By Jeff Shearer
The largest financial gift in the history of Auburn University was about to get even bigger.
John and Rosemary Brown had planned to announce a $55 million commitment to Auburn on the eve of the public launch of the "Because This is Auburn" campaign last spring.
Then, at the gala, John pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and started calling an audible.
Jane DiFolco Parker, Auburn's Vice President for Development, was momentarily concerned.
"And I thought, `Oh, no. This is not in the script. What is he doing?'' Parker said. "And he started talking about the fact that he and Rosemary graduated from Auburn in 1957. They got married in 1957. 1957 was the year Auburn won its first national championship. And as he was talking about it, I thought, `Oh my gosh, he's going to increase it to $57 million.'"
Parker described the original plan as a "transformational" gift.
"And then, when they decided to raise it, kick in an extra $2 million in recognition of the significance of that year for them, it was truly extraordinary. It just brought the house down."
The Browns' gift will fund two major new facilities: a student achievement center in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering and a performing arts center.
"It will have such a huge impact, not only on the university, but also on the surrounding community," Parker said. "It will be another way in which the university can have a positive impact on the community, and will be another reason for Auburn alumni to come back."
With a goal of $1 billion, "Because This is Auburn" is the largest campaign in Auburn's 160-year history.
If the campaign, which is scheduled to conclude in December, 2017, were a football possession, Auburn would already be in the red zone.
Less than a year after the launch of the public phase, Auburn donors have committed more than $917 million.
"It is my hope that we will achieve our goal about a year in advance of the official end of the campaign," Parker said. "And that really is a tribute to the incredible generosity of the Auburn Family. And the fact that Auburn University is doing so many important things."
Auburn Athletics has the largest unit goal in the campaign, $237 million, nearly a quarter of the overall target.
"Athletics is critically important in the campaign," Parker said. "Auburn Athletics is a huge portal through which many, many people connect to the university. Whether they're alumni, friends, parents, whatever their connection to Auburn University happens to be. Athletics is just a great opportunity to bring those people in. And as they become more closely connected to the university, they often find other ways they'd like to connect, perhaps on the academic side of the house."
"Auburn Athletics through Tigers Unlimited clearly plays a pivotal role of the largest campaign in university history," Director of Athletics Jay Jacobs said. "We are doing our part by raising nearly one-fourth of the total because we are committed to being an integral part of the Auburn experience for all Auburn students."
"The number is important, but what is more important is what that support will do for Auburn Athletics," Parker said. "It's really about the impact it will have. It's about ensuring that our student-athletes have the best possible athletic experience, and the best possible academic experience. We want to make sure, of course, that they have great coaches, they have great facilities in which to practice, and great fields and courts on which to play, but we also want to make sure that they are getting strong academic support, great career planning support."
Parker says philanthropic support for Athletics is vital to the success of Auburn's student-athletes.
"We have some very ambitious plans for improving the quality of our athletics facilities. There's a wonderful strategic plan for how we can enhance the stadium, how we can enhance the athletic complex," she said. "There are a variety of key facilities initiatives that will continue to elevate our competitiveness, as well as the quality of experience for our student-athletes and for our fans."
Success in development, Parker says, occurs when Auburn people discover what most energizes them.
"It's not our job to tell our prospective donors, `We need this. We need that,'" she said. "It's our job to facilitate connecting them with what's going on at Auburn University that they really care about, that is consonant with their philanthropic passion, and how they can fulfill that philanthropic passion through investing their money in Auburn University."
When the total given to "Because This is Auburn" reaches 10 digits and the goal is reached, the Office of Development will resemble the locker room at Jordan-Hare after a big SEC victory.
"We'll be celebrating. We'll have a lot of whooping and hollering, and jumping up and down for a little bit, and then we will continue to move forward," Parker said. "We'll just keep going because we have a great deal to accomplish on behalf of Auburn University."
Continuing with the football analogy, gifts such as the Browns' could be compared to a 5-star quarterback committing to Auburn, but championship teams are filled walk-ons and role players as well.
"It's not just about the really big gifts," Parker said. "Those are vitally important. But there is a place in this campaign for everybody. Every alumnus or alumna, every friend, every parent, everybody who cares about Auburn University, and gifts of all sizes matter."
And like all winning teams, a head coach is only as good as his or her assistants.
"Leading Auburn's largest campaign thus far feels a bit daunting at times. If it were easy, however, it would be neither gratifying nor exciting; and I assure you that our work is both gratifying and very exciting," Parker said. "Like most important undertakings, success will require the hard work and participation of many, many people -- the entire Development team; our university leaders, including our deans and directors; the Auburn University Foundation Board; our Campaign Executive Committee; and our various unit-based campaign committees. So although I feel a tremendous sense of personal responsibility for ensuring we achieve at least $1 billion in new gifts and commitments during this campaign, I am confident that, with the hard work and generous support of the entire Auburn Family, we not only will achieve our goal, but we will exceed it."
"I want to personally thank the Auburn people for supporting the `Because This is Auburn' campaign and encourage those who haven't yet given to step up and be part of it," Jacobs said. "I also want to commend Dr. Jane Parker and the entire development team for their vision and hard work, which has gotten us closer to the $1 billion goal. We need the continued support of the Auburn Family to cross the goal line. We're close but we aren't there yet. This will be much more than a touchdown for Auburn. It will be a transformational accomplishment that will ensure Auburn University reaches its full potential to serve our students and our state for generations to come."
Parker, who also serves as President of the Auburn University Foundation, says 2015 was Auburn's largest fundraising year ever, with more than $200 million in new gifts and commitments.
"It's been very exciting and fun and demanding and inspiring, just to see the way people are engaging in this campaign because they care so much about Auburn," she said. "And that's what it's about. It's not about the dollars and it's not about the goal, but it's about the impact that so many people can have on our institution and the people in it."
"Because This is Auburn" update: 91% of $1 billion goal reached per Jane DiFolco Parker, VP Office of Development pic.twitter.com/44FJF86rSh
-- Jeff Shearer (@jeff_shearer) March 4, 2016
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer