Getting to know Yale leaders — Joan E. O’Neill

Joan E. O’Neill, vice president for Alumni Affairs and Development, has worked at Yale in Development for more than thirty years. She is responsible for leadership of all the university’s alumni affairs and fundraising activities. Prior to her current appointment, Joan spent eight years as associate vice president for Development leading the major gifts, parent giving, planned giving, annual giving, reunion giving and Schools and Units fundraising programs. Together these efforts contributed $1.2 billion of the Yale Tomorrow successful $3.886 billion campaign total. Before joining Yale, Joan worked for Fidelity Investments in Boston, entering its training program after graduating from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill with a B.A. in psychology. She grew up in Stonington, Connecticut and is back living there with her husband. They are the parents of two grown children.

What do you think is the best advice a manager can receive?
I think setting high goals is sound advice because goals help motivate all of us. Revisiting these goals on a periodic basis and finding ways to involve team members in achieving them is critical to success.  Knowing how to delegate is also key. I rely heavily on my team, and what I call my team is quite broad—my own departmental colleagues, members of other Yale departments, and volunteers. Our office interfaces with so many parts of Yale that our team will often include somebody from a dean’s office or the provost’s office. And, I have the advantage of working with a very active cohort of alumni volunteers. With amazing breadth of experience, our remarkable alumni have faced all kinds of organizational challenges and often serve as helpful sounding boards.

What music are you listening to now?
I listen to whatever everybody around me is listening to, my husband and son in particular. Growing up, my mom played the piano so there was a lot of gathering around her and singing, especially during holidays.

When faced with a challenge/adversity on the job what do you do first?

The first thing I do is take a deep breath and ground myself. I don’t try to just hunker down and push through it alone. I think about which people I know that might be helpful in thinking through the challenge/issue, and the possible solutions. Again, I confer with my team small or big, on campus or off, depending on the situation.

What are you most grateful for?

I’m most grateful for family, both immediate and extended. Growing up, I was one of four children and we did family vacations, family holidays, and the gatherings were fairly large. They now include my husband of 33 years, our two grown children, and all our siblings’ families. Currently, most of my family and my husband’s family live in the same community so that makes it easier to see each other.

What would your ultimate vacation destination be?
Next on my bucket list is the Galapagos Islands. I would like it to be a family trip similar in set-up to a trip I took with my mother to Alaska this summer where there were six naturalists on board a small ship. We were with very interesting people, and heard lectures about everything from local fishing, to salmon tagging to the medicinal value of plants. It was relaxing, but at the same time we were expanding our knowledge—learning about saving our planet and gaining a greater appreciation for sustainable practices of caring for the land. This is how I would like to experience the Galapagos.

If you could solve one human problem in today’s world, what would it be?
Climate change. Living near the shoreline I am especially focused on the issue of rising sea levels and the threat that creates in the not-too-distant future. I think we must identify ways that we can all change our behaviors before it’s too late.   

What New Haven restaurant would you recommend to a new employee?
I like taking people to Mory’s. It’s a great place to get a real feel for Yale history, to learn some traditions and local lore. And I almost always bump into someone I know when I’m there.

What has helped you develop as a manager over the course of your career—relationships, courses, making mistakes, hard work?
I would say, all the above. Mostly, I have been fortunate to work with many great managers and peers over the years who have helped me to develop my management skills and as a person. While I have certainly made my share of mistakes, I have learned from them and they have provided me the opportunity to make improvements. And, I firmly believe there is no substitute for hard work.

What is one of your favorite memories from childhood?
Holidays. There were always lots of cousins. On Thanksgiving or during school vacations, we would go to Oklahoma to see my grandparents and we just loved it. There were also gatherings in New Hampshire with aunts and uncles, lots of board games, and an annual pilgrimage to L.L. Bean.

How have you been adjusting to the current norm of working from home?
Like others, I spend a lot of time in Zoom meetings. While it can be exhausting, it’s great to see people’s faces. It’s amazing what we can do with the help of technology and I think we are all finding certain parts of our work that will likely continue to be done remotely in the future to save travel time and to allow more scheduling flexibility. We had an excellent Zoom meeting with some volunteers recently and it included someone in California, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Hong Kong. That would have been hard to pull off in person. I do really miss seeing my colleagues in person and while Zoom is no substitute, we have had several all Alumni Affairs and Development staff townhalls and those have been especially uplifting for me.