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July 3, 2017

How Notre Dame Creates a Culture of Alumni Engagement

By Caitlin Scarano

Caitlin@aluminateus.com

6 minutes

*Image info: Eck Vistors Center, Home of Notre Dame Alumni Association. Photo Credit: Copyright © 2017 University of Notre Dame Campus Tour.

We’ve already discussed the challenges of engaging alumni in our first post, but what if we consider this from the other end?


What can we learn by taking an in-depth look at an alumni association that is doing top-notch work?

At ALUMinate, we spent a lot of time researching the key ingredients that make an institution’s alumni engagement successful, and the University of Notre Dame is definitely a standout.

So I reached out to Mike Sullivan, Senior Director of Alumni Programs at the Notre Dame Alumni Association, to hear what insights he had to offer with regard to how they create a culture of engagement among alumni on and off campus.  

Be sure to check out the main takeaways from our conversation at the end of the post!

1) First, tell us a bit about how many alumni groups Notre Dame is serving and where.

MS: Notre Dame has a very extensive and impressive club network — we have 275 clubs around the world, 225 of which are domestic. There are also many affinity groups and boards, such as the Notre Dame Senior Alumni Board, Notre Dame Women Connect, and boards that represent minority alumni populations. We’re also forming a board for young alumni.

2) In a time when most institutions struggle to provide consistent and comprehensive outreach to their regional alum, what are the main factors that make Notre Dame’s program so strong?

MS: Two big factors influence this: 1) our Catholic mission and 2) residentiality. 

Regarding the first factor, Notre Dame really is a national university and our Catholic mission creates a different world view about what it means to be in a community. We offer a variety of spiritual tools and aids, most notably our FaithND website. Of the 60,000+ daily gospel reflection subscribers, half of them are alumni.

Regarding the second factor, most students live on campus for most of their time here, so the feeling of community has a binding effect and adds to their sense of connectedness after graduation.

Recently, 4,000 people came back to campus for our Reunion Weekend, which is our signature event of the year. Alumni and their families stay in the residence halls and take part in a nice balance of programming and free time.

3) How does your institution and department approach alumni outreach, specifically those alumni who live at least 75+ miles from the university’s central campus? What are your strategies and tactics here?

MS: This falls into three main categories:

1) Digital engagement efforts, which include:

  • Our e-newsletter, Echoes

  • Career and professional services (for example, we offer alumni a free first session with a professional career coach)

  • A new digital platform called Irish Compass [more on that below!]

  • Clear-Sighted Career, a webinar series for job-seekers

2) Seasonal activities and events, such as:

  • Activities, digital and otherwise, around holidays like the 28 days of Lent and Mother’s Day

  • Football Fridays at the Eck

  • Winter Sports Weekends

3) Engagement in alumni’s home communities, which are guided by what we call “The 6 Cs”:

  • Camaraderie 

  • Current students

  • Continuing education

  • Community services

  • Catholic/Christian spirituality 

  • Communications

Notre Dame Campus. Photo credit: Copyright © Kaity Fuja of OMG Photography & Heather Gollatz of Hg Photography. Notre Dame Weddings, 2014.
Notre Dame Campus. Photo credit: Copyright © Kaity Fuja of OMG Photography & Heather Gollatz of Hg Photography. Notre Dame Weddings, 2014.

 

4) What are some future goals or projects you and your department are working on? What are you most excited about right now?

MS: We are about to launch, probably in the next six months, a new digital platform called Irish Compass. This will be a place for alumni to connect with students to serve as mentors, where they can find a robust job board, discussions and forums, and other resources.

Anything else you want to add?

MS: Engagement of alumni really has to be about gratitude for what they do for the university — the time, talent, and treasure they give. Our alumni really are Notre Dame in their own communities, an embodiment of the mission and extension of us.

Takeaways

1) Notre Dame embraces the campus itself and programming on campus as a way to draw alumni and friends back. This connection is both physical and emotional, and promotes greater engagement away from campus.

2) They welcome and value supporters and friends as much as alumni. For example, Mike explained the meaning and history behind the phrase “Subway Alum,” which is how they refer to Notre Dame fans and supports who didn’t attend the university.

He also told me that the wording of club names — for example, “The Notre Dame Club of New York City” — intentionally does not include the word “alumni,” because the clubs are open not only to alumni but also to friends, parents, and supporters of the institution.

3) They understand and communicate the narrative of Notre Dame consistently and strategically.

4) They are honest about areas that need to be improved and try to gauge and respond to what alumni want.

For instance, Notre Dame recently conducted a big survey of alumni, parents, and friends, and are now in the midst of a big “re-envisioning project”— building a three-to-five year strategic plan, revising their mission, etc.

With this survey, they sought to learn “what alumni are hungry for.” When I asked Mike what was surprising about the results, he said about 37 percent of alumni indicated that they want to have more engagement with the university. This was especially true among younger alums (those under 35). So they are re-envisioning with this in mind.

Questions to consider…

1) For Notre Dame, one of its binding qualities is its Catholic mission. What are the strongest binding qualities of your institution that you could deploy as you design and implement alumni engagement programs?

2) To help support their regional clubs, Notre Dame utilizes “The 6 Cs” (see above). What approach does your institution take to regional club support and structure? Like Notre Dame, do you have a way of honoring standout clubs?

3) When was the last time you surveyed your alumni? What was most surprising?

 

Want more support in building top-notch alumni programs? Contact us today to learn more about our services.

And keep an eye out for next week’s follow-up post, when we discuss five secrets to effective alumni club websites and profile Notre Dame’s Chicago Club website!

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