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As large Yale venues like the Yale Bowl, Reese Stadium and Ingalls Rink stand empty this fall, it is evident that the in-person thrill that games bring to Yalies and other fans has been difficult to re-create during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Big matchups like the Yale–Harvard football rivalry have been put on hold, and the Yale Athletics Development Office has been challenged to find new, innovative ways to fundraise and excite alumni and other supporters. The cancelation of team and alumni events on campus and at the Yale Club of New York City have created obstacles for the office and an imperative to identify creative virtual initiatives.

With only two weeks left of students on campus, members of the development office at Yale Athletics shared reflections on their fundraising for the fall semester with the News.

“A lot of what development is is bringing people together, and right now, we can’t do that in person,” Associate Athletic Director of Advancement and External Partnerships Scott Lukas said. “We’re trying to provide the best student-athlete experience that we can, even in a pandemic.”

Lukas mentioned that the regular development calendar, consisting of games, reunions, dinners and team banquets, has been complicated by the public health restrictions placed on in-person meetings.

In a normal year, the office would usually try to leverage games in order to support the 35 varsity athletic teams in addition to their club sports programs. For the annual fund, according to Lukas, Yale Athletics continuously engages with its 18 sports associations in order to fundraise and plan for bigger projects, many of which have been put on hold this year.

“It will be more challenging to reach [fundraising] goals that we normally would reach,” Lukas said. “We have to try to be creative to find ways throughout the year to engage our people and to find things that they’re interested in giving to [while navigating] all of the unknown that this virus, or this pandemic, has given us.”

Despite the lack of in-person activity, Lukas said that the department has not changed its fundraising goals for this fiscal year, but did not reveal specific numbers to the News.

In order to connect its large network of alumni, students and friends, the development team has linked student-athletes and coaches with alumni virtually or on the phone, held large Zoom gatherings for community-building and has focused on the mentorship aspect of these connections.

In addition to planning new virtual experiences to keep the Yale Athletics community connected over the coming months, the office has placed a new emphasis on stewardship this year, according to Madison Arndt, assistant director of development and engagement. 

“We have made it a priority, this year especially, to thank our people who give back to Yale Athletics,” Arndt said. “We understand that this year is not easy, so any gift, big or small, will be personally stewarded by our staff [because] we want our people to know how grateful we are for their constant support.”

Arndt, who specializes in fundraising, alumni affairs and alumni events for the tennis, squash, softball, field hockey, gymnastics, track and field and volleyball associations, also discussed how she and her colleagues are taking time to sit down and rethink their strategy, which would be difficult in a normal year due to the “constant rush of events and competition.” She added that the department is looking forward to celebrating the 50th anniversary of women’s varsity athletics at Yale in the fall of 2022. 

Both Arndt and Lukas expressed their pride and gratitude for the consistent generosity of members of the Yale community and their dedication to supporting all sports teams, even during difficult times, whether that be financially, emotionally or mentally. 

“We haven’t seen a dip in interest or a dip in passion — our alumni are very much still engaged,” Lukas said. “Whether we’re playing games or not, you know, they are engaged, they care and they want what’s best for the student-athletes and coaches.”

Although the status of athletic competition later this year is unknown, the foundation of alumni and supporters has held strong, fostering support for programs that are struggling to generate funds on their own. 

John Webster, senior advisor to the athletic director and chief fundraiser for Big Red Athletics at Cornell University, described a similar sense of unity and strong support from Cornell’s alumni during this fiscal year, allowing Cornell to continue to hit its financial goals.

“At Cornell, we’re incredibly fortunate that we have many former athletes who are successful, they’re philanthropic [and] want to give back and provide for those who follow them,” Webster said. “Last [fiscal] year … we hit all of our targets, and it was inspiring to see the way that former Cornell athletes and friends of our programs supported our teams.”

Current objectives of Cornell’s athletic development and fundraising are growing the “program endowment” and loan capital project, while also raising money to fund the construction of a new indoor practice facility that would serve the recreational needs of all students. 

Webster mentioned the great contributions of student-athletes to the Zoom town halls they held within the Big Red community earlier this semester. He also discussed the significance of the annual fund and gifts that provide financial support for their teams.

“One of the critical components for Cornell is our annual fund and annual gifts in support of operations, and that’s about a $6.5 million lift … divided up amongst 37 different teams,” Webster said. “Just about every team made their goal.”

This commitment of alumni and other donors to their athletic programs is clear at both Yale and Cornell, both in terms of financial support and in maintaining school spirit. Although in-person gatherings are limited and the act of bringing alumni, student-athletes and coaches together to celebrate Yale athletics is not currently an option, many are hopeful for the possibility of games resuming in the winter or spring.

According to Lukas, the “tremendous amount of positivity regardless of our circumstances” around how the University and Yale Athletics are handling the pandemic has not only helped their cause in generating funds and interest but has made him even more excited for a return to athletic competition at some point.

“I can’t wait for the first time that we can sing ‘Bulldog! Bulldog! Bow wow wow!’ together after a touchdown or after a home run,” Lukas said. “I think we are all really looking forward to the times when our Yale Bulldogs can wear the Yale Blue and be on a field against our rivals.”

Amelia Lower | amelia.lower@yale.edu