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Athletics Fundraising in a COVID-era

Athletics Fundraising

Across the country, stadiums and arenas that are typically straining to contain a rabid fan base are either empty or sparsely populated with socially distanced onlookers. The current COVID-19 situation has thrust the entire college athletics enterprise into a world of uncertainty and confusion. And the fundraisers tasked with securing philanthropic investments to support this enterprise are stepping up to the challenge.

In the early days of the pandemic, many institutions chose to stay in touch with donors and potential donors through “check-in” calls. In many cases, fundraisers were explicitly instructed not to talk about philanthropy. Over time, the duration of the COVID-19 disruption was met head-on by the financial realities of maintaining a successful athletics program. As such, the nature of the conversation between fundraisers and their prospects shifted to match that reality. The COVID pandemic has only accelerated the need for big-time athletics fundraising to evolve.  At Plus Delta Partners, we have been working with several Power Five institutions and other forward-thinking athletics development teams for many years.  These institutions have enjoyed a “first-mover” advantage and have been able to respond to the pandemic more nimbly by employing techniques and methodologies developed in partnership with Plus Delta.  They have found that current (and future) fundraising conditions favor the athletics fundraiser who behaves as a Forthright Diplomat, rather than a transactional solicitor or as a hopeful spokesperson. 

The landscape of college athletics, even in normal times, is broad and wide ranging in its scope and philosophy. At the highest level of Division I, athletic departments are often asked to be financially self-sufficient. They rely on revenue from ticket sales, corporate partnerships, media rights, and fundraising rather than institutional support. In August of last year, the PAC-12 and the B1G announced that they would not commence with Fall sports during their traditional season. Those conferences eventually reversed course and fielded teams with heightened safety and security protocols along with modified schedules. As a result, the revenue model upon which these programs are built was compromised. Ticket revenue and other external sources of support have changed dramatically. Fundraising is now one of the only revenue sources that can help to fill the void.

Jason Galaska is the Vice President at the National Association of Athletics Development Directors – an organization that counts more than 1,500 college athletics fundraising professionals among its membership. According to Galaska, conversations between fundraisers and donors “are positive….just different.” He cites the use of specific campaigns and creative messaging as examples of ways in which fundraisers are seeking to connect with donors.

The University of Washington, a PAC-12 institution, is a good example of a program that is navigating this uncertainty with transparency and creativity. Michael Rorabaugh, former Associate Athletic Director for Development at UW worked with senior administration officials to introduce the “Huskies All In” campaign. Rorabaugh and his staff encouraged donors to make gifts to provide funding for critical operating support so that UW can continue to provide the necessary resources for their 650 student-athletes on 22 varsity teams. While current-use operating support has always been an option for donors, Rorabaugh says that it is more important than ever before due to the lack of revenue from other sources. According to Rorabaugh, clear communication is paramount, “The key is to be very transparent about what’s at stake here. We have a great story to tell and we are finding that that story is resonating with our constituents.”

One example of this transparency is UW’s request to season ticket holders to consider converting their season ticket payment into a tax-deductible gift. At the time of this writing, Rorabaugh indicated that roughly 50% of season ticket holders have agreed to do so. These transparent conversations are helping UW’s athletics fundraising staff to better understand their donor base. They know who is interested in benefits such as priority parking and ticket locations. And they also know which of their donors is open to a conversation about how they can impact the student-athlete experience with a more significant philanthropic investment. To illustrate this point, Rorabaugh gave an example of a donor who recently made a $100,000 commitment. This donor had never made a gift of more than $1,000 previously but they listened carefully to the donor’s philanthropic goals and were able to find an impactful way for this donor to make a difference.

The same holds true for B1G institution Penn State University. Joe Foley, Senior Associate Athletics Director for Advancement, and his team have focused on transparency and preparation. With many prospect and donor conversations shifting to a virtual platform, the PSU team has ensured that donors are very clear about the intention of the meeting and they are working collaboratively with donors to agree on next steps. According to Foley, many gift conversations continued on as expected, while others slowed due to the pandemic as well as the continuing issues of social unrest. The key, according to Foley, has been for gift officers to model the forthrightness and transparency that they want to see from their donors.

According to Haven Fields, Deputy Director of Athletics at Ball State University, “We need to be the best listeners that we can possibly be right now. This is about so much more than just access to tickets and parking. We have to listen to our donors, and we have to help them understand how they can make a positive impact on the lives of our student-athletes.” Ball State is a member of the Mid-American Conference which initially elected to cancel their Fall sports season before moving forward with modified schedules. Fields and his colleagues worked creatively with the donors to provide experiences that don’t require them to be on campus. For example, donors were invited to a virtual conversation with the architects and contractors for a new indoor practice facility. “When thousands of donors aren’t coming to us in the Fall, it’s incumbent upon us to go to them.”

Georgetown University, a member of the BIG EAST Conference, has found that the current environment has enabled them to focus on campus collaboration. Scarlett Schneider, Senior Director of Development for Intercollegiate Athletics, and her team have focused on engaging both their internal and external stakeholders. Internally, Schneider has found that centrally focused gift officers are recognizing the value of including coaches or administrators into their cultivation efforts. “It’s been great because we’ve been able to showcase the amazing coaching staff that we have. And our donors as well as our colleagues across campus are finding that it is adding great value to the partnership with athletics.” Ironically, according to Schneider, the pandemic has allowed her and her staff to better educate themselves and their donors about their most important strategic priorities. “Typically we are running like crazy all the time –traveling for games or events or to see donors. So we’ve really been intentional about using this time to understand the impact that donors can have on our enterprise. And that puts us in a better position to make that case to our prospect base.”

Division III institutions also have different financial constraints compared to their Division I counterparts. Division III student-athletes do not receive athletic scholarships, nor do Division III institutions generate significant revenue from tickets, suites, and media rights.

According to Mike Lynch, the Pamela P. and Brian M. Barefoot Senior Director of Athletics and Athletics Advancement at Division III Babson College, the most challenging aspect of the COVID-19 era is the inability to connect with donors and supporters in person. Yet he and his colleagues have learned to adapt and utilize technology and other mediums to stay in front of their donor base, “It’s going to be like this for a while, so we have to create touchpoints. We have to show our donors how they can make a difference even though our student-athletes aren’t able to compete in the same way that our alumni and donors are accustomed to.”

Lynch pointed to a Giving Day campaign that Babson embarked on in the Spring of 2020. After initial trepidation about the timing of such a campaign, the Babson team set about to communicate transparently with their donor base about the importance of their support. When the campaign reached its conclusion, Lynch and his team were pleasantly surprised to see that they had raised roughly the same amount of money from a similar number of donors compared to a year ago.

Athletic Development staffs across the country are facing a period of uncertainty that the industry has not seen in quite some time. Those who emerge from this crisis best positioned for the future will likely be those who best display the following:

  1. Transparency – This is a time for development officers to work on how best to articulate their fundraising priorities. Those priorities are shifting, seemingly overnight. And donors need to understand how they can make a difference.
  2. Proactivity – Development officers across the country have shared with us that they have been pleasantly surprised by how willing donors have been to lend their support.
  3. Disciplined Prospect Qualification – Now more than ever, it is imperative that athletics development officers are spending their time with those who are open to a philanthropic partnership. Virtual meetings, phone calls, emails and texts are the new medium by which to have these conversations.
  4. Embrace the new normal – There is a strong likelihood that social distancing and virtual meetings will be around for the foreseeable future. Development officers must embrace this and bring energy and creativity to their conversations with donors and prospective donors.

And while everyone is waiting for the pandemic to be over and excited to “return to normal,” reflecting on which of the adaptations we made during COVID that should actually become a part of our new best practices will be important. Being disciplined and focusing on the fundamentals to engage with existing and new audiences will enable athletics fundraisers to succeed, now and far into the future.


Bill Ring- Plus Delta Partners Senior Consultant

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