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Business Transformation: UW Foundation’s IT overhaul reveals best practices

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Mike Knetter, president and CEO of the UW-Madison Foundation, acknowledges that higher education, with the exception of computer science departments of a few select institutions, is not exactly driving the information technology revolution. But he’s been pleasantly surprised by the willingness of his staff to take on the kinds of technology and business process changes that he and CIO Kari Myrland are asking them to make.

Knetter, the former dean of the UW-Madison School of Business, knows firsthand how difficult it is to change the business processes of large public universities. When Knetter went from the UW Business School, where he took IT for granted, to the foundation in 2010, he found an old Lotus Notes platform that had been set up in the early 1980s. Yet when you consider how far the foundation’s employees have come since then, he’s increasingly confident they will embrace new business systems that “go live” starting in August.

That doesn’t happen by accident. There is a significant amount of communication, staff training, and testing that must occur to make such a transformation possible, but when Knetter first arrived at the foundation, he realized that a significant degree of change management was in the offing. The UW-Madison Foundation, the fundraising and investment gift arm of the university, exists to deliver private gift support to serve the university’s highest priorities. When Knetter made it clear that he wanted regular email communications with the donor base, in particular the Bascom Hill Society, he was greeted with an awkward silence.

UW Foundation CIO Kari Myrland, here talking to Kyle Buchmann, managing senior director of development, has brought needed experience in IT project work to the organization.

“It turns out that wasn’t possible because sending an email to 4,000 addresses would take down the system,” Knetter recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, how are we communicating with these people?’ I guess they would occasionally get letters and invitations in the mail, but that was it.”

Thinking back, Knetter finds it remarkable that the UW Foundation staff, which itself has undergone transition and change since his arrival, was able to fulfill its mission with an IT-supported sales function that he characterized as unplanned versus planned, reactive (not proactive), tactical (not strategic), and unmonitored versus measured. Yet the organization was able to point to data that suggested it was still doing better than its peers.

The foundation has three functions: investment, business development (fundraising), and information. Knetter wanted to capture information, establish a different level of metrics, and measure and monitor data so the organization could be strategic and set goals, but convincing his workforce there was an even better way would take some doing. “To a lot of the people who were now my partners, we were already approaching this in a more effective way than others,” he recalled.

The business case

Another complicating factor is the foundation’s relationship to the university. Neither the foundation nor the UW’s other important affiliate organizations — University Research Park, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and the Wisconsin Alumni Association — are actually part of the university. The reason for that is the university is a state agency; as such, it cannot ensure the privacy of its information, which is subject to open records law. In contrast, the foundation’s development work gathers information about donors, including their personal situations, and that should be kept confidential.

In addition, the foundation must secure the assets of donors and ensure that they are only distributed to university accounts when they are ready to be used for donor intent. This is also important because once funds are at the university, they are technically property of the state. “In a financial crisis, any funds at the university are property of the state, and they can be redirected as needed in that sort of situation, and we would not want that to happen to donor funds,” Knetter explained. “It’s very important to donors that if there is a gift, and if there is a gift agreement, it can be honored.”


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