Their Gift, Their Choice: A Glimpse Into the Donor Process

Veronica Faison and Colette Cacciola

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Monday, April 9, 2018, Stetson University announced the largest single donation in the institution’s history.

J. Hyatt Brown and Cici Brown gave a grand total of 18 million dollars for the expansion and updating of Sage Hall, the university’s science and health building, and its equipment. Both current members of the Board of Trustees and former chairs, the Browns wanted their gift to be “transformative” to the department–given the rate of employment growth and employer demand of science and health fields.

This awakened quite a few tensions, though, as evidenced by the stream of comments under Hatter Network’s post concerning the great reveal. More specifically, the seat of debate laid in which departments received donor funding.

“Why science,” many commentators asked, “when there are arts departments in desperate need?” Other commentators seemed to counter, “Why not science? We are a department in need.” These exchanges also revealed a lack of complete comprehension of the donor process itself, from what donor stipulations imply to why equivalent funding cannot be funneled into other departments that seem just as deserving, if not more so.

Amy Gipson, Assistant Vice President for Development Strategy and Communications, and Becca Thomas, Assistant Director of Sustainable Giving (from the Office of Development and Alumni Engagement and Office of Donor Relations, respectively,) sought to relieve some of those tensions by shedding light on the elusive donation process.

Many students are familiar with the impact of different types of donations. A donor can give to multitude of university needs–from starting a scholarship fund, contributing to infrastructure renovations or even starting a new program. However, all monetary gifts can fall into one of two categories: unrestricted and restricted.

Unrestricted, meaning that donors give to a general fund where Stetson administrators can give the donors money to areas of “greatest need.” Restricted, meaning that donors provide stipulations; The $18 million donation to Sage is the latter–restricted as such.

To the question, “why does science get $18 million?” the short answer is that the Browns’ donation is restricted to their stipulations. Their gift, their choice. Long answer, the donors have the choice and jurisdiction to decide how and where they want to spend their own money.

If a donor has a preference as to where their funds should be spent, that is where they are spent–as far as the Office of Donor Relations is concerned, there are no ifs, ands, or buts on this policy, which is important for the maintenance of trust. For example, why do you think we have no competitive swim team? The donor who supplied the funding requested that no competitive swimming occur in the pool. So. No team.

Still, what about the other departments?

The Browns have a history of giving to other places and spaces on campus, not just science. Being on the Board of Trustees themselves, we can assume that they have a good grasp on university needs. Their reasoning for giving to science and health largely had to do with the possible impact of those growing fields on Volusia County, Florida’s aging population and Stetson’s ability to adequately advance their science and health field students.

This does not negate, however, the need and value of the other departments, specifically the performing arts or humanities. The idea that students from those departments shouldn’t voice their complaints for the sake of celebratory science students is simply not valid. All concerns have a right to be brought to the table.

In fact, as Gipson points out, many of the concerns brought up by students in different are on the university’s radar as part of the Beyond Success campaign that began in 2012. The working issue, however, is finding a donor willing to address and help with the problem.

A reiterated problem voiced by students in music was the lack of a performance hall, despite the notoriety and talent housed in the Music School as a parallel for the justification to expand Sage for the sciences. This doesn’t reflect the university neglecting this issue; rather it reflects a lack of donorship able to bring a performance hall to life at this moment By this logic, the same can be said of other department needs.

There is always a running tally of financial woes the university has; money is needed everywhere. It is up to the donors to establish what is funded first.

So how can department needs be put on a donor’s radar?

This answer is a bit more complex to unpack. Hoping that the university is well-informed on all (or most) department needs, meeting with a donor is a match-making process. If a donor has specific ideas to what their money should go toward, it is up to the university to align a department problem with a donor’s passion–and, at times, the donor’s financial ability can broaden the university’s possibilities. What can start with the hope for better science equipment can end with the success of securing a building expansion. In short, Gipson iterates that the process to designate where money should go is a product of conversation between the donors and the university.

Gipson and Thomas encourage students to look at the Browns donation to science as something that benefits all Stetson current and future degree-holders because infrastructure expansion and department improvement ensure the value of a Stetson degree in the long-run.

Thomas also reminds students that generosity is not finite resource. Though donation influence the timeline at which problems are able to be immediately resolved, that does not mean that other departments will never see their may-day.

Being on the Board of Trustees, Hyatt and Cici Brown are well aware of Stetson’s financial needs, perhaps more so than even a well-informed student. They made their choice based on their extensive knowledge and on demonstrated departmental need. Stetson has had to turn away STEM students before, lacking the capacity and ability to realistically cater to their needs, so this donation lends not only to construction, but to growth, and to an increase in prestige. It will also stimulate the local economy, giving further opportunity to those far beyond Stetson’s student body.

Something else to consider: Out in the real world, beyond college, other fields simply aren’t experiencing the immense growth that health science is, especially here in Florida (God’s waiting room, right?). Stetson is making an informed decision based on its tracking of this growth to support the growth of STEM at Stetson. It isn’t a Stetson issue that other fields aren’t experiencing the same expansion or increase in salary; that is on a national and entirely separate level.

Our advice: don’t be afraid to look a gift horse in its mouth; just don’t let an opportunity gallop away.