Interview with Brandon Buzbee, Associate Vice Chancellor of Global Networks at University of Denver
What strategies do you use in building alumni engagement at University of Denver?
I envision our alumni engagement framework as a portfolio of three distinct drivers:
1. Tried, true and traditional: This includes Homecomings, golf events, phone-a-thons, and everything else that others expect your office to be doing. The problem is that it’s easy to get trapped in always doing what is tried and true. It consumes more of schools' time, energy, and budget than necessary.
2. Distinctive value: What is the one value that you are positioning as distinctive to your alumni? It’s a competitive landscape. Just because you’re their university doesn’t mean that alumni feel motivated to pay attention. At DU, we've chosen to position ourselves as relevant in the professional lives of our graduates.
3. Face to face conversations with your alumni community: Surveys can only tell you so much. When you start doing the hard work of speaking to your graduates, you start to discover where your value lies, and whether it is waning or gaining. When you have a better understanding of this pulse, you’re going to be able to plan more innovative initiatives and respond in a meaningful way. When we aren't out of the office as much as we should be, we risk forfeiting innovation.
The balance of this portfolio can hinder or improve your chances of engaging alumni successfully. If your office is too tried and true, you’re only going to get the results you’ve always gotten. If your office is out having face-to-face conversations without being grounded in a few tried and true strategies, you’re not going to be able to scale your results. The balance is different for every school, but finding what combination works is a key to success.
What's the biggest question you've been dealing with in alumni engagement at University of Denver?
University of Denver is in a place that a lot of institutions are finding themselves. With the increased cost of education, there is more pressure on universities to make sure they have a response for the question: “What happens after I get my degree?"
The burden of answering this question has traditionally fallen on career services, but those offices tend to be staffed and incentivized only to help current students. They simply don’t have the resources to work with alumni, which would mean providing service at a scale of almost 1 to 100,000 at some universities.
Alumni relations, on the other hand, provides a new answer. At DU, the main question we’ve asked is: How can we leverage the alumni community to help the next generation of graduates reach their personal and professional goals, so they feel gratitude and belonging to a university that lasts long beyond their time here?
How do you walk the line between building engagement at the same time as building a culture of philanthropy?
Philanthropy is a derivative of something much deeper. Alumni are going to give back to organizations that they care about, but that act of giving has to stem from loyalty, gratitude, and passion for that organization. We’re looking to earn that sense of gratitude from our students early on. University of Denver has changed the lives of its alumni. We see philanthropy as an opportunity for them to be a part of that transformation for others.
What trends have you noticed in alumni relations in the last few years?
It's an exciting time in education. Though it can be a challenge to make bold and innovative moves in this industry, the risk of not moving forward is greater these days than the risk of innovation. I would love to see more institutions making bold moves and enhancing their value within their institution.
The recession in 2008 changed the game for higher education. Most colleges and universities are still dealing with the ripple effects. Creativity in this environment should be celebrated. Innovation is valuable.
There are going to be models that emerge in the next few years that work, and more clarity about what makes an effective contemporay model. I’d love to see more leaders in this space start to articulate and test whats working and what the outcomes can be.
Brandon Buzbee is the associate vice chancellor of global networks at the University of Denver. He currently oversees all efforts in alumni engagement, career services, and annual giving and is leading the university in a new engagement paradigm. Previously, he served as the executive director of industry engagement and regional advancement at the University of California, San Diego, where he supervised efforts around student employment and regional advancement.
During his five year tenure at UC San Diego, Buzbee led efforts to conduct more than 4,000 face-to-face qualification visits with alumni throughout the country, helped move the association from a dues-paying model toward a giving-societies model, and worked to integrate solid-data analytics toward fostering stronger relationships with alumni. Despite tough economic times, the team at UC San Diego was able to increase alumni donor numbers by 66 percent over the course of four years by thinking differently about the business of alumni engagement and philanthropy.