How One Institution is Engaging Alumni through Strategic Community Service Activities

Notre Dame campus in the fall

Networking events, game watches, fundraising activities, and mentoring opportunities all have a place in the engagement strategies portfolio. However, there are a significant number of alumni that want to create deeper bonds through community service work. As community service and civic engagement have become an important part of students’ time on campus, it is also a great opportunity for alumni relations teams to keep alumni connected.

Approximately 25% of all adults participate in some form of community service each year. That number would probably be even higher, except that community service often requires someone to exit their comfort zone and to do something with a group of people they do not know. Participating in community service through an alumni association helps break down barriers for individuals, since they know they can participate with a group of individuals who already share a connection with them.

At the University of Notre Dame, we took this thinking to the next level, and I want to share with you:

  1. A quick summary of the research and learning that informed our approach.
  2. What we did and why it was successful.
  3. What other alumni associations can learn from the program.

What We Learned

Because alumni associations serve a college-educated community, we have an opportunity to create service activities for alumni that go beyond task-based activities and take advantage of specific educational backgrounds. Creating these more targeted opportunities are the key to providing a deep connection for small groups of alumni. At Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, we conducted research into what types of service opportunities we could create that would allow our alums to contribute to a Chicago nonprofit (where many of our alumni live) while using their business skills to help the nonprofit move forward with their mission.

We found a very interesting organization doing similar work to what we hoped to create. Compass, DC is a nonprofit that launched in 2001 by a group of Harvard business school alumni, with the goal of connecting Harvard b-school alums with local DC/MD/VA area nonprofits to propel those nonprofits to bigger and better things. This organization has since grown into other cities and is now open to other MBA alumni. The program creates teams of 6-8 individuals who work directly with a nonprofit on a specific strategic challenge the nonprofit is facing.

This model was a great example for us to structure our program after. However, we also learned that these programs are not without their risks. Success requires engagement of all alumni team members and the direct involvement of the nonprofit. And although most alumni and nonprofit partners who apply have the best intentions at the outset, situations can arise over the course of a project that cause individuals to drop away; as a result, some of the projects may end up not completing. Some nonprofits may have turnover within their organizations, which can also create a hiatus in the project. To launch a service opportunity that pairs specific alumni expertise with the particular challenges a nonprofit is facing, the alumni relations group has to be comfortable with these risks.

What We Did

ND Impact Partners launched in 2014 as an opportunity for our business alumni to partner with nonprofits in Chicago. We required that each nonprofit partner would also have a Notre Dame connection; the nonprofits all have a Notre Dame alum as either a staff member, a key volunteer, or a board member. Nonprofits have to apply to be a part of the initiative, and they must commit a staff member to act as the liaison throughout the course of the six month project. This limits the risk of incomplete projects and ensures a deeper level of connection between our alumni volunteers and their nonprofit partners.

Our alumni are vetted for the program, too. The Graduate Alumni Relations Office reviews the alumni applications and interviews the top applicants before placing each alum onto a team. They also must apply to be on a team, indicate why they are interested, and indicate their level of interest in each of the projects that ND Impact Partners is taking on. We then form teams with six alumni each. In the past, the teams have had six months to complete their projects; going forward, this has changed to four months. There is a loose structure to the teams, with one alum taking the role of Project Lead and a second alum taking the role of Project Manager.

It’s crucial to remember that this is a strategy for deep engagement with small alumni groups. Due to the nature of the work, it is difficult to get a significant number of alumni involved; interest across the alumni body is not as high as you would have for a networking event or game watch. The return, however, is significant.

We had 30 alumni comprising 5 teams last year, and the alumni who were involved have developed deep connections with their project partners and with the College of Business. What is especially worth noting is that about half of the alumni who have participated in the program since 2014 had previously not had an active relationship with the College of Business.

Anecdotally, we have also seen a number of interesting things happen since launching the program:

  • We have a former team member who is now on our graduate alumni board.
  • Another team member is actively pursuing a career at the University.
  • Many have begun attending our regional events who had never attended them before.
  • The program has also helped generate some great interest stories for the College, along with an in-depth video on one of the programs.

Finally, the alumni who are involved have the opportunity to enhance their own business skills, while also developing very deep relationships with a small group of fellow alums. We have heard back from many alums involved in the program who have said they continue to keep in touch with their alumni teammates.

Food for Thought

As I noted above, this initiative is not without risks to the institution. If your school launches something similar, realize that at some point, there will be a project that will fail. You will have a team that is not able to complete its project on time due to attrition or lack of interest from certain team members. However, as long as this is part of your expectation going in — and as long as you are up front about the risk with both your alumni team members and your nonprofit partners — you will have a successful initiative. A program like this adds something different to your engagement portfolio and helps you reach alumni in a vastly different way than you may have been reaching them before.

Tim Ponisciak runs the blog Alumni Catalyst, offering lessons and examples from the corporate world of marketing that can inspire new ideas in annual giving and alumni relations. He is also the author of the book Innovative Strategies for Annual Giving and Alumni Relations: Lessons from the Corporate World (Academic Impressions, 2015).