Design with Donors in Mind

How one business school involved donors in the design of its new facility.
Design with Donors in Mind
When it came time to replace a cramped, outdated 1919-era building, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Business Administration set out to raise US$84 million for a new 240,000 square-foot facility. But rather than approach donors after designs were complete, Donde Plowman, dean of the college, invited them to participate in the early conceptual stages.

Designers from Advent, a Nashville-based design and branding firm, spent two days interviewing potential donors, as well as students, alumni, and university leaders. The goal was to learn what they thought the building’s design should include. Advent videotaped the interviews, so that Plowman and her team could use portions of the video, along with design sketches, to promote the project during the fundraising process.

“Certain themes surfaced during those early conversations that got at the core of who we are as a college,” Plowman explains. “The results didn’t just inform the design, but also gave us a new language to use when talking about the school.”

While some expressed skepticism about how this approach would impact fundraising, those early interviews identified core values and objectives that the school had not articulated before, says Plowman. For example, stakeholders—who ranged from the chancellor to the athletic director—highlighted the importance of the school’s international programs. That insight led to dual murals that feature Oxford University, a key partner for the College of Business Administration.

Alumni revealed pride in the students’ entrepreneurial spirit. That feedback led to the inclusion of a ten-foot graphic of three recent grads who started their own companies. It also inspired a new tagline for the business school: “Start Something.”

Plowman believes that early engagement with potential donors also was key to the school’s fundraising efforts. The school raised almost all of the money before the groundbreaking held in March. In addition, the process introduced new donors to the college. “The vast majority of donors to this building had never given to the university before,” Plowman says. “There’s no question that facilitating conversations between the designers and the donors early on was crucial to the fundraising campaign.”

Slated to open in 2017, the building will serve 5,000 students.