Group of five people from Notre Dame Impact Partners, smiling
April 18, 2019

Notre Dame Impact Partners Spearhead Communications Growth at 826CHI

“Writing” is the first word that comes to mind when people think about 826CHI. Then “creative,” then “fun.” These are just some of the insights gained from the Notre Dame (ND) Impact Partners’ comprehensive audit of 826CHI’s marketing campaign strategy.

This initiative—a project of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, pairing business-savvy Mendoza alumni with Chicago nonprofits—was brought to 826CHI through the recommendation of Notre Dame alum and 826CHI Associate Board (AB) member Laura Mittelstaedt. “As a member of the AB, I’m continually looking for ways in which I can further support 826CHI,” she notes. “When I saw the opportunity to apply for the ND Impact Partners program, it seemed like a great way for 826CHI to get support from experts in the PR/communications field at no financial cost.”

The Time To Invest in Marketing is Now

When Mittelstaedt nominated the organization to receive an in-depth audit from the ND Project, she requested that the project’s scope focus on 826CHI’s marketing campaign strategy. “The time to invest in marketing is now,” she noted in her proposal, aiming to increase our donor base, pool of volunteers, and the readership of student work.

With consistent growth being the key to the success behind any nonprofit, the ND Impact Partners—represented by Mittelstaedt and fellow Associate Board member Natalia Welch—leveraged a three-pronged approach to determine where 826CHI currently succeeds and how we can use that data to propel ourselves into the future.

First, the ND Group conducted a survey of our key audiences. “We wanted to get a sense for whether 826CHI’s existing marketing efforts and program descriptions were consistent with how individuals actually experience and describe 826CHI themselves,” Mittelstaedt says. “We started to find the commonalities (creative writing, students, self-expression, importance of one’s own voice, etc.) and started to make these terms the key messaging of 826CHI,” Welch adds. “826CHI has a lot of stakeholders: employees, volunteers, board members, teachers, student authors, and parents. None of those stakeholders describe 826CHI the same way or had the same experience with the org. It’s special to all of them for different reasons.”

Surveying the National 826 Communications Landscape

The partners then coordinated interviews with leaders from 826 chapters in Detroit, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Los Angeles, to examine each chapter’s individual mission, message, and PR strategy. “No one runs their 826 chapter the same way. Each chapter can learn a lot from each other through knowledge sharing,” Welch notes. Though scattered throughout the country, the impact of these 826 chapters parallels that of 826CHI: each chapter works to bring equitable access to literary arts education to the students of their cities, bringing these young writers increased confidence, freedom of expression, and improved academic outcomes.

The final step in the ND Impact Partners’ methodology was to focus on marketing by conducting research into both 826 National and individual chapter PR processes and search engine optimization. Welch learned that when it comes to search optimization, “826CHI doesn’t show up for the first few pages for any search terms about creative writing programs or tutoring programs in Chicago. The more search words the team tried, the more we realized search is a huge opportunity for 826CHI. To be successful in today’s market, you need to rank highly.”

Actionable Results

After the audit, 826CHI’s Director of Development, Molly Fannin, secured a Google AdWords grant to seize this opportunity for marketing growth. “The Notre Dame team’s encouragement to address the untapped potential of Google searches was the push we needed to apply for Google AdWords,” Fannin says. “Now, we have ads running at all times—with guidance from Kayla Villegas, yet another 826CHI volunteer who works at Google—and we’re learning how to draw more folks in to our community through the platform.”

In addition to the AdWords grant, 826CHI Communications Coordinator Gaby FeBland adds, “we’re now trying to incorporate mission messaging and elevator pitches into staff training and onboarding and keep consistent messaging across stakeholder groups. We’ve also revised our style guide and revisit it every six months to ensure it aligns with our values and the way we’re growing.

The Notre Dame Impact Partners spent nearly five months developing a presentation for 826CHI’s staff and board. Regarding her experience as a whole, Welch left a glowing review. “It was the most incredible experience I’ve had with 826CHI. I joined the AB two years ago with the hope of sharing my experience and expertise to help the organization. This gave Kendra Curry-Khanna, 826CHI Executive Director] and Molly one less project to manage, and the result was actionable outcomes.”

Organizational Impact

“This was my favorite experience on the AB so far,” says Mittelstaedt, “because I felt like I was helping the organization in a meaningful, tangible way that would have a lasting impact on how it reaches its diverse audience.”

Welch also praises the project for bringing a diverse array of Notre Dame alumni into the fold. “The alumni ranged from retirees to fresh-out-of-undergrad, which made our project stronger. It was a continued lesson in the importance of perspective and diversifying skill sets to build a team.” “In addition to a big thanks to the ND team,” adds Mittelstaedt, “I also am very grateful to the staff and board members who helped us apply for the program, gathered information for the ND team to research and build off of, and attended the team's final presentation, and who are now integrating the lessons learned from this project into ongoing communications development and distribution.”

“We’ve made some new Notre Dame community partners that we might not have found had we not participated in this program,” Fannin says. “This was one of the smoothest pro-bono consulting experiences we’ve had at 826CHI.”

Organizations interested in applying for the Notre Dame Impact Partners audit can find more information on the Mendoza College of Business website. Applications will re-open in late 2019 or early 2020.