By Dr. Paul Plinske
Paul Plinske, Ph.D., is Associate Athletics Director and Graduate Program Director in Sport Administration at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Athletic Management, 12.6, Oct/Nov 2000, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1206/funds.htm
No doubt about it, fund-raising has become part of the lexicon of intercollegiate and interscholastic athletic programs. At the top levels, NCAA Division I programs are becoming more and more savvy at attracting large donations, while high schools are mastering the small, traditional fund-raising event.
Where, then, does the small college fit in? With costs rising in all areas of athletics, NCAA Division III athletic programs often need the money as much as their Division I counterparts. Yet, D-III athletic directors frequently encounter senior-level resistance to the idea—or simply do not have the time to look into fund-raising initiatives. At the same time, a number of small colleges have found success at the fund-raising game, bringing in significant dollars every year.
So, what is the right direction for small college fund-raising efforts? To begin to answer this question, I started by doing a large survey on the topic.
In 1998, vice presidents of development at 387 NCAA Division III member institutions were sent my “Athletic Fund-Raising Survey.” The self-administered questionnaire requested responses based on the school’s involvement in athletic fund-raising or development. A response rating of 66 percent (254 institutions) was achieved.
The survey’s aim was to answer two major questions. What are the trends in small college athletic fund-raising, and what initiatives and directions appear to be most successful for these institutions?
Forty percent of respondents indicated that their institution had engaged in some type of formalized athletic development. Private institutions, which make up nearly 82 percent of the small colleges in America, exhibited the most extensive programs in athletic fund-raising. As a result, these schools also raised more money than their public-school counterparts.
Survey results showed that Division III programs raised an average of $142,812 during the 1997-98 school year, with a median of $50,000. Private schools brought in an average of $160,759, while public schools raised $75,508 per program. Interestingly enough, several schools reported that they eclipsed the $1 million mark. Although this amount is still rare in Division III athletics, it illustrates the earning potential of small school programs.
For the largest percentage of schools, the most frequent donors were alumni, followed by parents, boosters, and corporations. This fact is very telling, as research conducted on larger institutions shows that much of Division I and II fund-raising comes from booster and corporate dollars as opposed to alum and parents of student-athletes.
When professionals in Division III were asked to give the goals of their fund-raising programs, most stated that they hoped to provide budget relief, build long-term relationships, and increase the donor base of their athletic department. The goal of actually “raising” money was fourth overall. This is an important distinction between D-III and larger schools.
Motivations & Benefits
According to experts in this field, the best way to understand how to raise funds is to understand what motivates those who give, and then provide benefits that match the motivations. In the “Athletic Fund-Raising Survey,” responses indicated that small colleges thank donors for their contributions most frequently with gifts such as newsletters, social invitations, and complimentary tickets. Membership cards, game-program recognition, free apparel, and advertising were also used, but less often.
While 72 percent of institutions indicated that newsletters are used as a “benefit,” this token should be seen as much more than a simple thank-you item. Recent research has shown that small college constituents seem to be most interested in giving because they believe in and support the ideology and philosophy of Division III intercollegiate athletics. Therefore, a newsletter that keeps the donor up-to-date on the athletic department—and is careful to include those items that promote the Division III philosophy—may prove more valuable to a donor than season tickets at the 50-yard line.
The survey also found that special events were frequently used to reward donors for their financial gifts. Several institutions had conducted golf tournaments, banquets, and homecoming events, and used hospitality tents at athletic functions in order to thank donors. More than simply a gesture of appreciation, these events brought alumni and others together. Like newsletters, socializing with fellow contributors interested in the athletic program is a great way to strengthen donor ties to the program. It makes them feel confident about and proud of the Division III ideology, and thus they feel good about giving funds to the athletic department.
With 60 percent of those surveyed stating they do no formal athletic fund-raising, it’s also important to examine the barriers to this practice. The most common factors identified were competition from within for donations and apprehension or resistance to change on behalf of school administration.
Competition from within is a barrier that schools at all levels deal with. Research in Division I and II programs has shown that, in order for an athletic department to have successful fund-raising outcomes, the institution must have interdependent units striving for a common cause and purpose. In other words, success in development comes most effectively from internal groups coordinating with one another in order to attain their goals and objectives.
A second obstacle is the close-mindedness or unwillingness of top officials to change the way things have traditionally been done. Because the athletic department has not raised funds in the past, these administrators are not open to the idea. To overcome this hurdle, it’s sometimes necessary to re-define fund-raising for these people.
Many successful small colleges characterize fund-raising not only in terms of dollars and cents, but as a means to enhance the entire college community. They look at development as more than asking for money. Instead, it entails marketing and promoting the entire school and offering interested constituents a part of what their institution stands for. In essence, fund-raisers could more aptly be termed “friend-raisers.” In many cases, this redefining of development can convince top officials to open their minds to fund-raising, and a difficult barrier can be broken.
If the results of fund-raising in Division III athletics can run the gamut from zero to one million dollars, how does an athletic department get closer to that one million mark? A look at five survey participants offers insight into what it takes to be successful.
Within these five schools, the range of annual donations was $75,000 to $1.5 million. Average enrollment was 2,800 undergraduates with the smallest having 1,650 and the largest having 5,535. Three of the schools were private, while two were public. All of the institutions were co-educational, with the exception of one, which was an all-male university.
Overall, these five programs were moderate in terms of the success their teams experienced. According to past Sears Cup Standings, these programs ranked from as low as 190th place to as high as fourth place. In relation to the amount of money they raised, however, success on the field had no correlation with the ability of the program to generate more revenue. In other words, for small colleges, it appears that having nationally ranked teams doesn’t necessarily translate into more dollars raised.
In their responses, each of these five fund-raising programs indicated trends similar to the majority findings. The purpose of fund-raising was to provide budget relief, increase the donor base, and build long-term relationships. These goals were achieved through providing complimentary tickets, invitations, newsletters, and apparel. All conducted homecoming events and banquets for donors. Several had donor tailgating events at home football games and extensive donor golf outings and tournaments. Each program also emphasized the importance of alumni and parental support.
One new finding in these programs was the respondents’ thoughts that hiring a full-time athletic fund-raising officer was central to each school’s ability to meet with potential donors and develop strong relationships. This hiring, they said, was the best thing they could have done and had had a significant impact on their ability to accomplish goals and establish strong donor-program relationships.
Each of these programs also possessed a strong institutional and athletic program mission. Research has shown that much of what draws a donor to a program are areas that athletic directors and coaches can control—such as integrity, emphasis on academic achievement, recruiting community-minded athletes, and so forth. The key, therefore, is having effective program leaders who can embark on a vision quest and articulate it to those within and outside of the institution.
Two of the sample five programs used Web sites to promote their fund-raising efforts. One program established an extensive fund-raising page on its athletic department’s Web site. This site describes, in detail, the goal of the program and the benefits that come with joining a specific giving level. The Web site even has an on-line donation form capable of processing credit card contributions. It’s also important to note that on the Web page, it’s made clear that this athletic fund-raising group works in cooperation with the university’s foundation and top administration, which aids in preventing competition from within.
Another program’s Web page uses e-commerce, allowing alumni, parents, and other donors to purchase team apparel and accessories. Retail companies are now creating opportunities for small colleges to sell such upscale equipment as head covers and golf bags displaying the athletic department’s logo, enabling patrons to express their school pride and support their favorite institution. Obviously, the manufacturer provides a portion of the proceeds to the institution, but there’s the opportunity for a donor to show additional support and receive something tangible in return.
While the opportunities for fund-raising and development are growing nicely via the Internet, research does show that the greatest rewards are still gained through an institution’s ability to cultivate and nurture strong relationships with key contributors. The institution that raised nearly $1.5 million dollars indicated that face-to-face interaction and personal solicitation with donors was the key to its campaign.
As small colleges struggle with the rigors of increased inflation at a rate greater than budget increases, they need look no further than fund-raising to help solve budgetary problems. By instituting a strong program in development, schools will find not only that their funds will increase, but so will the friends of their program.
Challenge #1: Soliciting Alumni & Parents
Solution: Understand Donor Motivation
NCAA Division III donors are typically alumni and parents of student-athletes, as opposed to boosters and corporations. Their motivations for giving are more about commitment and loyalty than getting box seats or free advertising space. So, how do you approach and reward such donors? Try these seven ideas:
1. First, raise friends. Meeting one-on-one with individual contributors and developing friends of the program is first and foremost. All too often gifts are solicited without taking the time to get to know that individual and, more importantly, without allowing the individual to get to know the program. Once a solid relationship is established, asking for gifts becomes easier and more comfortable for both parties.
2. Give chances to create new opportunities, facilities, and equipment. The opportunity to contribute to creating something new or making changes at an institution is a huge motivator. Encourage a donor to give in order to have a new scoreboard or sound system at athletic events.
3. Connect with the donor. Those programs that have fund-raisers capable of establishing strong interpersonal relationships have a great deal of success. Search for common ground where relations can occur. Division III donors want to connect with the institution, so give them ways to do so.
4. Provide opportunities to collaborate with the program. Invite individuals to be part of a fund-raising planning committee or board. This could serve as a strong motivation to a parent, alum, or supporter.
5. Allow individuals to show their loyalty. Give them the chance to be involved with the programs of their choice. Expose donors to coaches and players.
6. Show the individual donor how his or her gift will be used. Allow donors to earmark or designate where their money goes and then follow up with notes, newsletters, and phone calls describing how the money has been beneficial.
7. Recognize publicly. While some individuals may not be motivated by public recognition, others are. Public recognition is formal acknowledgment or appreciation that a donor receives in the presence of others. A school can provide recognition in media guides or through public address announcements at athletic events.
Challenge #2: Staying within the D-III Philosophy
Solution: Focus on Developing the Program
Since Division III athletics places the highest priority on the overall quality of the educational experience, athletic fund-raisers at this level must view their job responsibilities differently than those in Division I. Promoting nationally recognized teams and giving donors access to major sporting events is not possible, or a part of the philosophy. This, of course, can make raising funds more difficult.
What’s an athletic fund-raiser to do? He or she must start by defining the primary objective differently. The goal is not to raise funds, but to develop the program, provide vision and leadership, and create friends of the program. Most importantly, fund-raisers must establish interpersonal relationships with key constituents. Wining and dining isn’t necessary here. However, showing an interest and articulating the institution’s vision are.
And how can the athletic director help?
1. Hire the right person for the job of fund-raising officer. Research shows that the difference between successful and failed athletic fund-raisers may be closely tied to how well the individual personality matches the athletic program’s culture and philosophy. It has been reported that successful fund-raisers exhibit a great deal of passion for the institution or have a spirit of philanthropy and a firm belief in the advancement of athletics.
2. Develop a sound mission for the athletic program. Clearly and effectively articulated visions will lead a program and its internal and external constituents to a new level. Alumni and parents will flock to a program that has purpose and meaning.
3. Emphasize the relationships that are established. Oftentimes, a fund-raiser is measured more by the amount of money raised than by the relationships established. Put the pressure on the fund-raiser to establish strong relationships first. The money will come later.
Challenge #3: Competing with University Development
Solution: Communication & Interaction
Competition from within for donations is and will continue to be a major concern for all in higher education. The key is for athletic fund-raising to be viewed as a part of the larger university system and fall in the realm of institutional fund-raising. Development officers must allow programs to function in a manner that is both collective and cohesive while maintaining the balance of power, control, and autonomy of those involved.
For most institutions, the keys are good communication and teamwork. Here are other strategies:
1. In an attempt to decrease the likelihood of miscommunication and dissension occurring, some schools are now placing their athletic fund-raising program in the development office. It is believed that proximity can increase coordination.
2. Another strategy has been the defining of roles and interrelationships among programs, environments, and other sub-systems. This also entails putting policies and procedures in place that specifically explain where boundary lines are and when communication must occur. For example, some institutions have weekly administrative meetings to go over accounts. Others have lists of “hands-off” donors that only one group can access.
3. The final strategy commonly instituted is the management and negotiation of resources. Those programs capable of exchanging benefits (or donor gifts) that enhance the livelihood of the entire development process are more effective and successful. These schools have structures in place to allow donors to earmark their gifts for a group of their choice within the university.
Challenge #4: Setting up a Program
Solution: Use Volunteers & Have Yearly Events
While the majority of Division III fund-raising efforts should be focused on solicitations of individual donors, a program may also want to consider implementing some annual fund-raising events. At the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, we have used two major initiatives to get this part of our fund-raising program in top shape.
The first initiative is the establishment of “UW-L Sports Spirit.” The primary function of this group is to provide financial assistance to the athletic program in order to maintain its outstanding broad-based reputation. Other goals are to provide greater awareness of the athletic program to the community and involve local and regional businesses through direct and indirect support. The group is governed by an Executive Committee and Board that meet monthly to discuss means of generating outside dollars through specific activities and events. The athletic director, several community business leaders, university staff, and student-athletes sit on the board. Dollars generated by this group are used for coaches’ professional development and recruiting, national championship awards, team-training trips, honors and special student/staff receptions, equipment requests, and the Athletic Endowment.
The second initiative is the creation of a number of fund-raising events conducted throughout the year. Annual events allow donors to anticipate and enjoy the tradition of each fund-raiser. Here’s our list:
Fall Campaign: For a two-week period in September, a local grocery store chain (owned by the UW-L Sports Spirit Program Executive Director) conducts a campaign geared to raise dollars for our program. During this period, profit that is generated through this store and other local vendors is given directly to the athletic program. Extensive advertisement and promotion is conducted by these vendors to get consumers in the door on behalf of our athletic program.
Health & Fitness Expo: During January, we host an Expo geared to promote healthy lifestyles. At the conclusion of a 5K fun run, doors to our athletic facilities are open to the public so they can hear from local health vendors and professionals. During the lunch hour, local restaurants serve sample-size portions of healthy food products to those in attendance. Vendors and restaurants are required to pay a fee in order to have booths at the expo, and we also charge a nominal admission fee. The event is financially productive and is a great means for providing community service.
Final Four Basketball Party: During the NCAA Final Four Basketball championship game in April, we host a party where silent auctions and games are conducted. By charging $100 per ticket, individuals are entered into a raffle for a $3,000 grand prize. While no gambling or betting takes place on the game, this event serves as a revenue generator and provides great social interaction for community members.
Golf Outing: This function is held in May in an effort to thank those who have contributed to our program. Although those who play are required to pay a fee, we provide advertisement for corporations and extensive thank-yous throughout.
Student-Athlete Fund-Raising Activity: Once a year, our student-athletes will sell items (sweatshirts, fleece jackets, hats, stadium blankets, etc.) selected by the captains of each of our athletic teams. Each student-athlete is given a specific number of items in exchange for the cost of those items. Individuals are then given two weeks to sell their goods at the predetermined cost. With over 650 student-athletes being required to sell a specified amount, the profit is substantial. This money is then used to supplement the cost of student-athlete meals while traveling on the road.
Phon-a-thons: Having student-athletes and staff contact alumni and parents is a great way for a program to associate itself with donors. During a one to two-week period, student-athletes and staff call potential donors and solicit gifts that can be used to enhance the experience of the athletes. While this is a common practice in many small colleges and universities, work must be done to train callers in professionalism and how to deal with specific issues that may arise.
Parents’ Night Out: On Friday nights during the school year, we open one of our athletic facilities and student-athletes act as “baby-sitters” for parents in need of a “night out.” This is an excellent way for student-athletes to interact with community children and raise money. By charging $10 per child and opening the concession stands, there’s no telling how much revenue can be generated.
Table One: Survey Results
The following are results from a 1998 survey sent to NCAA Division III institutions about their athletic fund-raising programs
Status of the Schools
Private Schools 82%
Public Schools 18%
Amount of Dollars Raised
Mean Amount $142,812
Minimum Amount $1,500
Maximum Amount $3,600,000
Benefits Offered to Donors
Invitation to Social Events 62%
Complimentary Tickets to Athletic Events 60%
Membership Cards 44%
Recognition in Game Programs 40%
Types of Special Events Conducted
Golf Tournaments 84%
Alumni and Sports Banquets 69%
Homecoming Events 60%
Dinners or Receptions 40%