Denver Urban Research Institution Leadership Summit Recap

  /  Wisr Summit Recaps   /  Denver Urban Research Institution Leadership Summit Recap

Denver Urban Research Institution Leadership Summit Recap

Our inaugural Urban Research Institution Leadership Summit, co-hosted with the University of Colorado Denver, was incredibly focused and productive. Every attendee was a VP or Executive Director of their alumni relations team and/or their alumni association, with their sleeves rolled up, ready to dig in. Here’s a short recap of the talks and workshops throughout the two-days.

Opening Keynote

Andrea Wagner | Vice Chancellor of Advancement, CU Denver

The day kicked off with Andrea Wagner, Vice Chancellor of Advancement taking a poll of how many advancement team members face the same challenges as CU Denver, our host institution. Seventy percent of the bullet points were ubiquitous, including the schools formerly being considered a “Commuter” campus, a fast growing undergraduate population, and suffering from brand confusion against their system-flagship campuses. In a guest appearance by CU Denver Chancellor Dr. Dorothy Horrell, she stated “major urban institutions are a glimpse into the future and a beacon of hope for access in the higher education system.” Attendees were energized by the opportunities in front of them and excited to start sharing.


Creating a ‘front door’ for the city

Nolbert ChavezChief of External Initiatives, CU Denver

We were greeted by a special guest, Nolbert Chavez, CU Denver Chief of External Initiatives. Nolbert works closely with Chancellor Horrell, faculty, and staff to assure that external engagement efforts across campus are effective, value added and strategic.

Inspired by conversations with Michael B. Hancock, mayor of Denver and proud CU Denver alumnus, Nolbert is co-leading a project to create the CU Denver City Center designed as a front-door for the community and City of Denver to access CU Denver resources. One of the unique opportunities and challenges of being a major, urban-based campus is defining the role the university plays in big city issues like access, transportation, and infrastructure. The advancement team at CU Denver takes its community engagement role very seriously. With a newly enrolled population that is 49% students of color, and a growing 1st generation college student population, CU Denver is more reflective of Denver’s growing urban population than any other institution in the state.

Articulating your value proposition

value-propAs University of Illinois at Chicago Executive Director Caryn Korman stated, “Everything has changed since 2008.” She was referring to the simultaneous change in economic environment and rise of Facebook. The value proposition before that point was simple, be a hub to connect alumni. With alumni able to interact on their own, it’s caused a pivot for many alumni organizations. In recent years, alumni relations has become lean and mean, testing a variety of unique value propositions for their respective organizations. In the room, we mapped target personas with specific value propositions, ranging from career support to sponsored events.

Leveraging Collaboration & Partnership

Adrienne Bass | Associate Vice Chancellor Alumni, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee 

Adrienne and her team have dramatically overhauled their advancement team to create a culture of data-driven decisions while leveraging partnerships to rapidly grow engagement. With a multitude of new programs.

By the number, UW-Milwaukee has:

  • 25,412 students who represent the greatest diversity in the state
  • 82% of students are Wisconsin residents
  • 74% of graduates live and work in Wisconsin

In 3 short years, UW-Milwaukee has increased its volunteer base by 174%, grown attendance to events by 15,000 annually, and increased chapter involvement by 530%.

How? Collaborative alumni program with rigorous measure of its effectiveness.

These include:

  • 14 alumni chapters and 45 alumni ‘Captains’ organically growing
  • A new large-format evening awards program
  • A ‘Panthers @ Work’ program engaging large corporate partners
  • A ‘Master Chats’ series with alumni and faculty leaders giving TED-style talks.

The key though is making sure chapters, captains, and other appointed ‘connectors’ for the institution are effective. Leveraging an elegantly constructed business intelligence model, the UW-Milwaukee team has started scoring the effectiveness of engagement by chapter, captain, down to the event level.  Below is an example snapshot, measuring the effectiveness of participants through affinity scoring. Adrienne is now able to definitively articulate which strategies are driving annual fund participants and which investments have a donor rate ROI.


Strategic Planning and Leveraging Survey Data to Focus


Tom Bull | Executive Director of Alumni Relations, Portland State University

Tom jumped in ready to discuss several key issues facing everyone in the room:

  • How do you build an effective alumni board?
  • What do you do when you inherit a program in transition?
  • Does a strategic plan allow you to consider overall governance issues?

Further, he brought with him key survey data, and what they learned about approaching their survey to help evolve PSU’s strategy plan.

Here are a few key data points to understand how PSU must look at their alumni base differently.

PSU grads are less likely to participate in ‘traditional’ programming

21% would attend athletic event vs. 45% peer average
9% would attend Homecoming vs. 18% peer average

PSU grads are more likely to support political and social causes

30% are involved in political organizations/campaigns vs. 23% peer average

PSU grads are also Interest in events with academic or career related focus

They are 42% more likely to attend professional seminars and 47% more likely to attend lectures than their peer averages

Using this information, Todd helped the institution develop a robust strategic plan that incorporated these findings with with their president’s strategic plan:


One of Tom’s most important messages to the group was to back decisions with data, and point to it any time a stakeholder tries to tray from ‘the plan’. Alumni relations deals with an extremely high number of stakeholders both internally and externally. Conducting surveys that are thoughtful and scientifically sound has helped tom execute faster at PSU, and move their mission forward.

Think tank: Alumni Relations and Development working together; alumni engagement metrics


Dan Gould | Executive Director of Alumni Relations and Annual Giving, CU Denver

Dan Gould engaged the group in a discussion of how alumni relations and development both compliment each other and execute against a shared set of goals. At the University of Colorado Denver, Dan manages both the alumni relations and annual giving functions and integrates a similar set of engagement priorities in both areas.

In illustrating the case for pipeline building within your alumni base, Dan shared:

  • Alumni make up the largest portion of annual giving donors at CU Denver, and generate over twice as much gift revenue than institutional friends
  • Alumni annual donors are also twice as likely to be retained year over year, and when looking at a leadership annual giving range of $1000-$25,000 donors, that retention rate increases by an additional 26%

Dan also presented an alumni engagement scoring model, focusing on outcomes within four categories:

  • Digital interaction
  • Experiential
  • Volunteerism
  • Philanthropy

Additionally, this scoring model looked at the output of each of these areas as measured in annual giving support. Many of the summit attendees also had examples of measuring volunteer output and events in different dollar and numerical equivalents which revealed the potentially competing priorities of the focus of alumni work.

Signature Events: The Halsey Festival


Gloria Walker | Director of Alumni Relations, Rutgers University – Newark

While it is true that everything is moving online, there is no replacement for an incredible signature event. The Halsey Festival is just that.

Gloria Walker has partnered with her community in Newark to build an extremely unique public private partnership between the City and Rutgers University – Newark. The key was developing community trust and being discrete in the utilization of Rutgers branding. By making the event appear as a community event, it draws thousands of regional alumni, employers, students, and supporters who otherwise would not attend a normal alumni event (think reunion, homecoming). Rutgers-Newark, like many of the other major urban is shaking the stigma of being a community campus and being in an unsafe urban environment. Halsey street is the center of commerce and quickly becoming a new cultural mecha. This evolving partnership provides job opportunities for students, increased awareness and access for underrepresented students, and engagement with regional alumni, who haven’t felt a strong sense of affinity previously.


Overview of Attendees

  • California State University, Fullerton: Dianna Fisher, Executive Director of Alumni Relations
  • California State University, Los Angeles: Janet Dial, Vice President of University Advancement
  • Georgia State University: Christina Million, Associate Vice President of Alumni Relations
  • Portland State University: Tom Bull, Executive Director of Alumni Relations
  • Rutgers University-Newark: Josh Harraman, Associate Vice President for Alumni Relations; Gloria Walker, Director of Alumni Relations
  • University of Colorado Denver: Dan Gould, Executive Director Alumni Relations and Annual Giving; Andrea Wagner, Vice Chancellor of Advancement
  • University of Illinois at Chicago: Wendy Crupper, Director of Alumni Engagement; Caryn Korman, Executive Director of UIC Alumni Association
  • University of Memphis: Kristie Goldsmith, Director of Alumni Relations
  • University of Missouri-Kansas City: Lisen Tammeus, Assistant VC Alumni Constituent Relations; Troy Lillebo, Assistant Vice Chancellor of External Relations
  • University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee: Adrienne Bass, Associate Vice Chancellor Alumni Relations; Pat Kessenich, Chief Operating Officer and Director of Major and Planned Giving



Co-founder & President

John Knific is co-founder and President of Wisr. An entrepreneur who is passionate about what education technology can do for students, John's on a mission to tackle the big challenge of getting students connected with jobs after college by engaging alumni.

See how Wisr can create meaningful connections on your campus