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Creative Engagement in a Virtual World: Connecting with Alumni and Donors

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University of Denver

An Interview with Wyatt Hornsby, AVC for Creative Engagement, Advancement

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How has your work changed, adapted and shifted in this virtual world?

At DU, in-person engagement is one of the most effective, meaningful ways we build relationships with our alumni, donors and friends. This involves not just one-on-one contact and networking but also events of all kinds. Year-round, we meet with alumni and donors to get to know them, and we also host events across Denver, in our regional markets and globally.

When the realities of physical distancing and the economic impact of the virus took hold, we in Advancement stepped back and asked ourselves, “In this difficult time for our community, what can we do through our programming that will serve our alumni and friends while still complying with physical distancing? How can we show up for them and deliver value?” Out of that process came a temporary pivot from in-person to virtual engagement. Our Career & Professional Development and Alumni Engagement teams worked together to create a lineup of free virtual events. Featuring DU faculty and other experts, the lineup includes virtual programming focused on mental and physical health and wellness, career development, children and parents, working remotely, and more. We’re adding new programs daily to keep it fresh and exciting.

To make it easy for our community to access the programming in one place, my team developed a microsite,, housing all of the programs, as well as other resources, such as how alumni can get in touch with our Career & Professional Development team for career support. The site is also a gateway for supporting impacted students and contacting us if you’re an alumni-owned business owner who wants to connect.

We wanted to ensure the site launch was done just right. So we worked with the Chancellor and his office to launch our virtual programming with an e-mail from the Chancellor to our alumni and friends inviting them to take part in these free offerings. Since then, thanks to ongoing marketing, one-on-one outreach, and the community coming together to raise awareness of the programming and site, including callouts by our wonderful deans, we’ve seen great engagement and strong demand for our virtual programs.

What ways are you and your department/team trying to build community, connection and a deeper sense of belonging virtually?

In DU Advancement, we’re about being there for our alumni, friends and campus community—always. Right now, in this time, how we show up for our community will be remembered. For example, we have alumni whose businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector, have been significantly impacted. We’re working with as many as we can to bring community support, such as through a social media campaign to help inspire foot traffic. We’re also working hard to support our students through our best-in-class career services.

Our approach is based on relationship-building over time but also through what we have to offer with our programming. The good news is that technology allows us to stay in touch with our alumni and friends during this time while offering something of great value to our community.

What are some of the biggest successes and challenges you’ve seen as the world has shifted to a virtual experience?

Speaking for my team, we’re feeling more inspired than ever. Our skillsets are being put to high use in bringing digital sophistication, precise strategies, and strong creative to help drive quality engagement and connection. The response from the community has been exciting thus far. Just last week, we in Global Networks worked with our friends in the Graduate School of Professional Psychology and Graduate School of Social Work to host a webinar about telehealth, and over 500 participated! We have over 200 registered for a webinar on communicating with emotional intelligence in a virtual world. Plus, we have daily virtual dance parties and music time for kids and they’re getting incredible engagement. Those are just a few examples. Lots going on!

The emotional toll of COVID-19 has been a major challenge. Increasingly, we’re all being touched more and more every day by its impacts. So, at times it’s been hard to stay positive, but in our work, we have to bring a can-do spirit and new ideas or else we won’t show up for our community in ways that matter and make a difference. We’re inspired to explore opportunities, stay curious, and operate with an abundance mindset. Not easy in these times, but we are striving for this.

If you could say one thing to the DU Community right now, what would you say?

This is a strong university community and DU is a special place. At DU, we are gritty. We are resilient. We are imaginative and innovative. We’re a part of a magnificent university within a world-class city that has endured and found ways to thrive. We have met and overcome lots of big challenges over the course of our history. We just have to keep coming together as a diverse, inclusive community, supporting each other and believing…in ourselves and in each other.