Mendoza School of Business

Mission Driven

Notre Dame Executive MBA students raise money for nonprofit groups

Published: February 24, 2023 / Author: Brendan O’Shaughnessy

It began with a swear jar and super-sized through a white elephant gift exchange.

Graduate students in Notre Dame’s Executive MBA program may have started small, but their goal of making an impact grew into reality by raising tens of thousands of dollars for a South Bend community group and veterans’ housing. During their two-year program, the cohort of 36 that will graduate in May donated $15,000 to a Latino support and advocacy group and $50,000 to build a house for a homeless veteran in St. Louis.

man speaking to a group

Brad Taylor

While it took a group effort and matching grants to reach their goals, Jonathon Geels and Brad Taylor led the charge to pick the nonprofit organizations that inspired such generous philanthropy. Both said the fundraising began organically but became a major part of the mission-centered approach that drives the program.

“Every single person in the cohort is at Notre Dame because it’s a mission-driven program,” Geels said. “Everybody had a different perspective on what that mission-driven aspect is. But it was a resonant thing with us. It’s a differentiator.”

The Notre Dame EMBA program, which is intended for working professionals, is offered in two formats — a South Bend cohort that meets on the main Notre Dame campus and a Chicago cohort that meets in the Notre Dame classroom in the city’s downtown. Each cohort meets for in-person residencies for three days every month, and there is a week-long immersion each semester. The rest of the classwork and team meetings are done remotely.

Geels, a landscape architect who recently became president of Troyer Group in South Bend, explained how the fundraising initiative came into being.

EMBA orientation kicks off with Executive Integral Leadership (EIL), a signature program of the business school that challenges students to consider their leadership styles in a way that integrates personal, spiritual and moral beliefs. It’s an intensive experience that students often call transformative.

Geels said the swear jar started during EIL as a tongue-in-cheek idea to promote clean, cordial language and collect dollars for transgressions. While the money was negligible, the jar soon spurred the students to consider how they should contribute the collection to a meaningful purpose.

In his landscape architecture work, Geels had gotten to know Juan Constantino, executive director of La Casa de Amistad. La Casa offers immigration legal help, bilingual preschool, youth programs, citizenship classes, a food pantry and assistance with utilities and digital access for the Latino community in South Bend and five surrounding counties. Geels invited Constantino to speak to the class.

“The cohort was really taken by his journey and the things that La Casa was doing, particularly with kids,” Geels said. “So by the time we got to our holiday party, that was really where we started making a concerted effort towards fundraising.”

The party at Rohr’s restaurant in the Morris Inn in December 2021 started with trading gifts in a white elephant exchange, but quickly grew into bidding on items that raised significant money. Geels said surveys and a volunteer committee determined that the money should go toward La Casa. Some classmates also worked at companies that offered matching grants, increasing the totals.

Geels said past efforts inspired the students to do even more. The previous cohort had made an enormous effort to honor the legacy of Michael Carroll, a classmate who died in 2021 at age 46. The effort eventually raised more than $370,000 to fund a scholarship and a memorial bench on campus in Carroll’s name.

“We want to outdo ourselves,” Geels said. “It’s something that, hey, we did this last year, but I think we can do better.”

So with a clear idea of where the money would go, and some unique creations by talented graphic designers to hype the white elephant gifts, the cohort outdid themselves in 2022.

Brad Taylor, a Navy veteran who runs a real estate company focusing on relocating active service members, introduced the next recipient. Taylor said he’s glad he took a chance on applying to a program with the motto, “Grow the Good in Business.”

“I can tell you that it’s definitely changed the course of my life,” he said. “It’s given me a great sense of fulfillment, a great group of people. The character of the people that come to Notre Dame is top notch.”

vcp video opening screenshotHe and his wife found their real estate niche in moving military clients from base to base. They learned about the Veterans Community Project and immediately got involved. The VCP builds tiny homes (240 square feet) for homeless veterans in small communities with a services center, starting with 49 in Kansas City and spreading to Colorado, St. Louis, Sioux Falls, Oklahoma City and Milwaukee.

“Once you can see it in the flesh – the people that are at VCP, how dedicated they are to that mission, the communities that they built, where they build them, and the services that they provide – it’s hard not to get pumped up,” Taylor said.

With two Navy tours under his belt, the former lieutenant understood and empathized with the challenges that veterans face.

“A big part of your identity when you’re in the military is a sense of belonging, a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood,” he said. “And when you take the uniform off, I know a lot of people have struggled with it. You kind of lose that sense of identity and purpose in your life.

“This provides them the opportunity to get back on their feet. They have a roof over their head for a set amount of time. It gives them dignity. But I think I think the biggest thing that I’ve heard from people is that it provides veterans with that sense of camaraderie again.”

After the success of the previous holiday party fundraising, Taylor knew the class was looking for another charity, so he brought his enthusiasm to the party organizers. “It caught fire is the best way to describe it,” he said.

By the day after the party, they had raised nearly $20,000. A classmate said his company would be willing to match any donation up to $25,000. “So that kind of spurred us to get to that number and stars aligned and everything,” Taylor said. “The price to build a tiny home in one of these communities around the country is $50,000.”

The sense of mission doesn’t stop at treasure; it also includes time and talent. The cohort completed their most recent immersion week in Santiago, Chile. They worked with a legal company there called Total Abogados and also with a nonprofit that provides health care for pediatric burn victims throughout Latin America. Both Geels and Taylor said the nonprofit work, helping Coaniquem grow its donor base and marketing in the United States, resonated most.

Gianna Bern

Gianna Bern

Gianna Bern, who teaches finance and serves as EMBA academic director, said she was proud of the students for their passionate fundraising and their work with Coaniquem.

“At the highest level, experiential learning goes beyond the classroom,” Bern said. “Our students are asked to solve or improve a societal or business problem in an international context.  Every day, our EMBA students are walking the walk.  Isn’t that what ‘Grow the Good in Business’ is about?”

Geels and Taylor don’t think this mindset stops at graduation. “This is really a launch point for the cohort,” Geels said. “I don’t think people feel like we’re done. This whole experience leads to additional impact.”

“I suspect that this won’t be the last time that we get together and try to do something good for some community or some organization,” Taylor said. “There’s been a lot of talk of doing an annual deal.”