Alumni Volunteerism at Yale

Yale has a centuries’ old tradition of volunteers inventing new methods of alumni relations and university fundraising – and driving the terms of that engagement. Alumni volunteer efforts grew out of similar student traditions. Below are some selected snippets from the history of volunteerism at Yale and what they have become.

You will see that many, if not most, alumni traditions parallel student activities or traditions originally organized and run by student volunteers. Similarly, many, if not most, alumni traditions started as alumni events that were first organized by alumni volunteers. Often these activities and events had little or no initial University involvement. Just as often, these activities grew to their current level because of University support. Individual activities or events might have been large or small. The richness is in their collectivity and continuity. Some took off like a rocket. Some matured more slowly.

Some long held alumni traditions

The first Class to elect Class officers was the Class of 1792. Subsequently, the Class of 1821 organized and held a triennial reunion in 1824 attended by half of the Class, a tradition that eventually was refined into the five-year system of class reunions known today. These Class organizational efforts were run by alumni volunteers. Now, Class reunions bring over 5000 alumni to Yale during two weekends every spring. That’s about 30% of those whose classes are celebrating reunion that year. Reunion weekends are now multiple, massive, concurrent events. Not surprisingly, today’s reunion organization, planning, and execution are shared by alumni volunteers and AYA staff. In addition, hundreds of non-reunion Class events are scheduled throughout the year. Most of these are far from New Haven, conceived and run primarily by alumni volunteers and attended by over 12,000 alumni.

The first regional Yale Club was formed by alumni volunteers in 1864 in Cincinnati, Ohio, over 700 miles distant from Yale. Now there are Yale Clubs in 40 countries and 149 geographic regions of the USA. Every year, Yale Clubs host hundreds of programs and events that attract many thousands of alumni of all generations. AYA and its staff provide significant organizational heft to some – but only some – of these activities.

The first annual alumni fundraising at Yale began in 1890. Now, the Yale Alumni Fund is coordinated by the University’s Office of Development, but still involves over 2,000 alumni volunteers every year. In the 2009-2010 fiscal year, the Alumni Fund (distinct from Yale’s Capital Campaigns) raised $23.4 million in unrestricted gifts from 33.9% of the alumni.

The first Shared Interest Groups (SIGs) began at Yale as sports teams in the 1800s, but now extend to many different ways of connecting. Some SIGs are entirely run by alumni volunteers. Others are aided by AYA staff. But all need alumni volunteers to hold successful events.

  • The first collegiate sports teams and intercollegiate sporting events were started by students, not university administrators. The first of the first being rowing (or crew), with a first competition in 1852 and a rowing club (known as the Yale Navy) founded in 1853. This evolved into a wholly alumni organization known as the Yale Crew Association which promotes the sport of rowing and supports current University-run student rowing teams. Now, all 35 varsity sports have alumni sports associations that hold a variety of events each year, drawing multitudes of alumni. Significant parts of the organizational activities of these sports SIGs are handled by the Yale Athletic Department. However, most of the heavy lifting for alumni events is accomplished by alumni volunteers.
  • Originally, Shared Interest Groups were confined to sports. Now all manner of undergraduate activities have SIG alumni associations. These include singing groups, drama and improvisation groups, debate clubs, and newspapers.
  • At one time, Shared Interest Groups were based on common activities that alumni enjoyed when they had been students. Now, Shared Interest Groups have also been based on common post-graduation professional interests, such as real estate, engineering, entertainment, or life sciences.
  • During the past half-century, SIGs have begun to encompass alumni associations formed on the basis of shared identities, related to ethnicity, race, culture, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Examples include the Asian-American Alumni and Black Alumni Associations. Many of these SIGs grew out of similar undergraduate and university organizations.

Some newer alumni traditions

Many alumni volunteer efforts have been around for decades – if not centuries. Others are quite new. Some of the newest alumni “traditions” have experienced explosive growth. The growth is due in part to the power of online organizing but also in part to the strength of the student activities and traditions to which these alumni activities harken back. Here are just two examples.

Feb Club Emeritus started with four alumni in 2008. They wanted to replicate for alumni, a then 30-year-old undergraduate tradition. The tradition involved a series of student run social events that were held at Yale during February. The student events were intended to brighten up the dreariest part of every New Haven winter. By 2012, Feb Club Emeritus – often in partnership with local Yale Clubs – was holding over 100 events around the world, with over 5000 alumni attending them.

Yale Day of Service was first held in 2009. It was started by AYA to provide opportunities for alumni to engage in the kind of volunteer service-to-others that they performed as undergraduates, and to engage in that service together. Such volunteer programs are an integral part of the college experience for most Yalies.  In fact, over two-thirds of Yale undergraduates are involved in a service or social justice activity run by one of 85 student-run groups.

These undergraduate programs are part of an independent, nonsectarian umbrella organization named Dwight Hall, which was founded by Yale undergraduates in 1886. Dwight Hall is the largest campus-based student-run service organization in the United States.

Although the Day of Service was initiated by AYA, the individual projects are chosen and organized by alumni volunteers from local Yale Clubs and local arms of SIGs. By 2011, Day of Service events were held at 250 sites in 40 states and 18 countries. More than 3500 volunteers participated.

Some observations

Tens of thousands of alumni participate in Yale-related events every year. However, this is the cumulative effect of many hundreds of individual events, most organized and run by alumni volunteers. Some individual events draw only handfuls of alumni. Some draw hundreds. Only a very few (such as a major sporting event) draw thousands.

There are simply too many Yale alumni events, in too many locations, in too scattered locales, of too many different kinds, for all to be organized and run by a centrally located paid staff. Instead, much of the heavy lifting is accomplished by decentralized groups of alumni operating independently and entrepreneurially. Alumni activities blossom when Yale and the AYA offer guidance, assistance, and encouragement.

Many alumni programs originated as student initiated activities. In student-run organizations, students learn how to organize events and create new ones. At Yale in fact, there are currently over 300 undergraduate student organizations. This means that by graduation, a least one-quarter of Yale students have run one. Yale University has consistently supported student-run organizations and the creation of new ones – in this way developing a culture of entrepreneurial volunteerism.

The measure of success of a Yale alumni event is ultimately related not just to a one-time attendance figure, but also to the sustainability of that or similar events over many years and the event’s synergistic contribution to the vitality of the alumni community as a whole.