Rachel Lionberg is the Wisconsin Foundation and Alumni Association's (WFAA) Associate Vice President and Managing Director for the Wisconsin School of Business. A Milwaukee native and a graduate of Loyola University in Chicago, she previously held development positions with Loyola, with the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and with the University of Colorado before moving to Madison. She’s been with WFAA for one year.
What led you to the field of development as a profession?
I kind of fell into it. I was working for my alma mater as an intern in the advancement division, and I realized how much strategy and effort went into advancement work. I was able to experience the benefit and impact of that work firsthand and found it very rewarding. When I graduated, I was offered an opportunity to stay on. I started working in the annual giving capacity and then grew into higher-level major gifts work and management roles throughout my career.
What brought you to Madison and WFAA?
I was contacted by a recruiter. Being a Wisconsin native and coming back home to be closer to family was attractive to me. Although I didn’t attend UW–Madison, when you grow up in Wisconsin, you look at the university with admiration — it’s this big powerhouse. It’s just part of your life — everyone’s watching the Badger games on Saturdays, and everyone’s wearing their Wisconsin sweatshirts at the grocery store, and it’s such a part of the broader community that I felt a nostalgic, emotional connection to the idea of working for the institution, and I felt I wanted to be back here.
How has your career gone since you were hired?
Very well so far! The School of Business announced a dean transition several months ago, so we’ve been queueing up for that change, and that has made our year a little bit busier. But I’m happy to be part of this team — this role is ever-changing and it requires constant preparation and constant response. I wear many hats — I’m working with donors, I’m working internally with my team and colleagues, and I’m partnering with colleagues in the business school. There are so many things going on all at once, it just feels so vibrant — you cannot feel bored in a role like this. You feel constantly challenged and constantly rewarded as you work though all these evolutions. It’s incredibly inspiring and energizing.
What opportunities for career growth have you had
Access to leadership is important. We do not have the hierarchy here that would prevent you from feeling like you can partner with and learn from the CEO or the chief development officer. I think that openness of our culture is a powerful thing — it’s really unique. Our leadership knows so many people here on the development team on a personal level, and I’m sure that extends beyond development, too. And while I’ve only been here for a year, I frequently have conversations with my manager and mentors about my future with the organization. It’s part of our culture to have these conversations consistently.
What about WFAA do you find particularly rewarding?
Of course the most rewarding thing about working at WFAA is seeing the impact that we help our donors have on this institution. But I also think our work-life balance here is really healthy. We don’t take ourselves too seriously, so the fact that our holiday party features some good, old-fashioned bowling, or we had a summer picnic where we had a gastronomist from Food Science come and talk about how to brew beer — we just really embrace the fact that we’re here in Wisconsin. It’s a fun-loving state and a fun-loving town and a fun-loving university, and we echo that — we celebrate that.
What would you say about your coworkers?
We’ve got some really driven people here; we’ve got people who love relationship-building and really enjoy working with our constituents across the board. I really do think we’ve got this Wisconsin mentality of being hard-working and kind of “salt of the earth” — being very dedicated and priding ourselves on our integrity.
What would you say to someone who is considering working for WFAA?
I think you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a more loyal, engaged, and passionate alumni base. Stepping into a role here, you know you’ve got advocates in your alumni base, and you know you’ve got people wanting to partner with you to make a difference. We’ve got leadership and a culture here that really cares about the employees, supports us in our growth, supports us in our professional and personal endeavors, and wants us to enjoy what we’re doing. My husband and I moved here for my job, so it was a bit of a leap of faith. You think “Am I going to make the right decision?” But I can look back on that time a year ago when I was nervous and uncertain about the move, and it’s such a good feeling to look back and confidently say, “Yes – this was the right decision.” So I think that those considering an opportunity here should feel really confident that there is a wonderful future waiting for them here at WFAA.