The Blue and the Gold (and the Green)
Few universities are as indebted to their alumni as the University of Notre Dame. Case in point: In 1879, when a fire destroyed its Main Building — which at the time housed virtually the entire university — only 35 years after it was founded, it was alumni from Chicago who rallied to raise funds to rebuild it. Their support not only got the university back on its feet, but it also set it on a path of growth that hasn’t yielded to this day.
The rebuilt golden-domed Main Building, perhaps the most recognizable image representing Notre Dame besides its logo — ubiquitous during college football season — is now one of 137 buildings that make up the university’s campus. Recent surveys conducted by U.S. News & World Report, TIME and Kiplinger’s, to name a few, rate Notre Dame among the nation’s top 25 institutions of higher learning. It also was ranked fifth in a listing of “dream schools” by parents in a survey by The Princeton Review and was named one of the “New Ivies” in American higher education by The Wall Street Journal.
The alumni support that rebuilt the university in the late 1800s also laid the groundwork for what has become a worldwide network of Notre Dame grads. Eighteen years after the founding of the alumni association in 1868, the Chicago alumni formed the first Notre Dame alumni club. Today, there are more than 275 local Notre Dame alumni clubs around the world, and their contributions to Notre Dame and its community are invaluable.
Clubs connect alumni with each other and the university, and they offer a variety of programs and events, including the Hesburgh Lecture Program — named after the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president emeritus and former president of Notre Dame for 35 years — where some of Notre Dame’s most noted faculty travel around the country to alumni clubs to deliver lectures on their topic of expertise. Lou Nanni, vice president for university relations at Notre Dame, says this year the program will feature somewhere between 75 and 80 lectures. Clubs also give scholarships to current students and organize community service, continuing education and career networking.
The Notre Dame Alumni Club of Los Angeles, for example — awarded the Outstanding Club Award by the Notre Dame Alumni Board’s Clubs Committee earlier this year — actively participated in community-service projects, provided scholarships to 72 Notre Dame students last year and raised $500,000, which it gifted to the university to endow the Cross-Cultural Leadership Intern Program in Los Angeles.
The alumni club network has continued to grow, to the point where a Cape Cod club recently formed so that alumni in that area don’t have to travel to the Boston club or to a club in Rhode Island. Nanni says the formation of this club signaled the need for alumni services that transcend geography.
The Notre Dame Alumni Association had developed a presence online in 1998, something Chris Bellairs, associate executive director of the alumni association, says he’s pretty proud of considering in 1998 Google still was two guys working out of a garage in Menlo Park, Calif. But from 2001 to just recently, it didn’t make a lot of advancements.
“I think that you would find that same dynamic at other universities as well — where they knew that you had to be online, but they did not know how to evolve the product,” Bellairs says. “And online, if you’re not constantly evolving, you’re out of business.
“I think some other universities are in a similar situation to what we were in, where they had something and then woke up one day and found out that it had been passed by,” he adds. “And consumers — their standard is not other university Web sites. Their standard is eBay, Amazon, MSN; so if we fell behind to people like that, as far as our alums were concerned, we were behind.”
The most significant portion of gifts to the university comes from alumni, so the last thing the alumni association wanted to be perceived as was “behind.” Last year, Notre Dame had record participation among undergraduate alumni at 54.3 percent, roughly the same number that contributed to the university last year — showing the link between involvement and giving. The massive involvement of alumni is a testament to the power of the “Notre Dame experience.”
“One of the greatest aspects that we have as part of the Notre Dame development office here is that people who have graduated from this university have felt that their experience — their four years (typically) on campus — [has] been life-changing,” Nanni says. “A Notre Dame education is transformative.”
The role of the alumni association is to offer services that continue the high-caliber Notre Dame experience and help alumni better connect with one another and the university. To do that better, the alumni association selected the Kintera Sphere platform, an online alumni community product, and created Irish Online, an engagement center with social-networking functions.
Irish Online is a mentoring and career network that offers MySpace functionality, but better. It allows alumni to set up personal Web pages where they can post photos and list information about themselves and their interests, post and search for jobs, reconnect with fellow alumni they might have lost contact with, send and receive e-mail, keep up with alumni news, and track their giving history.
“I’m not much of a MySpace or Facebook user or specialist myself, but I have heard some people say that one of the challenges is that the community is pretty open; that is one of the things that gives it the strength and width and breadth that it has,” Bellairs says. “The downside of that is maybe there are people that are in that space that you don’t want to interact with.
“The neat thing about our platform is that it’s behind our login, so you have to be a registered participant in our community before you can get to that Notre Dame MySpace-like functionality,” he explains.
Christian Varano, regional vice president for Kintera, adds: “Social-networking capabilities are of great interest right now across the board. It’s the ability to connect in an environment where you know the people in that social network all have the one common bond with you — that you’re all alums from Notre Dame or parents or friends or associated with the university in one shape or form. It is capitalizing on the popularity of larger social-networking sites, providing that same kind of feel and same kind of functionality, except that it is posted, run and managed by the Notre Dame staff.”
But Irish Online isn’t just a way to keep in touch with the younger generations of alumni. For Notre Dame, Web-savvy grads come in all ages.
“People think that only alumni within the last 10 years understand how the Internet works, and they’re the ones who are Internet-savvy,” Nanni says. “The class of 1956 has one of the best Web sites of any Notre Dame class, so it’s kind of fun to see how some things fly in the face of conventional wisdom.”
Irish Online also enables individual alumni clubs and chapters to set up consistently branded microsites that are connected to the alumni association site’s technology framework, with data flowing both up and down from the child site to the parent site, and vice versa. For example, the president of a local alumni club can access and manage alumni data and communications for the club. The microsites also offer the ability to do event registration, collect dues and sell tickets to events in a secure online environment.
“That is such a huge leap forward from the old days when you had to collect checks. You had to go to your computer, print out a document and then write a check, tuck it in an envelope and send it to somebody,” Bellairs says. “We think there are many people who probably did not participate in an event over the last year simply because it was kind of a hassle — they got used to one-click shopping on Amazon, they got used to buying something on eBay and going seamlessly to PayPal to pay for it.
“Taking the administrative hurdle off the table, we think that one feature alone will drive engagement through the roof,” he predicts.
With Irish Online’s capabilities and geography no longer needing to be the thread linking alumni to one another, the alumni association can offer virtual proximity and has been fostering the formation of affinity groups made up of Notre Dame graduates who are physicians, lawyers, journalists, members of the same class and even cancer survivors.
Pot o’ gold
Notre Dame’s hope, of course, is that Irish Online’s valued offerings will increase connectivity and engender alumni support for the institution.
“It will enhance our fundraising. Just like the more qualitative the experience is for our students, the more qualitative the experience is for our alumni, the more that will make people likely to give back to the university financially — no question about it,” Nanni says. “The more people stay connected, the more they have meaningful engagements with the university and other members of the Notre Dame family, the more that that will enhance our fundraising. Enhanced fundraising is not, however, our only goal. We hope to facilitate relationships and foster life-long learning.”
The alumni association has valid e-mail addresses for about 50 percent of the alumni body, and its goal over the next few years is to get that number up to 90 percent. Nanni says the viral marketing of alumni-to-alumni contact — aided by a “tell a friend” feature on the Irish Online homepage — will boost the number of e-mail addresses.
The technology also makes it easier to manage alumni, which are, on the whole, very engaged. About one-fifth of alumni are dues-paying members of their local clubs, and a large number participate in local service projects. Irish Online offers the association a content-management system so it can keep a file that tracks alumni interests; what they want to hear about from the university; and what they want to know about their local communities. Having that information makes it easier for the alumni association to deliver alumni the information they want — the first step to breaking through marketing clutter.
“If you choose to play in the online world, you have to accept that, in that environment, everyone else in the world is out there,” Bellairs says. “If there is an alum out there who only wants to know about the tennis team, the English department and the band, I need to find a way to customize my message so that that alum is getting information from me and from the university from those three areas, because that’s when they start to pay attention to your message — when they can recognize that message is for them.”
Notre Dame also benefits from a strong, recognizable brand.
“When they see that ND logo — it’s almost reflexive. When you see it out of the corner of your eye, you do a double-take and you look to see what it was because you recognize it,” Bellairs adds. “It’s that interlocking ND. It’s the distinctive use of blue and gold that no one else uses.”
The key is to engage alumni early and often, giving them a reason to come back. The least likely alumni to make a donation are those who have been out of school for one, two or three years, because they still don’t have much money at that point. But Nanni says it’s vital to get alumni in the habit of giving early, even if only at a modest level.
“That’s a gift that we really cherish and really work at because that’s the pipeline to the future,” he says. “If you can get recent graduates to get in the habit of giving annually — even if it’s $25 a year or $50 or $100 a year — once they come into greater wealth (on many occasions, later in life), it will be much easier for them to make a more significant gift to the university.
“It’s very important to establish those habits early, so we put a lot of time up front into trying to connect,” he adds.
Riding the rainbow
Notre Dame is coming off a record-breaking year in terms of fundraising and alumni involvement. New records were set this past year for the four different indices the university measures:
* Campaign production, which includes all new pledges, as well as planned gifts, brought in about $334 million last year, breaking the record of the previous year of $250 million;
* Cash receipts reached $215 million compared to $180 million the previous year;
* Unrestricted funds, which Nanni says are the most sought-after dollars for universities because they can address the institution’s foremost priorities — whatever they may be at the moment — totaled $31 million, breaking the previous year’s all-time record of $25 million; and
* Alumni participation, a tangible representation of graduates’ devotion to the institution, came in at 54.3 percent.
With Irish Online, the alumni association is poised to have another record-breaking year in these areas, its Web site now serving as a hub of information and services, and doing what every Web site should aspire to do: Give members a reason to come back over and over again.
“If Notre Dame can achieve that objective, we know that these people are going to be engaged at a much greater level. Engagement leads to stronger giving, both annual giving as well as major and capital giving,” Kintera’s Varano says. “So, it’s a way to treat each alum as an individual, provide them with the kind of information that they are interested in hearing about, and provide them with a Web site that allows them to connect with other alums, find a job, do all these other kind of social-networking things.
“And to have that within the university’s domain, so to speak, is a really strong selling point. The alums appreciate the university for providing that type of functionality to them. It’s kind of a feel-good use of the technology all around,” he adds.
Irish Online went live on June 20, and since then the university’s been plugging it pretty hard — sending out e-mail blasts; including information about it in its monthly e-newsletter and in Notre Dame Magazine, a print publication that goes out four times a year; and advertising it in the program for football games. In addition, it’s offering a fair number of sweeteners to get alumni to register and get involved. For example, alumni who registered on Irish Online before Sept. 20 automatically were entered into a drawing where they could win a trip to Italy, football tickets or a Lenovo laptop computer.
Notre Dame looks to its 120,000 alumni to lead it in its new initiatives. Bellairs says the secret is not letting it stagnate. The alumni association already is working with Kintera on Phase Two, which should include blogs and discussion groups, among other things.
“I think the number of directions that we can take the online platform is almost infinite because it’s going to be led by the creativity and the need, the desires of our alumni,” Nanni adds.