What I’ve Learned: William O’Reilly

Annual Giving chair for Brighter World shares insights from a life of service
William O’Reilly

William O’Reilly, A77, A13P, trustee emeritus, still recalls the elation he felt on April 15, 1973, when he opened his Tufts acceptance letter. His enthusiasm for Tufts would only grow after he graduated: He became president of the Tufts University Alumni Association, vice chair of the board of trustees, a member of the Tufts Hillel board, and Annual Giving chair for the current campaign, Brighter World. A lawyer, he was a partner at WilmerHale before shifting gears in his early 60s to become chief of staff and senior advisor to the president of Brandeis University. He recently spoke with One Tufts about life lessons that have informed his active engagement and giving—and why both volunteering and philanthropy matter.


Volunteering can change your life.

Volunteering is my way of saying I believe in the institution. But I have benefitted as much as I have contributed. As a lawyer, I was more effective directing large teams because of the opportunity I had to manage volunteer organizations at an early age. More recently, I have been able to fulfill my professional goal of having a challenging “second act” through my leadership position at Brandeis, because of what I learned while on the Tufts board. I am glad that I did not wait to volunteer, even while I was busy building a career and raising a family with my wife, Liz. Volunteering sharpened my skills, improved my efficiency, taught me new things, and expanded my network.


The Annual Fund is super food.

Annual Fund gifts are current use dollars that can be put to work immediately. They are like super food for Tufts. That’s why I made communicating about annual funds one of my priorities. When I stepped down as alumni association president, we had started on a path toward greater participation that continues today. The Annual Fund is now 14% of the $1.5 billion campaign.


Remember the big picture.

I wrote a senior thesis on international law supervised by John Gibson in the Department of Political Science and Hugo Bedau in the Department of Philosophy. Because they looked at the world through different lenses, I had to harmonize different ways of thinking in my writing. What seemed like a burden at the time turned out to be a gift. Now, when confronting challenges, I try to be both pragmatic, like the diplomat Professor Gibson, and cognizant of the larger existential questions, like the philosopher Professor Bedau. Problems are best solved by answering these two questions: “What precisely must be done to fix this?” and “Big picture, what is really going on here?”

It’s all about relationships.

As an undergraduate, as Student Senate Chair, I served on the search committee that led to the Jean Mayer presidency. In interacting with the committee and interviewing candidates, I learned that establishing strong personal relationships is essential to effective leadership. I have tried to carry that lesson with me. It’s not good enough to have good ideas, produce excellent work product, and be a principled decision maker. To be successful, you must find a way to connect with others on a human level.

Tufts leaders inspire deep admiration.

When I went to work for Brandeis four years ago, I had a good understanding of the challenges facing American higher education and the issues addressed by university boards. What I didn’t fully appreciate was just how great the demands are on university leaders, who must respond to multiple constituencies, all having unique expectations. I have now seen firsthand how university administration is different from private sector management. My admiration for the leaders at Tufts has only deepened, especially in view of the importance of the work they do to promote student access, creation of new knowledge, teaching, and learning.