Making Donor Dreams a Reality: How Gifting Works at Albion

An initial concept rendering of what an expanded fitness facility could look like. The main walkway to the current Dow Center is in the foreground. (Rendering courtesy of Albion College.)

In the past year, Albion College has received two alumni gifts that together total over $10 million.

The first, in October 2018, was a $5.1 million gift from Dr. James (’77) and Lisa (’79) Wilson to establish the Lisa and James Wilson Institute for Medicine. The second, in March 2019, was a $5 million gift from Joe (’82) and Julie Serra to expand and renovate the Dow Recreation and Wellness Center and to update Kresge Gymnasium.

The catalyst to major gift moments like these originate in the Institutional Advancement office, where gift officers connect with alumni and develop plans on how alumni can give back to Albion College.

Director of Advancement Erik Braun admits he didn’t come from a fundraising background, but he loves his role of connecting donors’ wishes to Albion’s needs.

“I don’t sell a product. I represent a dream of an institution that people are connected to, and I get to help people achieve their dreams,” he said.

Braun worked closely with the Serras to develop the vision that Joe began to form while he was serving as a College Trustee. Joe and Julie had recognized a need for an improved fitness facility at Albion College. Although Albion College had addressed some of this need by creating the Washington Gardner training facility through another donor gift, both the Serras and administration staff realized that the facility was only a short-term solution.

The first discussion between the Serras and the College on giving occurred over a dinner at President Mauri Ditzler’s house almost three years ago.

“At dinner, Joe said he was open to having a conversation,” Braun said. “He obviously knew some of the needs from when he was on the Board, but he wanted to hear what the needs of the institution were. So, over the course of roughly two-and-a-half years, we worked with Joe to share some of our dreams for the institution but also learn about his dreams, too. The perfect part was that there was a great mesh there.”

Every gift is unique, and the timeline of turning an idea into a final product varies depending on the size of the gift and the scale of the donor’s vision.   

“A typical statistic is that it takes seven meetings to get a gift,” Braun said. “A lot of times, we don’t ask for specific amounts. We just share dreams of the institution, and people will ask ‘How much will that take? What will that look like?’”

At the same time, not all gifts that are brought to the college end up being accepted. A gift might be turned down if it doesn’t further the mission of Albion College, or the timing of bringing the gift to fruition is not the best.

“Donors don’t want us to sit on their money,” said Bob Anderson, vice president for alumni relations and advancement.

Gift officers at Albion have to spend the time working with donors to figure out the best way Albion can utilize the money at the appropriate time without infringing on the vision of the donor.

“When fundraisers push things, they don’t get gifts,” Braun said. “Donors are coming forward with ideas that they have. Albion is a special place, and what people give back to reflects what impacted them.”

The most common areas that donors give back to are departments or professorships, athletics, Greek life and scholarships. Many of the donors’ stories highlight certain faculty members who inspired their career paths, lifelong friendships forged through varsity sports or the scholarships that allowed them to attend Albion College.

“At the end of the day, people who make gifts are in the position to make gifts because they made really good decisions and they’re really smart,” Braun said. “You don’t influence those people to make gifts to certain areas. They make dreams a reality that they most likely already had.”

About Mary Noble 8 Articles
Mary Noble is a senior born in Fargo, ND, now based in Bay City, MI. She is a Spanish and English - Professional Writing double major, is a member of the swim team, and a sister of Kappa Delta sorority. In her spare time she's planning her next adventure abroad or binge watching Netflix.

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