Focusing on Females

If you’re not cultivating your former female athletes, someone else probably is. The keys are reconnecting them to the athletic department and demonstrating how their gifts make a difference.

By Laura Smith

Laura Smith is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 15.2, February/March 2003,

When Florida State’s Director of Athletic Gift Planning, Joel Padgett, created a fund-raising brochure a few years ago to send to his school’s former female athletes, he thought he’d done some of his finest work. Until he showed it to the women on his advisory committee.

“They hated everything about it, and they told me it would never work,” he says. Padgett realized a redesign was in order, not just of the brochure, but of the entire way Florida State approached women for donations.

“When it comes to giving, men and women don’t always respond to the same appeals,” Padgett says. “I realized that women hated my brochure because it was designed based on what men respond to. We rethought the way we were asking women and made some major changes.”

The result? Athletic department donations from women keep doubling every year.

With women controlling 51 percent of the country’s wealth, spending $4.9 trillion a year, and owning 6.2 million private firms generating $1.15 trillion a year, the era when men made most of the decisions about a family’s spending is gone. But many athletic departments’ fund-raising efforts haven’t kept pace with the changing demographics.

“Women donors are an untapped resource for a lot of athletic departments,” says Gary Barta, Senior Associate Athletic Director for External Affairs at the University of Washington. “It’s an area we haven’t traditionally spent a lot of time or energy on, but we’re starting to change that.”

“With 30 years of Title IX behind us, there is a history of strong interest in women’s athletics,” Padgett adds. “Women who participated in college sports are now succeeding in the workforce, and they’re willing to support improving programs for women.”

There are certain consistencies as to what motivates a person to open up his or her wallet, but development professionals are finding trends suggesting that women and men make giving decisions differently. The first point is that cultivating female donors simply takes more time than courting men.

“Men will tell you, ‘Get to the point. Tell me what you need and I’ll write a check.’ But that is not an effective strategy with most women,” says Bob Madden, Director of the Bronco Athletic Association at Boise State University.

“Fund-raising with women is a much longer process,” Padgett agrees. “It’s not as easy as telling a former male athlete that his fraternity brother just gave $100,000, so he should, too, or telling him about the construction cost of a new facility.

“It’s important that both the athletic director and the director of development know it’s going to take some time to see results,” Padgett continues. “You can’t just try something for six months and say you’ve failed. Successful strategies for fund-raising with women succeed because they are given time to prove themselves.”

“What often happens is that fund-raisers identify the right people, but they get the timing wrong,” says Anne Abbe, President of the Arlington, Texas-based consulting firm Philanthropy Solutions. “That’s a very bad move when you’re asking for money from women.”

One reason for the longer timeframe is that women often want to know a lot about your program before they take out their checkbooks. “Frankly, women ask a lot harder questions. They want to know in great detail where their money is going and what it is doing,” Padgett says.

“Women are interested in literally everything within the department,” Abbe adds. “They’ll ask things like, ‘Are you good people? Do you treat your staff well? Who are the students this money will be helping?’”

Siobhán O’Riordan, Director of the Boston-based women’s philanthropy group Giving New England, says that answering these questions is critical to the process. She points out that would-be donors can now turn to philanthropic advisors, financial advisors, and even lawyers for guidance on putting their dollars to work for causes they care about, and that’s a path many women are taking.

“The reality is, if development departments don’t provide potential donors with the information they need to feel good about giving, other people will,” O’Riordan says. “Athletic department fund-raisers who learn to think of themselves as educators will see results. Skilled fund-raisers can take a woman who has money and the desire to make a difference but doesn’t know how and help her figure it out.”

In general, women are most interested in seeing their money provide more and better opportunities than they had. “Fewer opportunities have traditionally been available for women, so they don’t take them for granted,” Barta says. “A woman who experienced a lack of a scholarship often feels very motivated to make sure scholarships are there for today’s young women.”

“Women will give when they can see that their donations are creating something new,” says O’Riordan, “whether it’s a scholarship that wasn’t available before or moving a women’s sport from club status to intercollegiate status.”

“There’s tremendous interest right now in what athletics can do for women,” says Ann Sanders, Director of the New England Woman’s Fund, based in Boston. “An effective focus of any fund-raising campaign with women is to talk about how sports help build self-esteem and confidence, teach leadership skills and determination, and make women more likely to graduate and less likely to get osteoporosis. Women care about making these things happen for the next generation.”

Female donors are also interested in personal connections with the causes they donate to. In many cases, that means reconnecting them with the athletic program. Especially with pre-Title IX athletes, this can take some legwork.

Several universities have found that hosting retroactive letter-winner ceremonies can be a great start. Female athletes who participated before a school awarded varsity letters to women are invited back to campus, honored for their contributions, and awarded an overdue letter.

Central Michigan University’s first retroactive lettering ceremony took place in October 2000. Letters were awarded to female athletes who played against outside competition from 1944-1985. Of the more than 600 women invited, 250 attended from 23 states.

“Without exception, the retroactive lettering ceremony has reconnected the women who were there,” says CMU Senior Associate Athletic Director Marcy Weston. “Not a week goes by without someone who was at the event getting in touch with us to get a contest schedule or plan a trip to see a game. Before we did this, most of those connections had been broken for a long time.”

CMU’s first challenge was locating the women it wanted to honor. “We started a year and a half ahead of time,” Weston says. “We contacted former coaches and asked them for names of alumnae they keep in touch with. Each coach gave us eight or 10 names. We sent a ‘fan out’ letter to those people, asking them to send us back names of anyone they knew. When those names came back, we had a whole new list to work with and we did it all over again. We did six waves like that in six months.”

The effort paid off. Two years later, it’s still having a ripple effect. “I just got 30 new names this week,” Weston says. “People who weren’t invited to the lettering ceremony because we couldn’t find them are still calling to let us know where they are.”

While athletic department staff were instructed not to mention money at the ceremony, nor pursue donations from these people until at least six months later, the donations actually began immediately. “One woman wrote a check for $10,000 at the ceremony,” Weston says. Several coaches have also reported receiving checks as a result of the event.

Another important way to connect with women donors is to have them interact with current female student-athletes. “Hearing directly from young women how their lives are affected allows donors to see first-hand what their money can do,” says Jane Myers, Bowling Green State University Assistant Athletic Director for Development. “It makes them feel that their investment in the lives of young people is important, and that’s what excites them and makes them want to be involved.”

Two new events at Florida State have successfully connected alumnae with current student-athletes. Every other February, Women’s Sports Fest features contests in a variety of women’s sports and a panel discussion where current players answer questions about their lives as student-athletes.

“The alumnae get a chance to see into the current student-athletes’ lives,” Padgett says. “It’s something we wouldn’t do with men, because it wouldn’t appeal to them, but it’s very effective with women.”

Florida State’s “Champions Beyond the Game” brunch is another event that connects past and present. “We select two former female athletes, one who went to Florida State on an athletic scholarship and one who attended before scholarships were available, and honor them at an event with the current athletes,” Padgett says. “We choose women who have done something to make a difference in the world. They talk about how the lessons they learned as an athlete have helped them with what they’ve achieved after college.”

Invitees are encouraged to bring friends who are considering donations. “It’s another way of saying to a potential donor, ‘Let us show you what your contribution could do for kids,’” Padgett says.

University of Washington fund-raisers have put their own twist on the connection process. “We have an annual auction during a women’s basketball game,” Barta says. The current team provides the auction items. “For example, we have twin sisters on the team who come from a big Italian family, and we auctioned off the chance for them to cook the winner an Italian meal.”

Other players auctioned off an on-court lesson on shooting skills. “We raised $60,000 that night, and it was completely based on the connection between current and former athletes,” Barta explains.

For former female athletes who can’t regularly return to campus, Madden uses the school’s Web site to help them feel connected. Photos and bios of current athletes can put a human face on donated dollars, and a virtual tour can be almost as good as a real one, says Madden.

“You can show pictures of your facilities, giving them a tour of any new buildings or improvements to existing ones,” he says. “All of these things can make them feel very much a part of your program and show them how it’s changing. It may have been years since they’ve visited, but this way they can have a very accurate idea of what your program looks like today.”

The process of actually asking for donations from women also has its nuances. Because they want to feel connected, it often works well for women to be involved in the entire fund-raising program. Studies show that women volunteer in greater numbers than men, and that they tend to give financially to organizations they’ve volunteered for.

You can start small, by asking them to help with an annual fund-raising event or serve on a committee. At Boise State, for example, Madden asks his alumnae to provide items for the annual auction. “We ask former athletes if there are things they produce that can be included,” he says. Anything from artwork to services goes. “It’s a way of involving them.”

A small amount of involvement can blossom into more. Padgett’s volunteers help him discover other women to include in fund-raising drives. “Every single one of my volunteers has come to me and said, ‘You need to contact this woman. She told me she’s interested in making a gift.’ These potential donors have connected with our female volunteers because they’re more comfortable with them,” says Padgett.

Abbe suggests that volunteers can even do the asking. “A volunteer who’s a former woman athlete can be a really effective fund-raiser,” Abbe says. “She has the perspective, ‘This is my program. I came through it and I know where it has been, where it is, and where we want to take it.’”

Coaches and former coaches of women’s sports can also be great fund-raising volunteers. “Look for longevity,” Padgett advises. “If you have a female coach who was at your university for 20 years, she made some very deep ties. She knows a lot of people and cares about the cause. She could be a very effective fund-raiser.”

Another good tactic is to let the asking happen through giving circles, says O’Riordan. A giving circle starts with a group whose members share common goals. Once the group has formed, each member donates the same amount of money. The concept has been gathering steam in fund-raising circles for about four years, O’Riordan says, because women prefer to collaborate rather than compete when it comes to philanthropy.

“The idea leverages what people have already done with investment clubs,” she explains. “Giving circles are based on the same idea of learning together, minimizing the risk, and maximizing the results.”

Athletic department fund-raisers could identify a few leaders among women donors and encourage them to find more women who care about athletics and form a giving circle, suggests O’Riordan. “A group of former teammates would make a great giving circle,” she suggests.

Development officers can help the group get started, but giving circles work best when goal setting is left to the group’s members, so be careful to guide, not dictate, the women’s work, O’Riordan cautions. “An athletic department telling a group of women, ‘We’ve started a giving circle and if you contribute to it, it will result in a new van’ would be the wrong way to go about it,” she says. Instead, the athletic department should focus on locating interested women, bringing them into contact with each other, and educating them about how a giving circle could make their donations go further.

When it comes to encouraging former female athletes to donate to their alma maters, remembering that both women’s experiences with college athletics and their reasons for giving can be different from men’s can be the key to success. “The way you appeal to a former football player,” Barta says, “should be entirely different from the way you appeal to a woman who played before Title IX and can tell you stories of how she had to buy her own equipment and sleep five to a room when the team traveled.”

For tips on starting a giving circle, fund-raisers can point interested donors to

Sidebar: Hold That Date
University of Washington athletic fund-raisers are busy launching a new event that will combine several of the elements believed to resonate most with women donors—bringing them back to campus, connecting them with current student-athletes, and celebrating women’s involvement with sports.

“We’re planning a list of nine events during the year where women are the focus,” says Gary Barta, Senior Associate Athletic Director for External Affairs. “We’ll be sending out ‘hold that date’ cards to every woman we know of who supports our program and to all the former female athletes we can find. We’re going to ask them to commit to coming to at least one event.”

Each of the nine dates will celebrate a separate women’s sports program at UW, featuring a collegiate contest and halftime highlights. For example, “If it’s a soccer match, we’ll invite all the girls’ youth soccer teams in the area to come for free and we’ll recognize them at halftime,” Barta said. The culmination of the yearlong event will be a fund-raising dinner.

Sidebar: Tread Carefully
When speaking with older women who have not been approached by fund-raisers before, experts suggest taking great care with your strategy. Ann Abbe, President of the Arlington, Texas-based consulting firm Philanthropy Solutions, explains that fund-raisers must be sensitive to generational differences in how women respond to pitches.

“Many women in their 60s and 70s feel that talking about money is impolite,” says Abbe. “You have to be very careful about how and where you approach them.”

Asking older women to talk about money in a restaurant or other public setting is usually a bad idea, she adds. “Even things like where you sit can make a difference. If a woman is uncomfortable talking publicly, it’s probably better to have her sit next to you than across the table. You have to think carefully about all the little things when you’re talking with older women.”

These donors often take longer to give you an answer as well. “A woman in her 60s or 70s might want to take a very long time to think about a decision,” says Joel Padgett, Florida State’s Director of Athletic Gift Planning. “You have to respect her timing and be careful not to rush her.”