The Chosen: What's Behind the Outsized Loyalty (and Gifts) of Harvard Alums?

Let’s put Harvard’s recent record-breaking gift of $400 million from billionaire hedge fund manager John A. Paulson, MBA ’80, in perspective. That amount is just about the average endowment of most colleges. Wouldn’t Paulson have had more satisfaction by giving to a school lacking funds as Harvard alumnus Lloyd C. Blankfein, the chief of Goldman Sachs, did with a $2 million gift to LaGuardia Community College?

Apparently not, and anyway, according to the Harvard Crimson, Blankfein, alumnus of both Harvard College and law school gave substantially more to his alma mater, including endowing an eponymous history chair.

Why are Harvard alums so damn loyalto the point that they give money to the richest university in the world, with an endowment that already tops $36 billion?

Well, for starters, who wouldn't be jazzed by the pedigree of a place that dates back to 1636? Until Yale was founded in 1701, Harvard was literally where you went for a higher education in the colonies. Founding fathers Sam Adams and John Adams attended college there, a path followed by John’s son John Quincy who, like his dad, also become president. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt graduated from Harvard, as did John F. Kennedy. All told, seven presidents got degrees from Harvard, including Barack Obama.

Go to Harvard, as I did, and you can't help but feel the august history. Walk around Stanford and you might well be thinking about how recently it used to be an orange grove. 

Prominent Harvard alums have thrived in every field of endeavor, although the engineering school is relatively new, a fact that probably piqued Paulson’s interest as a donor. Who wouldn’t want a school named after him, on a campus where tomorrow's presidents might well be walking around? Especially when another school on campus is named after John F. Kennedy?

The Paulson School over here, the Kennedy School over there. That will be a nice campus map to look at one day soon for a certain generous billionaire. (Never mind that in 2014 Gerald Chan gave $350 million to Harvard to rename the School of Public Health for his father, T.H. Chan, whoever he was.) Paulson gave $100 million to the Central Park Conservancy a few years back, but there's no way he was getting naming rights in that scenarioalthough who knows in this day and age? Paulson Central Park for $1 billion?

A quick footnote: While Harvard was originally founded as the New School, it was renamed Harvard after minister John Harvard left his library to the college in 1638. Now, that was a bargain. 

Apart from presidents, the list of Harvard graduates is extraordinary, probably giving rise to the saying, “You can always tell a Harvard man, but you can’t tell him much.”

Still, loyalty to the school does not happen by itself; it is assiduously cultivated among alumni who feel like the chosen ones. 

Every spring, Harvard mails letters to about 70,000 high school juniors with top-notch college board test scores suggesting they should apply to the school. For those who dream of lifting themselves up from poverty like Horatio Alger, another Harvard alumnus (who was actually New England aristocracy), the letters remind students that for families making less than $60,000 a year, tuition is free. 

Harvard's admissions team tours 140 cities around the world looking for potential students. The admissions office also asks Harvard’s coaches and professors to look for talent. Typically, Harvard’s work-study program hires more than a dozen low-income students to call and e-mail low-income high school students who show promise.

Next, about 8,000 alumni volunteers start to recruit and interview students. The admissions staff sifts through the thousands of applications and rating them on a scale of 1 (prime) to 6 (pass). Then the applications get divided geographically and are sent to 20 subcommittees. If the applicants garner majority support, they're passed up the chain to the full committee of about 35. If the applicant passes this final step, he or she receives an acceptance letter. Only 7 percent of applicants get this treasured notification.

Picture the effect those letters have on students who finally receive concrete, in-hand evidence that they should consider themselves among the “best and the brightest,” a phrase popularized by David Halberstam in his history of the Vietnam War with that title, words he undoubtedly heard about his classmates when he was the managing editor of the Harvard Crimson. According to U.S. News and World Reports, 81 percent of those who get such a letter decide to enroll, compared 34.1 percent at other schools. Is it any wonder that after such a competitive admission process, alums will be competitive in their giving as well?

Once at the school, the genuinely stimulating intellectual atmosphere is an experience that stays with students for their entire lives as they get to study under the tutelage of academic stars while expanding their own perspectives. (Okay, it doesn't always go like that, but still.)

Upon graduation, alums get free membership in the Harvard Alumni Association, which holds networking events throughout the year, and receive copies of the glossy monthly Harvard Magazine, and the Harvard Alumni Gazette for life. Throughout the year, funding requests are a constant drumbeat.

Alumni and alumnae are invited to join a network of Harvard Clubs that encircle the globe. Many are posh places—a reminder that you're a member of an exclusive elite. Some offer fine dining, accommodations, workout rooms, squash courts, and libraries. Most host events including alumni talks, while members are constantly recruited to interview the next generation of students.

Harvard also hosts lots of reunions, pulling out all the stops to gather its legions of winners for a weekend of comparing and contrasting. What better way to prove success than to be known as a big check writer to the school? Remember, the types who've achieving their whole lives want to win on every front. 

The process of building school loyalty and asking for support works. While Harvard doesn't rank among the top ten schools for the percentage of alumni who give, more than 30,000 Harvard College alumni donate to the university each yearand that doesn’t count contributors from the university’s other schools. Its lower giving rates are more than offset by how it routinely pulls in big time gifts.