Russell Sage College celebrated its 107th anniversary on September 28, 2023, with the announcement of a $4 million gift from Donna Robinson Esteves, a 1970 graduate of the college.

The gift – which will fund several new online graduate degree programs and the renovation of Russell Sage’s historic French House to become a women-only residence hall – was announced by Russell Sage President Christopher Ames during a news conference on the college’s Troy campus.

“Donna’s gift to renovate French House, once a living-learning space for French majors when the Troy campus was still an all-women’s college, is an important reminder of Russell Sage’s history as a place where women find their voice and confidence,” Ames said.  “And while we honor our heritage, Donna’s tremendous, forward-thinking gift also supports recently launched online master’s degree programs in Criminal Justice and Community Corrections and Sport Science: Coaching and Mental Performance and a future online Doctor of Nursing Practice program and online version of our M.A. in Counseling and Community Psychology, which will be launched within a year pending New York state approval. Her generosity also has enabled us to partner with a national online education provider to soon expand the reach of our highly regarded physical and occupational therapy programs across the United States.”

“We couldn’t be more grateful for her support and how she inspires our students to consider how they can live the college’s motto of ‘To be. To know. To do.’ when they become alumni,” Ames continued. 

Esteves began her career as a teacher and then became a top-20 Mary Kay Cosmetics salesperson before founding Free Lighting Corp., where she hired and trained all-women installation crews and grew it to the largest energy conservation contractor of its kind in the United States by the time she sold it in 2001. She has donated a total of over $20 million to the college since her graduation from the English program. She is the largest donor in the college’s history. 

Although not able to join her Russell Sage community on the Troy campus for the gift announcement, she offered the following statement:

“When Chris Ames and I met to discuss Russell Sage, I asked him, ‘What do you need?’,” Esteves said. “This gift is the culmination of the college’s greatest needs right now, and it directly serves current students. I could not be happier! Nothing in my life brings me more joy than giving back.  The deep feeling of gratitude that I have for Russell Sage College and all it has given me has made this gift, and all of the gifts, a joy. They are gifts from my heart.”

The announcement during Founder’s Week was fitting as Esteves’s giving mirrors the philanthropic legacy of the college’s founder, Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage. Sage was one of the most prolific philanthropists of her day, naming the college after her husband, a Gilded Age millionaire. At the time of her death in 1918, Sage’s giving to education and social causes was said to have reached $45 million, the equivalent of more than $900 million today.

Esteves has given generously to Russell Sage, both as a longtime college trustee (2008-2017) and board chair (2015-2017) and as chair of the college’s $60 million Centennial Campaign for Sage, the most successful fundraising effort in college history. Her $12 million-plus leadership gift to that campaign in 2012 was the largest gift ever made to Russell Sage and has provided ongoing support for the Esteves School of Education, which is named in her honor, facilities renovations, and the college’s endowment, among other initiatives and projects.

Her additional gifts have funded science resources on Russell Sage’s Troy and Albany campuses (including the Esteves Science Center on the Albany campus); business incubator space on the Troy campus; and Celebration, a beloved sculpture capturing the spirit of Russell Sage College students that is located in the Shea Learning Center in Troy.

Esteves endowed the Edith E. Robinson Memorial Scholarship Fund for Education students in memory of her mother and made significant contributions to the English, visual arts, creative and performing arts,  management, and athletic programs.

After selling Free Lighting Corp., Esteves also worked on behalf of dozens of organizations and causes as a volunteer and philanthropist. Beneficiaries have included The Newcomb Women’s Institute at Tulane University, where she earned her master’s degree in education; arts and cultural institutions in New York City; and international projects promoting education and health care for women.

Russell Sage awarded her an honorary doctorate of Public Service in 2016. The Russell Sage College Alumnae Association has bestowed its highest honor, the Doris L. Crockett Medal, upon her, recognizing her contributions to the college and to society.

“Those of us who graduated from Russell Sage College will tell you it had a lasting impact on our careers and our desire to give back to our communities,” said Russell Sage Board of Trustees Chair Caroline Leavitt DeCota, a 1984 Russell Sage graduate. “Donna is a shining example of this – successful in her profession but with a heart for making the world a better place and lifting up the next generation of Russell Sage students in an ever-challenged world.”

Esteves’ renovation of French House will provide modern residence hall living for up to 15 women selected to live in the historic building, which is believed to have been constructed in the middle-Victorian style between 1865 and 1869. The college plans to have the hall opened for students in the 2024-2025 academic year, and Esteves’s gift also supports its continued maintenance.

woman with blond hair standing behind a podium in a dress.
Donna Esteves ’70 during an event at Russell Sage College.

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