I am writing this as the train from Yale, New Haven, Connecticut is taking me to my next destination – New York City. Having just attended YaleGALE – Yale’s annual advancement conference, I find myself completely energised and full of ideas, with warm memories of invaluable insights and friendly connections made.
Coming from a self-made alumni fundraising startup in Riga, Latvia, Yale has always seemed like the ultimate fundraising mecca. And with over two years of field experience, I was quite fortunate to participate in the YaleGALE gathering, meeting talented advancement professionals, alumni volunteers and alumni fundraisers from Yale and beyond, sharing ideas and establishing contacts with universities from all over the world.
I am deeply indebted to YaleGALE. I have never made this public knowledge, but having our “Let’s Beat Stanford” campaign impress YaleGALE volunteers when they visited Riga a few years ago is what inspired me to quit my about-to-become-a-partner-at-Deloitte job and pursue my passion on an entirely new level – from managing the record breaking “Let’s Beat Stanford” campaign at my Alma Mater to putting all my savings on the line and creating Funderful. With the supportive backing of my wife and two children, my team and I set on a mission to transform the way we fundraise online.
When Yale experts talk – you listen. The formidable university has a typical school giving participation rate of 50-70% in a five-year period, with an approximate average of 33% alumni giving back each year. So here are some insights I took away from this year’s YaleGALE:
Yale’s king of social media
One of the strongest conference points was driven home by Yale’s Deputy Chief Communications Officer and communications expert Michael Morand. Deservedly hailed as Yale’s social media king, Morand outlined several successful alumni relation techniques that form the core of Yale’s communication strategy.
The Yale alum started off with storytelling vs. event promotion, stating that in his opinion, it is selfish to promote events – invite thousands, while only a fraction will be able to join. In order to get the most out of alumni events, Morand suggested using storytelling to highlight a significant story about the event.
Another vital takeaway was email, which, according to Morand is the “original social media that many overlook”. Because people have a natural tendency to pay attention to the hottest trends – the shiny new objects (Snapchat and the like) many end up overlooking the importance of emails. Yale practices this, sending weekly newsletters with image rich, mobile optimised and easily browsable content.
Morand also stressed the importance of working with celebrities as brand ambassadors and making the institution website as fresh and lively as possible. Above all else, Morand emphasized the importance of inspiration – one of Yale’s top priorities. Alumni are a source of inspiration not only to their institution, but also to others. Therefore by featuring alumni in its communication, the institution will both inspire and be inspiring.
Mark Dollhopf on alumni relations
Beloved by colleagues and revered by peers, Yale’s former alumni association executive director Mark Dollhopf spoke about alumni relations vs. fundraising.
In his address, Dollhopf outlined one of the biggest fundraising challenges – whereas the typical alumni approach relies on engaging alumni as volunteers because they then go on to make better donors, it often boils down to whether alumni relations help raise funds or not.
And that’s an issue – money shouldn’t be the goal but rather – a pleasurable outcome. The purpose should be to convey the values from one generation to the next. An alumnus should realize that they are part of something that is larger than themselves – that it’s not just about them individually.
For example, Bill Clinton (a Yale alum) spoke to his fellow alumni in a video address. His message was as clear as it was inspirational: “We are all in this together whether you like it or not – to make the world a better place for all, not just Yale alumni.”
Dollhopf also commented on affinity programs – offering alumni credit cards with a fraction of the payments go to support the school or would offer them insurance, cars, etc. His underlying message was evident in this idea as well, that as fundraisers, we should be creating stronger ties through giving. By offering credit cards, insurance or discount offers, we make the relationship into a transactional one.
Volunteers – the gift that keeps on giving
According to Yale’s Alumni Association, there are “hundreds of alumni organizations affiliated with the AYA and thousands of alumni volunteers leading them. The AYA – and its many programs and initiatives – simply could not exist without the dedication, time and talent of these “ambassadors for Yale.””
During the conference we heard from a psychologist and Yale volunteer Roni Beth Tower, who first introduced the challenges faced by volunteers by outlining the psychological aspects of giving. She commented that, in her experience, as people become older, the nature of relationships changes – people tend to become more selective in their search for meaning.
Yale’s own John M.R. Thomas (Jack) – an active volunteer and former chairman of the Yale Alumni Fund expanded the topic further, outlining several typical questions that volunteers face when working with alumni.
Some of the commonplace inquiries feature the “You’re rich, why should I give?” or “I paid my tuition fee, why should I give?” questions, as well as the classic assumption that “a small gift will not make a difference”.
It’s only natural that alumni would pose these questions and that the volunteers would have the answers ready. For them, giving back to Yale is a sign of approval – a testament to their belief in the course the institution has chosen to take, an affirmation for all the hard work that’s put into providing the invaluable education.
Which is also the second argument – the best and most honest answer a volunteer can provide, namely that “the true cost of the degree was, is and will be, far greater than any alumni have paid for.”
And finally, it is as logical as it is true that “everyone’s gift matters.” Yale wouldn’t be where it is today without “each and every individual gift added to the total.”
A modern tribe
Here at Funderful, we base our fundraising approach on the ancient tribal rituals that bonded our ancestors – competition, storytelling and friendly rivalry. In that sense, Yale proved to be the perfect example of hundred year old traditions meeting the 21st Century.
Our Yale visit ended at Mory’s, aka Mory’s Temple Bar – an overcrowded, loud bar with great atmosphere adjacent to the campus of Yale University – a true place of bonding. It was a great evening filled with young and old Yalees coming together and performing a drinking game – the drinking game, which sets Yale apart as a true modern tribe.
The drinking game goes like this: every Yale alum gets to take part in the ritualistic consumption of a “Cup,” where alumni gather to share drinks from large trophy cups. Each time someone is about to finish a Cup, he or she faces the decades-old challenge of “cleaning the cup” — removing all moisture from the cup by using only their mouth and often, to finish the job, hair.
Friends are ready to assist them with napkins for a minimised mess and for extra time to “clean the cup,” friends are supposed to chant the Mory’s Song with the finishing member’s name as the hero of the song, having napkins thrown mid-air at the end of it.
Bonding traditions that stand the test of time, such as this, are markings of a truly united community. If Yale was to ever do a Funderful campaign, it would most certainly involve elements of “Cups.”