the other but rather one as possibly easier or more desirable than the other depending on where one is in life.”