Andrea Wagner surveys the menu at Backstage Coffee before stepping to the counter and flashing her big smile. “Hi Tyler, how are you? I’d like a club soda, please,” she says.
It’s not surprising that Wagner, CU Denver’s vice chancellor of Advancement, is on a first-name basis with the barista – even here, several blocks from campus, where skyscrapers give way to the promenade of the city’s performing arts complex.
Wagner makes a point of getting to know people wherever she goes. Maybe this stems from her Midwestern roots; perhaps it carried over from her banking career; or maybe it’s just her affable nature and relentless curiosity. Regardless, making genuine connections comes easily for Wagner, and this talent has been at the heart of her immense success at the University of Colorado Denver. At CU Denver, Wagner has been both a graduate student (MA ’14) and, for the past eight years, a dynamic leader of the university’s unprecedented fundraising success.
Prior to 2010, CU Denver had never reached the $10 million fundraising threshold in a fiscal year. Since then, the Office of Advancement, working with key partners, has raised well over that amount every year.
“Our goal was to reach $20 million a year by 2020, and we’re on pace to do that,” the vice chancellor said. “So far this year, we’re at $16 million, so we could be close to $20 million raised in fiscal year 2017-18.”
Recently, Wagner led discussions with Denver philanthropists Lola and Rob Salazar, who pledged $10 million to the Lola & Rob Salazar Student Wellness Center. The generous gift makes the facility the first named building on campus, a milestone for CU Denver. Wagner also helped bring to fruition the terms of the Dr. C.W. Bixler Family Foundation’s pledge of $12 million – CU Denver’s largest-ever estate gift – to the College of Architecture and Planning.
Taking a risk
Wagner points out that her fundraising career wouldn’t have started if not for Matt Wasserman, her predecessor. Wasserman took a risk when he hired her as development director for the CU Denver Business School in fall 2010.
“I didn’t have any fundraising experience,” said Wagner, who earned a BA in commercial Spanish from CU Boulder. But she had logged over two decades in banking, the industry where she honed her business acumen and interpersonal skills.
“The fundamentals are the same: You talk with people and learn about their needs and interests,” she said.
It’s in those conversations where Wagner, along with her team of development directors, match donors’ passions with the compelling creative activities and research endeavors taking place at Colorado’s only public urban research university.
“In a fundraising position, you have to meet with people, listen well and make those connections,” she said. The job requires every skill and every tool she’s developed in her professional career.
Smart, committed, fun
Pausing a moment to reflect, she added, “I will miss the people I work with. They are smart, committed and fun.”
Wagner will step down from her position on May 18. In her usual plainspoken way, the vice chancellor acknowledges the reason isn’t much of a secret: She has cancer, which has progressed to stage four. As much as she cherishes her job, Wagner knows it’s time to dial back on her hard-charging, get-things-done daily routine.
“I know it’s the right thing for the university, and it’s the right thing for me to do personally,” she said.
Wagner got off to an impressive start at CU Denver, serving as development director on the team, led by the Business School’s former dean Sueann Ambron, that connected J.P. Morgan and local business leaders to establish the J.P. Morgan Center for Commodities. On the heels of this and other successes, she was promoted to lead the Office of Advancement in 2015.
Colleagues describe her contributions to CU Denver as being immeasurable.
“I have found Andrea’s commitment to the University of Colorado, our campus and our students to be unparalleled,” said CU Denver Chancellor Dorothy Horrell. “Her impeccable character, sound judgment, creative enthusiasm and consummate professionalism have made her a valued leader and cherished colleague. … The foundation she has built for Advancement will continue to grow and benefit CU Denver and our students for decades to come.”
Johnnie Ray, vice president of the CU Office of Advancement, said Wagner has provided consistent and compelling advocacy and leadership for the university.
“She has helped to shape a strong narrative demonstrating how CU Denver is a powerful and leverageable asset for advancing quality of life in our city,” Ray said. “I know Chancellor Horrell will miss Andrea’s voice at the leadership table, as will all of her colleagues across the entire CU System.”
CU President Bruce D. Benson joined Wagner, Horrell and other CU Denver leaders on a trip to the Middle East last spring. The delegation strengthened bonds and opened doors to new opportunities with leaders of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. It marked the second straight year that a Wagner-led Advancement delegation visited this region of the Middle East, where CU Denver alumni hold influential positions and number well into the hundreds.
“Andrea has done a tremendous job for CU Denver, and it’s notable how she made a remarkably smooth transition from her previous experience in banking to fundraising,” Benson said. “She has raised the bar for the campus and has delivered on those higher expectations. Our students and faculty are considerably better off for her efforts.”
Opportunity to assess
Before Wagner started her new career of working with prospective donors, she took some time to work on herself. In 2005, Wagner’s first husband died, leaving her grieving as well as reassessing.
“An event like that, as horrible as it is, gives you an opportunity to assess where you are and what you want to do,” she said. “I decided I wanted to go back to school.”
She decided to continue her Spanish studies. Attending graduate school turned out to be financially feasible, thanks to her daughter Charlotte Wagner having earned an Evans Scholarship to attend CU Boulder (she later received a graduate degree in pharmacy at CU Anschutz).
“I really got to understand our student body here at CU Denver in a personal way,” said Wagner, who began graduate studies in 2009. “I also got to personally experience the quality of our faculty. We have some absolutely brilliant people in our faculty. I was in the Modern Languages Department, and my respect for them and their work grew so much. They are doing some mind-blowing research and teaching.”
Working behind the scenes
Recognizing and valuing the talent of others is one of Wagner’s key leadership traits. As vice chancellor of Advancement, she has increased staffing by 25 percent while enhancing donor and alumni relations. In the latter area, she noted, “our work is really paying off. Engaged alumni are happy alumni, and happy alumni can become donors.”
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LEAVING A LEGACY
Among her many lasting legacies at CU Denver, Andrea Wagner has pledged a planned gift to set up an endowment, with no restrictions, in the Modern Languages Department.
Wagner emphasized that she doesn’t feel the need to be “front-and-center in front of donors.” She prefers to leave that to her many skilled development directors. She mostly focuses on creating an infrastructure in which fundraisers can be successful.
The vice chancellor said CU Denver’s fundraising support has gained momentum due to multiple factors: her talented and hard-working team and its university partners, top-level leadership support for the Office of Advancement, as well as the repositioning of CU Denver by the CU in the City campaign.
“Our job in Advancement is to connect donors to the people doing the work – faculty, staff, programs – and ensuring that relationship is strong and productive,” she said. “We’re just the ones behind the scenes helping to make it happen.”
Exceed every goal
Making college viable for all students, no matter their income or background, is one of Wagner’s greatest passions. It’s why one of her many lasting legacies will be the vision and guidance she brought to the LYNX UP scholarship campaign, which launched with great fanfare on Feb. 28. The campaign has a goal of raising $15 million in three years.
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An on-campus reception for Wagner will take place from 3-5 p.m. on Thursday, May 17, in the Office of Advancement suite on the 12th floor in the Lawrence Street Center. The reception is open to the entire CU Denver campus community.
“I have every confidence we will meet and exceed every goal we have,” she said. “The scholarship campaign is part of our overall fundraising strategy, along with our alumni relations and donor relations strategies. The campaign is important to moving CU Denver to the next level, and stating clearly to the philanthropic community that this is where we need you to invest. This is priority number one.”
Always setting her sights higher, Wagner said each of CU Denver’s future scholarship campaigns will set even larger fundraising goals.
“You have to start getting in the habit of raising money together,” she said. “Fundraising is a team sport, and the LYNX UP campaign is one way of building our team. It takes everyone doing their part.”
As anyone who has worked with Wagner will attest: She has done far more than her part for CU Denver. Now the longtime Colorado resident is looking forward to directing her energies toward family, including several grandchildren.
Wagner proudly noted that Charlotte, her biological daughter from her first marriage, recently landed her top choice for a pharmacy residency – the University of Kentucky. Wagner also lights up at the mention of two grown stepchildren from her first marriage (happily noting they both live in Colorado). She is enjoying life in her second marriage, to Peter McEwen, and has two grown stepchildren – and four grandchildren – from that union.
When she’s not busy with family life, Wagner plans to stay in touch with CU Denver – the place where she hit her career stride and finally completed that Spanish graduate degree. She admits that some of her administrative decisions were difficult – much like the hard decision to leave her ideal job — but they proved to be the right moves.
“We’ve had to be very entrepreneurial and be very thoughtful, but it’s all been great,” Wagner said. “All of my friends have said, ‘This is your dream job,’ and it is. It has been the perfect marriage of my skill set and my passion, and I will miss it terribly.”