Joan DeBruin ’70 funds scholarships with a trio of gifts


When her husband, Jared, passed away in 2011 after nearly 42 years of marriage, Joan Dickinson DeBruin ’70 honored him by designating the balance of their IRAs at her passing to fund University of Wisconsin-Madison scholarships in both of their names. In 2012 she established a charitable gift annuity and immediately started donating back a portion of the gift annuity payments so that the two scholarships could begin right away. Since then, she has also revised her will so that her estate will fund gift annuities for her two children—with the residue to the scholarship endowments.

Life after the UW and the power of her degree

“I look back at Wisconsin,” says Joan, “and realize those were wonderful years. And, I got a first-class education.”

Joan left campus right after her last exam in January 1970 to join Jared in Norfolk, Virginia, where he was stationed with the U.S. Navy. At that point, she had absolutely no idea where life was going to take them. After Jared completed service, they moved back to Joan’s hometown of Binghamton, New York, where her focus was on raising the couple’s two children.

In 1980, with both of their children in school, Joan and Jared went back to college through his GI Bill. Ever since she had taken a course in business law in high school, Joan had wanted to be a lawyer. However, realizing her longtime ambition was not practical with two children and a mortgage, she opted to become a paralegal. After finishing her degree, she went to work at a large law firm.

“Interestingly, my boss later told me that the reason I got the job was because I had a four-year degree and not because I had the paralegal degree!” says Joan.

Joan specialized in the areas of probate, estate administration and taxes.

“I know it sounds dull and dry, but for me it was fascinating,” Joan says.

Joan’s journey to philanthropy

Ten years later, Joan and her family moved south in search of a better economy and much warmer weather.

“Once in North Carolina,” says Joan, “it became obvious to me that attorneys there wanted their paralegals to type and make coffee. Working directly with the clients was one of my strengths, and, frankly, I am a lousy typist, so it was clear that being a paralegal was no longer an option.”

Joan took a position at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, where she spent the next 13 years as the planned giving development officer for the entire university.

“I met some really amazing people with a true desire to give back to their university. Each donor’s story and motivation are different,” says Joan. “I have had more than one donor tell me they wanted their scholarship to go to a student with a 2.0 GPA because that was the donor’s GPA way back when!”

Giving shaped by life experience

Joan’s own giving is also shaped by her own life and professional experience.

“Those years I spent as an estate and tax paralegal, and the years in the University of NC system, showed me over and over again the transforming power of philanthropy,” says Joan. “It was a great privilege to work with donors to tailor their wishes into an endowment that would serve the university in perpetuity.

“The gift annuity is so easy and so elegant,” she says. “It’s a stable income—something you can plan on every three months. And it’s so easy to do—a simple contract in simple language. Deferred annuities are a wonderful planning tool for people to use, especially for retirement planning.”

Joan adds, “I actually started doing deferred gift annuities for Jared and me as a retirement income supplement at NC State. It also helped me market gift annuities to my target audience.”

Joan says that she and her husband had previously discussed setting up the gift annuities for their daughter and son. “Neither of them will ever have a pension, so this will provide them with income for the rest of their lives as sort of a pension substitute,” she explains. “And as my son says, ‘We don’t have to worry about managing the money!’ ”

Joan also really likes that the two scholarships have started already and will then be funded in perpetuity by the annuity remainders and the remainder of her retirement fund.

“Planned giving usually doesn’t come into effect until the person dies,” she says, “but through making annual gifts, I can see the scholarships in action and see if they’re doing what I envisioned and if they are working well for the College of Engineering and the College of Letters and Science at Wisconsin.”

Philanthropic interests beyond higher education

Joan’s philanthropic interests extend beyond higher education. One of them is the humane treatment of exotic wild animals that have been abandoned, rescued or surrendered by their previous owners.

“I have a few extra ‘sons,’ ” quips Joan. “Two of my boys, Thomas and Ra, are 11-year-old, 450-pound lions who live at the Conservators Center in Mebane, North Carolina, where they are safe, well-loved and lots of fun for me to visit.”

In addition to donating toward the upkeep of the lions, Joan and her daughter, Kate, do pro bono work for the center—which for Joan involves giving assistance with its fundraising efforts.

Joan is happy to give to the UW and urges other alumni to give too

But most of Joan’s charitable dollars go to UW-Madison.

“Wisconsin taught me how to think critically and how to look at things outside the box,” says Joan. “And at Wisconsin I think I really came into my own, started assuming leadership positions and doing things for others and my community that I may have never done otherwise. My Wisconsin education means a huge amount to me.”

Joan continues, “The university needs our help. The funding from the state continues to dwindle. We need alumni support for scholarships, for professorships—whatever the donor’s personal area of interest is. We need to continue to provide the quality education that Wisconsin has always been known for. And it’s a good use of your dollar: you know this is not a charity that is going to be gone in twenty or a hundred years. At Wisconsin, you can endow your gift in perpetuity. Where else can you find that permanence?”