University fundraising spiked during the pandemic, but a dip may be coming
New virtual programming and favorable markets drove Yale to its strongest two years of fundraising ever. But changing market tides may soon reverse pandemic trends.
Lukas Flippo, Senior Photographer
Yale benefited from unprecedented rates of monetary donation during the COVID-19 pandemic. But because of recent market downturns, fundraising may soon decline from this elevated level.
Yale launched its five-year “For Humanity” capital campaign on October 2, 2021, in the throes of a global pandemic. The campaign, which focuses on science priorities outlined in the University’s 2016 Science Strategy Committee Report, was originally scheduled to enter its public phase in April 2021 but was suspended because of COVID-19.
After a half-year delay, Yale began the campaign virtually, making it the University’s first fundraising campaign to launch online. Events that would have been held on campus before the pandemic were held remotely, and alumni, parents and benefactors could watch live from anywhere in the world.
“The two years we [fundraised] on Zoom were the best two years of fundraising in the University’s history,” University President Peter Salovey told the News. “We raised more money in new commitments and pledges than ever before. I think COVID gave people the chance to think about their priorities, to think about the For Humanity campaign, how Yale can improve the world in so many different ways through its scholarship and its educational missions.”
According to the most recent campaign report, released Tuesday, Yale received $905.7 million in commitments and a record $914.6 million cash for 2022. Last year, Yale received a record $1.18 billion in commitments and $738.5 million cash.
The University hopes to reach $7 billion before the campaign ends on June 30, 2026. Now, in just the second year of its public phase, the campaign is already 60 percent of the way there.
The University’s Office of Development told the News that virtual programming during the pandemic allowed more people than ever to engage with the campaign.
“One of the biggest differences between this campaign and the last is that [For Humanity] is inclusive of more people because we can communicate in person and digitally,” Associate Vice President for Development and Campaign Director Eugenie Gentry said. “We can now maintain a higher level of engagement with a broader group of alumni.”
The campaign’s largest virtual program, which drew over 6,000 registrants, was its launch event in October 2021. According to the Development Office, an in-person launch event — the pre-pandemic norm — could have accommodated only 600 to 700 people.
Because planning for the campaign began as early as 2018, the University had to adapt when the pandemic hit in spring 2021. Instead of on-campus gatherings and face-to-face fundraising, the University planned webinars and virtual social events.
On the fundraising end, the higher volume of engagement opportunities has made it easier for Yale to connect with potential donors. Gentry told the News that the pandemic has “changed the landscape of philanthropy.” Though they “can’t fully replace” in-person events, virtual events are not going away any time soon.
Beyond the increased reach of a virtual campaign, Yale has benefitted from pandemic-driven research visibility in public health and medicine.
“We saw an increase in gifts in the medical and public health areas, in large part because donors could see the impact of [Yale’s] research that supports those issues,” Gentry said.
The campaign has also seen increased gifts for financial aid and emergency funds, which Gentry said is likely a result of public health conditions, too. Though Yale benefited from many campaign-specific changes, it also rode the favorable macroeconomic tides that prevailed during the pandemic.
Gentry told the News that there is a “strong correlation between the health of the market and giving.”
When markets are doing well, Yale tends to see increased fundraising, and when markets are declining, donations usually slow down. When the Great Recession hit in 2008, for example, Yale saw “huge decreases” in both endowment and fundraising performance.
“Giving increases when donors feel wealthier,” School of Management professor Jacob Thomas said, “assuming that donors hold their wealth in assets that do well when the market is up, giving must also rise when campaigns are ongoing.”
School of Management professor James Choi agreed with Thomas, adding simply that “people can give more money when they have more money.”
Though the pandemic began a two-year bull market in March 2020, it peaked at the end of 2021 and has been declining to pre-pandemic levels ever since.
This year, the University’s endowment saw its slowest year of growth since 2009, largely in response to market downturns that tanked college endowments nationwide. In fact, Yale’s 0.8 percent return on its investment holdings was the only positive result in the Ivy League during the 2022 fiscal year.
The University has not yet seen a drop-off in fundraising performance as it has endowment performance. But fundraising rates may soon fall.
Thomas and Choi said that the time-horizon of donors’ monetary commitments could cause a delay between market and fundraising trends. After donors commit to a future gift, it may be difficult to renege when markets dip.
“I imagine [there is a delay] because major gifts occur after a series of conversations that take place over an extended period of time,” Choi wrote in an email to the News. “So, by the time somebody is on the brink of making a gift, the giving decision has a lot of momentum behind it that won’t be derailed by a market downturn that has just occurred.”
Economics professor and Nobel laureate Robert Shiller provided an alternative explanation for the rise in fundraising, pointing to recent pushback against legacy admissions.
Though Shiller said that “as usual, we cannot provide a decisive explanation for human behavior in speculative markets,” he pointed out that legacy admissions preferences have recently come under fire at Yale and around the country.
Alumni, many of whom have an interest in maintaining legacy favor for their children, may be giving more so that Yale has a stronger financial incentive to preserve the practice and keep donors happy.
In September 2021, history professor Beverly Gage resigned as director of Yale’s Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy due to pressure from donors to control the program’s curriculum. In the wake of Gage’s resignation, faculty voiced support for her decision and raised concerns about the influence donors have over academic freedom at Yale.
In February 2022, Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Jeremiah Quinlan testified in favor of legacy admissions practices before the Connecticut General Assembly after state lawmakers proposed a bill that would end the practice.
According to sociologist Jerome Karabel, Yale and other elite universities began using legacy admissions in the 1920s to keep out “social undesirables,” especially Jewish people, at a time when immigration to the United States was sharply increasing.
In 2014, Students for Fair Admissions brought two lawsuits to the Supreme Court, alleging that the race-conscious admissions policies of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill are discriminatory.
For each remaining year of the capital campaign, Yale will hold events in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and London as part of its “For Humanity Illuminated” event series.
William Porayouw contributed reporting.