Development and Alumni Relations: Columbia's Frontline

From left to right: Directors of Development Brice Kanzer and Jessi Welton, Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations Shawn Wax, Executive Director of Alumni Relations Miriam Smith, and Director of Development Andrea Rohlfing. Photo: Phil Dembinski '08
Meet Columbia’s new fundraising team, whose diverse professional backgrounds bring new energy and vision to build a culture of engagement and giving.

Since he arrived in March, Vice President of Development and Alumni Relations Shawn Wax has been building an external outreach team focused on strengthening the college’s donor base and advancing the alumni network. 

Each team member brings valuable insight into their work, with fundraising and alumni relations experience from a variety of higher ed institutions, museums, nonprofits, and other organizations. Their diverse perspectives and work experience add many benefits to the team, but while their backgrounds are different, they all easily articulate the importance of Columbia’s greatest asset: its people.

A Collective Knowledge 
Three new Directors of Development and frontline fundraisers have recently joined the college: Brice Kanzer, Andrea Rohlfing, and Jessi Welton. They oversee their own respective academic school units (Schools of Fine and Performing Arts, Media Arts, and Liberal Arts and Sciences) and other constituents, a model adapted to empower faculty, staff, students, and alumni to be more involved in fundraising. When Wax first arrived at Columbia, he took note of a strong desire from the campus community to become engaged. “Given how well connected our faculty are to their respective industries and alumni, this model creates a clear path for faculty to be included in the process,” he says. Working closely with their constituents, the directors will be better suited to articulate compelling opportunities for philanthropic support. 

“We’ve seen things that work, we’ve seen things that don’t work,” says Kanzer, who worked at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Chicago before coming to Columbia. Kanzer joined the college this past August, and has been busy meeting alumni in LA. She partners them with current students and recent alumni, helping them reconnect with their alma mater. “Each director sees how donor audiences differ. If everyone came from higher ed, you’d have a much narrower scope, and a tendency to want to recreate versus pulling together your collective knowledge of ideas.”

Sarah Schroeder, Director of Alumni Relations for West Coast and Regional Programs, has worked with the college for 15 years and also sees strength in a team with various backgrounds. “It reflects Columbia,” she says. “It’s a diverse place with faculty, students, and staff from everywhere, and it reflects the alumni population. It just fits.”

Sarah Schroeder, Alumni RelationsSarah Schroeder, Director of Alumni Relations, West Coast and Regional Programs. Photo: Phil Dembinski '08

Paying it Forward
Since joining Columbia, Schroeder has worked to close the gap between entertainment professionals and students or recent alumni who want to jumpstart their careers. “I got a call from someone who wanted an assistant editor for a day and I knew an alum that was trying to get editing work,” Schroeder recalls. “She got the job, and ended up working on several Ron Howard movies before moving on to work at Dreamworks Animation for several years. That’s just one example of a day of work that turned into a whole career.”

Schroeder also works alongside Executive Director of Alumni Relations Miriam Smith on alumni events, like the annual Oscar party, that make it easy for alumni to say thank you to Columbia. Smith’s team recently partnered with Admissions to bring Communication alum and actress Nadine Velazquez ’01 to this fall’s recent Open House.

“Her speech was so powerful,” says Smith. “She spoke on how her experience at Columbia has impacted her life and she wanted to share that with others. Our team makes sure alumni are provided with that platform.” Alumni acting as good stewards is only one of the many ways the team is beginning to build a culture of giving. Smith and her team had a hand in growing the Columbia National Alumni Board, the Chicago chapter (expanding from 15 to 40), developing the alumni newsletter Columbia Connection, partnering with more faculty and academic departments, and much more.

Alumni acting as good stewards is only one of the many ways the team is beginning to build a culture of giving. 

Rohlfing is meeting with foundations and corporations to raise dollars for scholarships, programs, and facilities. She sees giving as a bridge between people’s passions and their desires for progress. “Sometimes it’s done in a reactionary way, when we give to solve an acute need,” she says. “That’s one way of doing it, and it certainly works, but on the other end it’s important to showcase and emphasize what’s possible. Giving can bring a vision into reality.”

Welton, who started with the college this month, comes to Columbia from ChiArts. “As development professionals, it’s easy to get so focused on your specific sector or niche,” she says. “This way we can benefit from each other’s experiences and best practices.” Welton, who will work primarily with the School of Fine and Performing Arts, is most looking forward to being a part of the college’s current transformation. “The more I learn about the innovative work being done by Columbia alumni, students, and faculty, the more inspired I am to share these stories.”

Wax’s team has been working hard to find ways for everyone to get involved in supporting Columbia, but some of them are as easy as stopping by and saying hi. “Spread the word, fundraising is a team sport,” says Wax. “Come see us. Share your priorities and needs with us. Attend our events. Help us thank donors. Every day, find a way to make a friend for Columbia.”

Additional information: As part of Giving Tuesday on Nov. 28, we’ll share ways to give back to Columbia.