By Kenny Berkowitz
Kenny Berkowitz is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management.
Coaching Management, 13.2, February 2005, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/cm/cm1302/needaboost.htm
Two years ago, after Northampton (Mass.) High School bought new metal bats, Head Baseball Coach Mark Baldwin got some bad news. The state association was requiring teams to use wood bats in playoff games, and the school’s baseball budget was already tapped out.
“That decision took us by surprise,” says Baldwin. “We had always used wood bats in practice, but we didn’t have enough to make it through the tournament, and neither did the local vocational high school. So we turned to our boosters, and they bailed us out. Not only were we able to buy the wood bats we needed, but we were also able to lend them to the vocational school.”
Just four years earlier, both programs would have been out of luck. But in 1999, Baldwin started a baseball booster club, and like many other high school and college teams, Northampton’s Blue Devils had a source of money to supplement what they received from their school. In this case, it made the difference between competing for the championship and staying at home. And by supporting athletes at both of Northampton’s high schools, Baldwin’s booster club made an impact on the entire community.
Without a baseball booster club, Baldwin wouldn’t have had the funds to buy the other things his team needed: new uniforms, indoor pitcher’s mounds, toss nets, and a batting cage. He wouldn’t have had the time to plan an end-of-the-season baseball banquet for his players and their parents, and he wouldn’t have had the money to create a separate freshman squad.
Baldwin began his booster club with the simple goal of raising $800 for new jerseys. Since then, he’s kept expanding his vision, and Northampton’s baseball booster club can now raise $2,500 in a good year. With most of it providing new opportunities for his freshmen, it’s dramatically improved his program. And even though his club’s goals are more modest than those at other high schools, colleges, and universities, the strategies for starting a baseball booster club are similar across all levels of the game.
Making a Plan
The first step in starting a baseball booster club is creating a detailed plan. Eli Herrera, Head Coach at the University of Texas-Brownsville/Texas Southmost College, encourages coaches to begin by committing their thoughts to paper. “Writing down my ideas was definitely a help,” says Herrera, whose 23-page proposal for a booster club helped him land his current position three years ago. “I used that plan when I interviewed here, and when I got the job, I put in a lot of extra time at night to keep developing my ideas.”
Herrera’s proposal began with a mission statement: “The booster club is a volunteer-driven, non-profit organization committed to serving and uniting the UTB/TSC baseball community. The booster club will support UTB/TSC Baseball by generating community spirit, promoting community involvement, soliciting donations, raising funds, and also recognizing the baseball program’s needs. The booster club will foster an environment of academic achievement in a fair, professional, ethical, and lawful manner.”
The proposal defines the requirements and benefits of club membership, and outlines five levels of members, ranging from “Active Volunteer Members,” defined as parents of current players, invited to join without making a donation, to the “Scorpion Grand Elite,” comprising members who have contributed at least $300 to the program. Along with setting a calendar of meetings and a list of officers, Herrera’s proposal has sections on donation opportunities and NJCAA compliance, including specific rules of behavior for booster club members.
The next step, especially for a coach new to a school, is discussing the proposal with department administrators and seeking the advice of colleagues at school. “The most important thing is to get other people involved,” says Herrera. “Because if you have no staff to help out, you’re liable to bury yourself in work and lose sight of your real purpose, which is to teach the students.”
Arriving in Fort Worth in the summer of 2003, Jim Schlossnagle, Head Coach at Texas Christian University, started his baseball program’s booster club by scheduling a meeting with his athletic director. “I wanted to create an organization that could act as both a fundraising arm of our team and an interest-generating vehicle to expand the reach of our program,” says Schlossnagle. “But first, I needed to get permission.”
Convincing his athletic director was easy. But Schlossnagle went into the meeting looking for more than a simple yes-or-no answer. He needed to learn how the rules for fundraising at TCU differed from those at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where he was head coach the previous two seasons. “Before starting a booster club, every coach needs to make sure they understand the fundraising approach of their institution,” says Schlossnagle. “Each school has its own rules, and it’s important not to do anything that will detract from the institution. I had rules to abide by at UNLV, and I have rules to abide by here. But they’re very different rules.”
At the high school level, many state associations have specific rules governing booster clubs. At Burkburnett (Texas) High School, Head Coach Mike Leach relied closely on guidelines issued by the University Interscholastic League (UIL), the sanctioning body for Texas high school sports, when he formed a booster club eight years ago. “Here in Texas, we have seven pages of rules and regulations that we need to follow involving the booster club,” says Leach. “They specify the role of superintendents, schools, coaches, parents, and athletes, and everyone needs to abide by them.”
A major question regarding sport-specific booster clubs is their effect on Title IX compliance. Generally, athletic departments must provide equal levels of support for both men’s and women’s programs. Girls’ teams may need an increase in support commensurate with what the boys’ team’s boosters provide.
This is why it’s essential to bring in your administrators at the earliest stages of the process. Some may want to include softball in the new club, or start a separate softball booster organization. Others may insist that money raised by baseball boosters go into a combined athletic department pot, which is tapped by each sport as needs arise. Either way, administrative input will be crucial, as will making anyone else who might get involved understand the gender-equity ramifications and what has to be done about them.
Written policies will help make booster clubs more accountable to the athletic department, school administrators, and district school boards. Clarifying these rules can also protect you as the head coach from liability in case of an accident at a booster-organized function. At the same time, creating these policies gives coaches and athletic directors an opportunity to shape the booster club to fit the needs of the team and department, and to focus on the larger picture of how your booster club will fit into the school’s educational mission.
As part of creating a plan, it’s important for high school coaches to devise a framework for their booster clubs. At Burkburnett, Leach begins his booster club meetings in September, meets through the fall and spring, and doesn’t stop until June. With meetings scheduled every two weeks, it takes more than just pep talks to keep his boosters going—it takes organization.
“As the coach, you need to create an organizational structure,” says Leach. “You need a president to lead the club and a group of officers to do most of the work. The president and I will often talk about the agenda beforehand, but after the first few meetings of the year, it’s likely that I won’t say anything unless I’m asked. I’m happy to be there, but someone else takes the lead.”
By working with an organization, Leach can delegate tasks to the boosters and concentrate on coaching the team. A secretary keeps the minutes of each meeting, a treasurer records donations and expenditures, and other members take responsibility for designing Bulldog T-shirts, marketing Bulldog mugs, contacting potential donors, staffing competitions, and planning fundraisers. They even organize the team’s end-of-the-year banquet, where officers are chosen for the following year.
“Of course, as the head coach, I’m still responsible for making sure that everything the booster club does is done right,” says Leach. “So I always keep my administrators informed, get my paperwork in on time, and make sure not to go over budget.”
At Northampton, Baldwin uses a much simpler organizational structure, coordinating fundraising with four or five members. “We meet a couple of times a year to plan how to approach potential donors for our advertising program,” says Baldwin. “At the first meeting, we brainstorm about who’s going to do what and then divide the responsibilities for making contact. Then we meet again to see how much progress we’re making and talk about whether there’s anyone else we’d like to target.”
The structure works well for Baldwin, who takes hands-on responsibility for much of the fundraising. Like Leach, he’s careful to make someone else responsible for accounting. “We have an on-staff accountant who’s in charge of student activities,” says Baldwin. “Any money that’s collected goes to the accountant, who puts it in a safe. There’s a very clear accounting of everything, and that takes pressure off me.
“Ultimately, anything we spend money on has to be approved by the principal,” continues Baldwin. “We’re not doing anything in secret—the records are there for anyone who wants to see. That keeps everything on the up-and-up, and lends additional credibility to what we do.”
After high school, as coaches cast wider nets for support, they can concentrate on getting help from the people around them—in their department, school, and college—to shape a set of effective, realistic goals, and determine how a booster club can help reach them. What kind of help do want your booster club to provide? What role do you want your boosters to play?
“Coaches need to ask themselves what they’re trying to achieve with their booster club,” says Schlossnagle, whose TCU booster club easily surpassed his goal of raising $50,000 during its first year. “The difference between the amount you need to operate at your level and what the school provides is the amount you need to raise, whether you choose to do that through the booster club or with a series of fundraising events.
“The second thing you need to do is assess your marketplace and determine how you’re going to meet those needs,” continues Schlossnagle. “Trying to raise money in a small town is going to be different from raising money in a big city. Given your marketplace, have you set an achievable goal? Have the stakeholders already bought into your program, or do you need to bring them in? What kind of help do you need? Are there people in the community who can help your program by donating money? Are there people who can help by providing services?”
Schlossnagle found support from TCU’s long-established athletic booster club, which has years of fundraising experience in greater Fort Worth. Herrera recommends talking with your school’s business faculty for help in both starting and staffing a baseball booster club. “Let the chairperson see that there are opportunities for his or her students to get involved in marketing your booster club,” says Herrera, who is pursuing an MBA. “The baseball booster program is an ideal way for business students to gain some experience while they’re helping out your team.”
When establishing his booster club 14 years ago at Butler University, Head Coach Steve Farley worked closely with the school’s alumni office, which helped identify potential donors for the baseball program. “For me, the key was talking with the alumni office, which has a database of former players, including information about where they live and work,” he says. “I was able to send out a mass mailing to all those folks, saying, ‘I’m the new coach, and this is my vision of the future.’ Before they were ready to buy into it, the alumni needed to know they were going to be a part of something extraordinary. And with their help, we were able to turn the program around.”
Once you’ve created a plan that has the support of your department and administration, the next step is to expand your efforts into your school and community. At Burkburnett, Leach began with his athletes. “In team meetings, I announced that we were going to start a baseball booster club and asked the players to let their parents know,” says Leach. “Then I put a notice in school publications and sent informational letters to the parents asking them to contact me if they were interested in helping out.”
The approach resulted in a handful of telephone calls, giving Leach a chance to talk about his plans for the upcoming season and to personally invite the parents to the booster club’s first meeting. Then, at that first get-together, he made sure to start the season on a positive note, reminding the parents of the booster club’s primary purpose.
“Right from the beginning, I set a clear tone for the meetings,” says Leach. “I told them, ‘This is not a gripe session. If you want to tell me that your son isn’t playing enough, you can tell me at another time. Our meetings are about promoting baseball and earning extra money for our program.’”
Blake Boydston, who began the booster club at Plano West (Texas) High School six years ago, agrees on the importance of keeping parents focused on the whole program. “You’ve got to build a foundation of parents who are interested in working for the entire program, not just for their own sons,” says Boydston, former Head Coach at Plano West and currently a Physical Education Teacher at nearby Rose Haggar Elementary School. “When you have a good group of parents like that, it’s a lot easier to start a booster club. They want to help others, and that’s exactly the kind of parents you need: people who are willing to work hard, take the initiative, and make the baseball program their own.”
Thanks to the efforts of a small group of parents, Plano West’s booster club quickly took root, setting up a Web site, selling advertisements in the community, organizing fundraisers, and raising $15,000 in its first year. Over the next four years, the boosters raised money to build a brick backstop behind home plate, construct a green backdrop behind the center field wall, install two new batting cages, add three new pitcher’s mounds, plant bushes around the outfield fence, and buy at least one set of new uniforms every year.
“It was great for the morale of the team,” says Boydston. “Every time we’d get new bats or new equipment, it felt like Christmas all over again.”
But sometimes, smaller is better, especially for avoiding the pitfalls of boosters who are more interested in their son’s playing time than in raising money for the whole program. Before broadcasting the start of his booster club to the entire community, Baldwin first recruited four or five core members, targeting the parents of his most consistent starters. “I chose to create a small group of people committed to working toward some very specific things,” says Baldwin. “Partly, that’s because our needs weren’t very large. And partly, it’s because I wanted a smaller, more manageable group to fit our goals.”
Once the core group of boosters was formed, they passed the word to others, and as the club grew larger, Baldwin continued to recruit and maintain a core of four or five hard-working parents each year. “I sought out the parents of athletes who I knew were always going to play,” says Baldwin. “I didn’t want to hear people say, ‘I raised all this money for you, why isn’t my Johnny playing?’ So I started with the mother of our best pitcher and said, ‘How can we raise $800?’ And she said, ‘We can do it in a couple of days.’ And son of a gun, it really was that easy. Instead of raising $800, we raised $1,300, which was enough to buy uniforms plus a few other things we needed.”
At South Georgia College, Head Coach J. Scott Sims tried to start his baseball booster club with alumni, and quickly learned that he needed to focus more attention on his athletes’ parents. “We did get some alumni involved, and we have had some continued support from them,” says Sims. “But at a junior college, the parents of your current players are always going to be the most active members of your booster club. And it doesn’t have to take a lot of persuading, because most of them have already been in a similar situation at their son’s high school, and they understand that baseball doesn’t get the money that other sports get.”
Working at a junior college, Sims has drawn parents to his booster club through personal contacts, letters, team cookouts, and word of mouth. And because he can’t depend on his athletes’ parents to stay active for more than two years, he’s found another way to create a steady core of boosters: reaching out to the community.
“Anything you can do to bring community to your field,” says Sims, “is ultimately going to help your program.” In past years, his booster club has raised much of its money by selling local advertisements on the outfield fence, and the athletic department has helped increase the ads’ visibility by opening the baseball field for a wide range of community events, including high school games, summer league games, baseball camps, and summer concerts. The program hosts its own event as well, consistently drawing community members to its 100-inning game, an intra-squad fundraiser with one pitch per at-bat, where athletes gather pledges from friends, family, and local residents.
“The key to maintaining continuity on your booster club is getting your community involved,” says Sims. “You need to find the people who live in town, whether or not they’re alumni. Find the parents who have been active in the high school booster club and try to get them involved in your program. Talk to fans when they come to your games, or when you see them around the community, at the bank, on the golf course. Develop those relationships.”
“You’ve got to get people involved who aren’t necessarily parents,” agrees Burkburnett’s Leach. “The best advice I can give is to get the people who just love baseball, even if their kids aren’t playing on your team.”
Leach looks for potential community boosters among businesspeople, summer league coaches, and parents of former athletes, and has found a small, steady core of boosters to provide stability to the club from one year to the next. “If you can get community members involved in your booster club,” says Leach, “you can get the community feeling proud about the facilities where their children are playing and where their future children and grandchildren will play. If you can get the community feeling proud, you can get their support.”
To expand community support for his booster club, Leach takes advantage of opportunities to attend local functions. “As the coach, you can’t just sit back and expect people from the community to come forward,” says Leach. “People aren’t going to help unless they know what you need.
“It’s important to get out into the community and let people know what you’re doing,” continues Leach. “Go to local activities and promote your program through local clubs—for example, I’ve spoken at the Rotary Club and the Lions Club. Never turn down one of those invitations, because it’s another opportunity to promote your program. It’s your responsibility to let them know who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish.”
At Northampton, Baldwin doesn’t just reach into the community by himself—he brings the whole team with him, resulting in some of the booster club’s largest donations. “When Little League does its indoor tryouts, our players volunteer to help out,” says Baldwin. “They come in shifts, wearing their uniforms and hitting grounders to the little kids. And because the person who runs the Little League is also in charge of the local police association, that’s created a three-way partnership between the school, the Little League, and the police association, which is now one of our donors. By contributing to the community, we’ve found people who are willing to help us out as well.”
Going before the larger community speaks to the final piece of booster-club building: maintaining relationships. The objective is to maintain the support that’s necessary to keep things going year after year.
Many coaches have athletes go out in public to represent the program, such as by volunteering in soup kitchens or hosting fun events for younger children. Some teams keep themselves visible by organizing events such as home run contests, alumni games, or dinners built around watching the World Series.
Finally, remember to thank donors, recognizing them as an integral part of your program. “You have to continue to nurture the relationship, so your donors feel they have had a hand in your success,” says Schlossnagle. “They have to feel like a part of the team.”
As you make plans, aim high, adds Farley. “We ask each of our players to aim for the highest level possible, and as coaches, it’s important for us to do that, too. In booster clubs, as in everything else, aim for that bigger vision of what you want to achieve.”
Set the Right Goals
Setting goals that are too lofty for your club can quickly discourage your boosters, and setting goals that aren’t ambitious enough can easily cause your membership to lose interest. The key is to find the right balance. At Northampton (Mass.) High School, Head Baseball Coach Mark Baldwin purposely set modest goals that could be achieved with only a handful of volunteers.
“The ideal size of your booster club depends on the goals you’re trying to accomplish,” says Baldwin, who usually has a core of four or five hard-working boosters. “I chose to create a small group of people committed to work toward some very specific things. Partly, that’s because our needs weren’t very large. And partly, it’s because I wanted a smaller, more manageable group to fit our goals.”
Baldwin began his booster club with a simple, specific agenda: He wanted to raise enough money to buy new jerseys. Over the next six years, his wish list has steadily grown, but his strategy for setting goals is still the same.
“If you want to keep your boosters focused, keep your expectations realistic and tangible,” advises Baldwin. “The more specific your goals are, the easier it will be to find donors. When we were looking to start a freshman team, we told our potential donors, ‘This is something the school can’t afford on its own, and it creates a new opportunity for kids who wouldn’t otherwise be able to participate.’ That was a very persuasive message, because people could see that their money was going to a very specific cause: improving the experience of young athletes.”
At Butler University, Head Coach Steve Farley jump-started his booster club with a wish list that balanced short- and long-term goals. “Along with our big-ticket items, we create some small, simple goals that will be easy to accomplish,” says Farley. “We want to give people the instant gratification of seeing how they’ve helped. So we send them photos and put pictures on our Web site and plaques around the field. That spurs interest in some of the bigger projects that are still a year or two away.”
In 14 years, Butler’s boosters have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, which have resulted in a new irrigation system, a new pressbox, an upgraded concessions stand, and a team trip to Australia. Farley still has dozens of items on his wish list, including a new indoor practice facility, and keeps adding to the list with input from athletes, alumni, and boosters.
“There are a lot of potential donors out there,” says Farley, “and they’d love to help, if they only knew what you wanted.”
Sidebar: Texas League Rules
In Texas, the University Interscholastic League has an extensive set of guidelines for organizing booster clubs at member high schools. While the rules obviously apply only in Texas, the list of policies that the UIL asks each booster club and athletic department to follow is a good starting point for thinking about what kinds of questions a booster club plan should seek to answer. The UIL guidelines ask each booster club and athletic department to develop its own written policies governing:
• How to obtain administrative approval before beginning projects.
• How to plan, publicize, and conduct meetings.
• How to administer funds and maintain records.
• How to elect officers, ideally one president, one secretary, one treasurer, and three vice-presidents, one for each season.
• How to take, distribute, and file minutes of the booster club meetings.
• How to communicate with the public and local school board.
• How to demonstrate sportsmanlike conduct toward athletes, coaches, officials, and spectators.
• How to keep the educational goals of competition at the forefront of all interscholastic athletics.
For more information about liability, see “Your School Corporation’s Relationship With Its Booster Clubs: Ways of Resolving Potential Conflict,” by attorney Timothy S. Shelly, at: www.warrickandboyn.com/ art-boosters.htm.
For information on Title IX compliance regarding booster clubs, see an article from our sister magazine, Athletic Management, at: www.momentummedia.com /articles/am/am1302/booster. htm.