Cashing In

From food sales to annual auctions, any fund-raising project has the potential to be successful. The keys are understanding your resources, coming up with a strategic plan, and keeping volunteers motivated. In this article, a longtime coach and fund-raiser explains what he’s learned over the years.

By Lem Elway

Lem Elway is the former Head Baseball Coach at Anacortes (Wash.) High School and a member of the Washington State Coaches Hall of Fame. Currently a special education teacher at Rochester (Wash.) Middle School, he has taught at the middle and high school levels for more than 25 years in a variety of sports.

Athletic Management, 16.3, April/May 2004,

The art of fund-raising has become an imperative part of athletics. Whether it’s for keeping athletic budgets in the black, or for doing something special, the need for money has increased. Fund-raising is essential.

Raising money is like competing in athletics. It involves preparation, the action or skill itself, and the follow-through. All three are necessary, regardless of the scope or ambition of the project. I’m going to deal with the action and the follow-through in this article, but what I’m most concerned with is the preparation. As coaches say, championships are won in the preseason. It’s the same with fund-raising. You can’t succeed without a good plan.

A plan establishes a focus and makes it easier to sell your objectives to the people who’ll be involved. It creates a clear road map to the ultimate goal and identifies potential pitfalls and roadblocks so they can be handled proactively before minor obstacles become major. It puts money in the bank.

Many fund-raising plans start with deciding what to do to raise money, but that’s premature. The first thing is to determine how much money you need and what you can realistically accomplish. This can be critical, because future fund-raising is built on previous success.

First, assess your needs. At this stage, you must try to answer these questions: Why are we having a fund-raiser? What is the specific purpose of the money? How will the money be used? Will it be for uniforms for a particular team, for equipment, for travel? Are we raising dollars for facilities, and if so, which facilities?

Tie your needs to your grand plan for fund-raising. This grand plan answers the questions, Where are we going? How do we get there? How long will it take? This will affect not only the current project, but your subsequent fund-raising work as well.

The answers to these questions can help you form a goal. The goal must be written on paper for everyone’s examination and discussion. The goal statement should be concise and explain direction and parameters. People involved must agree upon and know the goal from the outset. Be prepared to alter the goal if circumstances change—key people drop out or join, needs change, economic circumstances evolve, or an insurmountable logistical roadblock emerges—but the important thing is to set and promote a goal that anyone involved can understand and appreciate. Having it written down for everyone to see and internalize helps make sure there are no hidden agendas.

With the goal established, write a mission statement. It should identify needs and the goal, but also lay out the mechanics of the project, putting into writing what will be done for everyone to view at any time. It must create and communicate a vision that motivates the people who want to be involved, connecting them to the project emotionally and financially. The mission statement is the cornerstone of any successful fund-raising project. It helps deal with one of the major human tasks—making sure no one starts to think he or she is bigger than the project. This especially helps with recurring events and long-term fund-raising initiatives because as your success grows, people join in, but many may see other needs for the money. Having the mission clearly defined—and written—helps keep you on the original task.

Is one big project the best, or do many smaller ones better fit your organization? Some organizations like to do a lot of small fund-raisers, while others with ample manpower and focus prefer large functions that allow them to make all their money in one shot. Each has certain characteristics and purposes that fit various financial needs. Your job is to determine which fits your situation. Consider some of each. As time goes by, success is determined by diversity—and making it fun.

Short-term projects are usually designed to make about $5,000, while annual events can bring in more than $10,000. In short-range fund-raising, the mentality is to make as much as possible in a short time and move on. In a long-range endeavor, the idea is to cultivate ongoing relationships with donors. In this type of project, a foundation might be set to make $10,000 the first year with the idea of making $50,000 in three years. Long-range strategies must be established because many potential participants will decide whether and how to commit based on how long an obligation they’ll be taking on.

Don’t overlook small efforts, particularly if you have a relatively small, defined need, such as new uniforms. I’ve used bake sales, candy sales, magazine-subscription sales, and the like. Not only are they doable with the resources you have on hand—the young people themselves often do much of the work—but they are a great way to get started, build interest, and find leaders. The actual method of raising money is limited only by imagination and enthusiasm. Fun should also be a part of the formula

To make decisions on types of projects, a good place to start is by assessing the human resources available to you. A successful fund-raiser runs on organizational skills and a continual flow of volunteers. Whether these exist or can be cultivated will largely dictate the type and scope of project you can take on. Committed people are a necessity, and their personality and character are critical for fund-raising success. The job is to match your needs and objectives with your human resources.

Poor choice of leaders is perhaps the most common reason fund-raising projects don’t fulfill their potential. Whether an individual or a core group of individuals, they are responsible for keeping everyone else on course and must be set up to succeed. As the instigator of the fund-raising effort, you have the job of making sure people in leadership positions have the necessary organizational, time-management, follow-through, and people skills to direct others through the inevitable mine fields of the project.

As the overall leader, your task is to read people. Some may never have been in leadership positions before, but you may be able to see potential or at least willingness to take on the task. It’s an opportunity to nurture people in new roles—which in itself can attract energetic, enthusiastic volunteers.

To make sure the key leaders are set up for success, ask these questions:

• Can they establish a vision for others to understand?
• Can they constantly show energy, enthusiasm, and excitement?
• Can they focus on discipline, strategies, financial planning, program design, and evaluation?
• Are they savvy enough to match people’s abilities and personalities to the right tasks?
• Are they able to foresee and react to potential problems before they arise?
• Can they motivate people and keep workers moving toward the goal?
• Are they doers more than talkers?

Also assess the rank and file. Volunteers are a critical part of project continuity, and they must posses the personal and learning skills necessary to fit the needs and objectives of the fund-raising project. Whether innate or developed, the presence or absence of these traits will greatly dictate success on a short- and long-range basis. Their strengths and weaknesses need to be matched with their tasks. Introverts aren’t going to succeed in courting donors or cold-call selling of fund-raising items. But they might be great at behind-the-scenes detail-oriented work that you’d rather not leave to social butterflies. (See "Vetting Volunteers" below.)

To fill a continual pool of volunteers, look for people who will use the money now or in the future. For example, if you’re raising money for a high school program, ask middle school parents whose sons and daughters will be in the program in the future to get involved. Parents of this year’s varsity are happy to help because their kids are on the team this year and perhaps next. But what about after their children graduate? They might drop out of the fund-raising group or try to divert the money in a different direction. You need to be ready to cycle in new people to keep on task year after year.

Whether you’re selling food items, magazines, raffle tickets, holding a banquet, or courting large one-time donors, there are some central considerations.

Timing is critical. The big questions:

• Is there anything else going on in the community that would stifle our activity?
• Are there other events like ours in the area?
• Is there a certain time of year we need to schedule our event, or a time we should avoid?
• Are the people involved able to give up all their time for the event, or will it be a busy time of year for them?

These questions must be fully answered to set up success. For example, in the first year of a sports-memorabilia auction to benefit youth sports in a community in which I used to live, we made some enemies out of members of a Rotary club because they had an event that conflicted with ours. When the Rotary event didn’t go well, they blamed us. Another point about timing: Aim for the first week of the month. That usually is payday for many people, and they feel good about spending money.

Many short-range projects don’t require a facility, because they involve selling on an individual basis. But when you do need a facility, be sure to consider location, availability, and type needed. This can be critical. With a large facility, a big crowd is needed or the building will look empty and create a negative image. On the other hand, an overcrowded small facility can be a negative venue as well. Find a facility that best fits your needs, and remember that the decision can be a key factor in success or failure.

Don’t forget to consider special accommodations involving decoration, bookkeeping, cleanup, and other duties associated with using a facility. It needs to present a professional, intimate, and user-friendly environment that stimulates success.

In a big fund-raiser, make sure everyone who attends or is asked to donate, no matter their income, can buy something or otherwise contribute. Organizers must create ways for people of different economic means to spend their money. This could entail buying an item or being part of a raffle.

Depending on the situation, you may need to think about advertising as you make your plan. Sending information to media outlets, using reader boards, and word of mouth will all greatly increase your chances of success. I’ve found writing "letters to the editor" before the event helps build interest. But it’s also important to write letters to the editor afterward, thanking everyone who helped and donated, and soliciting interest in the next event or the same event next time.

As the nature and scope of your project become clear, and after a schedule for short- and long-range goals are agreed upon, an agenda must be developed. Establish an accountability timeline with deadlines, and put together a committee roster of project personnel grouped by committee.

To keep the project moving forward, get everyone together regularly. When planning big-expectation fund-raisers, set up organizational meetings six months in advance in order to map-out strategies, designate responsibilities, and report progress on established intermediate goals. These meetings should be held approximately once a week depending on whether everyone feels comfortable with how the project is progressing. Don’t get complacent. Stay focused and keep energy levels high. As with any competition, energy and enthusiasm need to keep building until the day of the event. These meetings offer chances to brainstorm, restore collective energy, and maintain direction.

Make plans to keep those who can’t come to meetings in the information loop. This is true whether you are planning an auction to raise $15,000 or a campaign to build a football stadium. Everyone needs to feel important and informed.

At all meetings, try to head off any negativity. Politely but firmly say that negativity will not be tolerated. Focus on how to do things, not why they can’t be done. If someone has an idea that won’t work now, ask them to write it down, tweak it, and come back with it at the next meeting.

As the function draws near, group meetings might need to be accelerated to make sure all the "i’s" are dotted and "t’s" crossed. That is a leadership decision, but it must allow time for solving surprises and trouble shooting. Remember, Murphy’s Law is always in force. (See "Potential Pitfalls," below.)

It may seem strange in an article about preparing for a fund-raiser to talk about what happens afterward. But as in any athletic movement, follow-through is a critical area that’s often overlooked. The follow-through is the evaluation procedure at the end of the fund-raising project. It comes in two steps: Constructive criticism about what happened, and how to improve on the next project. For best results, these questions should be considered separately.

The constructive-criticism phase is not the time to tell everyone what a great job they did, but to be critical. As any coach knows, the best way to get better is to strengthen your weakest link. How did everything operate? How will did committees function? What areas need adjusting? What are the strong and weak areas? The leader or leaders must ask these tough questions and be ready for answers. Seek outside opinions from people who weren’t involved. Accept as much feedback as possible and from as wide a range of people as possible.

For the annual sports-memorabilia auction and dinner, we were sure to ask buyers—and non-buyers—each year what they would want next time. The answers ranged from kayaks to ski gear, and we got great information that helped the event grow each time.

Making an action plan for improvement is the final order of a fund-raiser. Those who attend year after year should see that the organization wants to always get better. Never staying the same and always trying new things are the marks of good and profitable business ventures.

Fund-raising can be a high-maintenance undertaking but can provide rich rewards. Many factors contribute to success and failure, but two things are crucial: Promoting creative thinking so that people are stimulated, and the ability to foresee problems and deal with them in a positive proactive manner.

Remember, regardless of the magnitude of a fund-raising project, the ultimate goal is to provide the financing to give all athletes the opportunity to have a positive and maturing experience through athletics. That in itself is the reason our efforts need to be well-planned.

Sidebar: Create a Buzz
If there’s a single critical component of a sound fund-raising plan, it’s defining your goal and sticking to it. To help illustrate my point, I’d like to share the story of two projects I was involved in that had good results, partly because the goal was clear and well-defined.

Field of Dreams
When I became Head Baseball Coach at Anacortes (Wash.) High School, one of the first things I said publicly was that I intended to build a first-class baseball field. This got the attention of a member of the community who had the means to make a major financial donation provided there were clear goals set. If there were, he’d provide the money to buy the materials and equipment for the first major step—good dugouts.

I sat down with another leader of the baseball field initiative and we drew up plans for the dugouts, down to the precise dimensions and building materials needed. We then went to local suppliers of concrete, roofing, and aluminum, asking for the best prices they could offer, stressing that the whole idea is to help the young people of our community.

The next task was lining up the labor. We asked the local carpenters’ union to donate some weekends of their time, and they came through. Contractors also donated some assistance. With the materials and labor lined up, the original donor made good, and in a short time, we had new dugouts.

With the improvement visible for all to see, other parts came together. A local Rotary Club made a service project out of building a new pressbox. When it came time for fences, we decided we wanted wood fences for a traditional ballpark look. We approached a contractor for a cost estimate, but the company, sold on our vision, offered to provide six workers free of charge for six weeks to build the fence. The original donor suggested lights and wrote a $70,000 check to pay for them.

A United Approach
As in many places in America, youth sports teams and organizations in my community seemed to be constantly asking for money. More than 12 years ago, we decided that coaches should coach, not fund-raise. We told youth-sports organizations that we would cover their budgets in return for leaving residents and businesses alone the rest of the year. We told business people to report to us any solicitation from sports groups. It worked.

The activity we decided upon was an auction of sports-related memorabilia. We solicited donations such as a basketball autographed by members of the Seattle Supersonics, and the press plate from the Baltimore Sun the morning after Cal Ripken Jr. set his consecutive-games record.

But we didn’t want it to be just an auction. It needed to be an "event." We would charge $30 a person and provide drinks and dinner in a decorated banquet hall.

The key was creating an atmosphere that made it as much fun for the guests as it was for us to take their money. Auctioned items weren’t just handed to the buyers. Cases were donated by a local trophy shop, and we had them wrapped so that a winning bid was treated like getting a present. We didn’t skimp on food, even if it meant netting a little less money, because we wanted to project a top-flight image.

Likewise, we paid careful attention to decorating the facility to provide a positive first impression. It wasn’t easy, especially the first year, when we were in the basement of City Hall. But we hung decorations off wires from the ceiling and were able to create a feeling of "Wow!" 10 to 20 seconds after guests entered.

Donations of auctionable items are obviously crucial to such an event. But we made sure that donors without auctionable items could take part, too. One item to be auctioned was a day at a spa, chauffeured there in a limousine. The limousine company, however, was able to provide only two hours. So we solicited monetary donations to pay for another three hours to fulfill the goal of the promised item. Afterward, we were sure to recognize donors of all levels with framed certificates.

The first year, the auction raised $10,000. Now, it’s an annual event generating $60,000 a year, and youth sports are supported all year.

Sidebar: Vetting Volunteers
Any fund-raising plan of attack must include recruiting volunteers. They are the heartbeat of a fund-raising project. Their enthusiasm for the project is contagious to others inside and outside the operation.

But it takes only a few negative or mismatched volunteers to wreck the atmosphere of success. In big projects, volunteers must deal with donors, and their ability to do that can be paramount to success or failure.

As the planner of a fund-raising project, it’s your job to recruit volunteers with a certain level of ability and key characteristics: good listening and people skills, including the ability to be sensitive to others’ needs; the ability to meet deadlines; being a doer, not a talker; a positive attitude.

What follows is a list of questions to ask potential volunteers. You don’t want to turn people away, but you do want to find out if each person is a good match for the project’s needs, so ask these questions in the context of finding out what jobs each person would be best suited for. Use informal interviews or a questionnaire, depending on the scope of your project and time available.

• What is your experience?
• What talents and resources do you have that the project can use?
• What would you like to do for the project?
• Do you have any ideas or projects that could make us better?
• Do you have any children in the program?

Here are some areas for leaders of fund-raising projects to consider once they know a little something about a particular volunteer or group of volunteers:

• Are they going to be able to succeed in the situations we put them in?
• How much will we have to train them for them to succeed and have a positive experience?
• Do potential volunteers have diverse abilities so that they can complement one another?

A final note: In sports-related fund-raising, an obvious source of volunteers is the student-athletes themselves, but don’t assume this is always the best direction. Using student-athletes or other young people as project personnel usually means choosing short fund-raisers, because their free time is limited and their focus is typically short-term. For fund-raisers that aim to net $5,000 or more, consider getting your volunteer corps away from student-athletes and more toward adults.

Sidebar: Potential Pitfalls
When developing a fund-raising plan, leaders must be aware of the pitfalls that could cause a project to fail and try to avoid them. While no one can foresee every eventuality, here is a short list of some of the most common big-picture pitfalls I’ve encountered:

• People in leadership positions lacking the necessary organizational, scheduling, follow-through, and people skills.
• Not placing personnel where they can perform to their strengths.
• Not enough quality workers.
• Not asking for enough money. Setting sights too low.
• Not eliminating excuse-makers or negative people from the project.