Your Impact: Philanthropy Gets Personal


Erin Ericson, Director of Advancement

What is it about the mission of  SYA that resonates with you and why? 

It is important for young people to develop empathy, which has been part of School Year Abroad’s mission for 58 years. While I did not study with SYA in high school, I studied Spanish and did a short-term trip to Merida, Mexico, my senior year. Half of the trip was spent staying with a host family, which was a terrifying and enlightening experience. Living with people who speak a different language is a humbling growth opportunity. Learning about another culture reminds us that we don’t have all the answers and there isn’t always a “right” way of being in the world. That’s a huge lesson for a 16- or 17-year-old.

How do you feel your unique skills, experience and perspective further the organizations cause?

I’m a curious person and a good listener, which is what prompted me to get a master's degree in marriage and family therapy following college. While I have never practiced as a therapist, I put the skills to use daily. I love when alumni and parents talk about their (or their child’s) SYA experiences and I see their faces light up. Asking questions and learning what excites people is a joy for me, and since SYA is full of passionate people from many different backgrounds, I never hear the same story twice. Getting people to reflect on their SYA experience and its long-term impact is the pathway to encouraging their philanthropy.

Through your role, what are some of the supporting comments you hear from alumni and parents on why they support SYA?

 Almost everyone says their (or their child’s) SYA experience was “life-changing” and/or “transformational.” The number of times that is mentioned when people make a gift is astounding.

There is an SYA France alum who went to some of the top schools in the country and always says that he prioritizes giving to SYA because that one year in many ways had the greatest impact of any educational experience in his career. Further, he knows that the impact of his gift at SYA will be far greater than at other (more resourced) schools.

 We know that we are in fierce competition for people’s attention and philanthropic support. Every place says participation matters – because it does! This will be my ninth end of fiscal year with SYA and I have spent many a June 30 rejoicing over the $25 and $50 gifts that have nudged us closer to the goal. Gifts of all sizes add up.

How do you dispel myths about where support for SYA comes from; why it’s needed; etc? 

Because many alums learn about SYA through their high school, they see us as a program through their school instead of a separate organization partnered with their school. I often tell the story of an SYA China alum from the early 2000s who came to work in our office. Our team introduced ourselves and explained what we do. She commented that she thought — until that moment — that her donations to her high school also supported SYA. (They do not.)

SYA was incorporated as a 501c3 in September 1975, yet the myth persists that we are tethered to our founding and member schools and have access to their endowments. We have our own budget and operations and need support from our community just as any independent school or nonprofit. Tuition covers approximately 85% of our operating budget — the SYA Fund and endowment draw support most of the remainder. We rely on alumni and parents to consider the impact of SYA on their (or their child’s) life and honor that experience with a gift to the SYA Fund each year.

can you discern fact from fiction?
test your knowledge about sya myths! 

 How do you prioritize your non-profit volunteering and/or philanthropic priorities?

My top philanthropic priorities are to organizations where I can draw a personal connection. I give to a hospital that provided excellent care to a beloved family member; to an organization that has helped my uncle, who is legally blind, live and thrive independently; and of course, to SYA! When I give to education it is always for financial aid as I was a financial aid student. It’s important to pay it forward so that the next generation can access life-changing experiences like SYA.

I volunteer for a local chapter of an organization for bereaved family members that helped me through a very difficult time. It is fulfilling to now be able to give back in a small way with gratitude for the support they provided me.

What piece of advice would you give to someone interested in building their career in the nonprofit sector or volunteering for an organization that resonates with their philanthropic priorities, including SYA.

Working in nonprofit utilizes and develops many transferable skills. No one on my team went to school for nonprofit management and yet we all landed at SYA because we all want to be part of an organization that’s making a difference in the world. We have hired people with little to no fundraising experience who have turned out to be some of our best employees.

I would encourage people to keep an open mind with volunteering; sometimes the organization’s needs don’t necessarily match up with what is “easiest.” I often hear, “I’m not good at/don’t like fundraising” as a reason not to volunteer for SYA. Rarely do we ask folks to cold call and ask for a large gift. Since we don’t have a U.S.-based campus or traditional homecoming event, it can be challenging to meet SYAers and get them excited about SYA unless we are traveling. Having a volunteer meet up with other SYAers in their city, or having an alum send their classmates an SYA update can go a long way. Can you share a personal favorite, SYA or otherwise, of a moment in your career or volunteer efforts that remains a profound example of why you do what you do? (Why is it important?)

The highlight of my career was in the summer of 2021 when we wrapped up The Campaign for SYA, which was SYA’s first-ever comprehensive capital campaign. I came into the role of Director of Advancement just after the campaign went public, in summer 2019. It was my first time in a leadership role and my first time in a capital campaign, so the order felt tall going into it. That fall and winter were spent traveling to meet people, getting the word out about the campaign, and generating enthusiasm for SYA’s future. In early 2020 we had to bring students home early and the landscape for fundraising had changed overnight. SYA’s future suddenly seemed uncertain as a school that required international travel to operate — two industries that were greatly impacted by the pandemic.

The SYA community rallied to help us meet and exceed the $18 million campaign goal, even in a year when SYA was not in operation. Campaign co-chairs Alex Alger FR’79 CN’12P and Jamie Broderick FR’71 along with trustee Allison Bacon ES’81, chair of the Advancement committee, were inspiring partners providing encouragement and support every step of the way. The team gratefully utilized volunteers to expand our reach, which helped significantly in achieving the goal.

I was (and am!) so proud of the team and am impressed by the depth at which SYA alumni value their experience abroad. SYA is now much stronger as a result of their commitment to this incredible experience.