“It was the day that Northwestern professor Dale Mortensen’s Nobel Prize in Economics was announced,” recalls McQuinn. “I thought it was remarkable that I show up for my first day of work at Northwestern and Mortensen wins the prize.”
In his early efforts to familiarize himself with the University, McQuinn attended several Wildcat football games last fall as well as participated in the Northwestern Alumni Association’s annual awards dinner.
Then he hit the road. McQuinn visited with alumni groups in Arizona, California, Florida and New York and accompanied University President Morton Schapiro on several international trips and met alumni in London, Paris, Mumbai, Singapore and Beijing.
A veteran development leader with more than 20 years’ experience, McQuinn thinks it’s an exciting time to be at Northwestern as the University develops a new strategic plan for its future growth.
“Now that we’ve dropped below the 20 percent acceptance rate [for undergraduate applicants], it makes Northwestern’s one of the most sought-after degrees in the country. So we have to ask ourselves, what is the educational promise we are putting forth to prospective students as Northwestern maintains this new position among the most highly selective universities in the world?”
Once the University completes its strategic plan, it will be time to reconcile those ambitions with the University’s financial resources.
Though McQuinn says it’s premature to talk about a new comprehensive campaign, it’s crucial that the University communicates its vision and relevance to alumni.
“You cannot assume that because someone is an alum, they automatically treasure Northwestern as a philanthropic priority. We still have to make our case of why the University can and should be relevant to them.
“When you hear about our students’ work or see our faculty’s accomplishments, from the humanities to the applied sciences, it’s not that difficult to make that case.”
But it’s getting harder to get the case heard. Alumni are inundated with information. “It’s not enough just to have good addresses for people,” he says. “We have to figure out how can we become a central part of their life. How do we earn that small bandwidth that allows us to deliver information?
“So we have to continue proving our relevance almost on a daily basis to cause people to want to opt-in to the Northwestern community.”
For this reason the NAA is ramping up its use of social media to help alumni stay connected with each other on relevant topics, lifestyle issues and events.
“We have to do a better job of understanding what alumni care about,” says McQuinn, “and how we can help our alumni more easily connect with one another and the University around the issues they find most compelling.”
But getting alumni attention is one thing. Getting alumni to participate in giving is quite another. It all boils down to the ongoing value of the Northwestern degree, says McQuinn. “Right now a primary way for alumni to influence the reputation of their degrees is through the annual giving participation rate. That’s the barometer of satisfaction — do alumni believe Northwestern is on the right track?”
McQuinn says every gift every year is so important because it’s a vote of confidence in the University’s current and future plans. As to why alumni should give, McQuinn relays a conversation he overheard once between two alumni volunteers during a fund drive.
“Why are you doing this?” one said to the other. “This institution has a tremendous amount of resources. I’m not sure our gifts really count.”
The other replied: “It’s a lot like going to the horse races. While watching the horses is fun, the minute you put a $2 bet on a horse, you really become engaged in the experience.”
McQuinn says it’s a wonderful analogy to alumni participation. “Putting even modest money in the game can change the intensity of your connection to the University in very positive ways.”
One of the most important reasons for alumni to give to Northwestern, adds McQuinn, is that it helps keep the University honest and true to its mission.
“The administration, the faculty and even current students — we pass through here in such a short period of time. It’s the alumni who can really keep the place honest and Northwestern true to its most treasured values and traditions.”