How Small Sports Programs Can Win Big

From crowdfunding to communications, Division II and III athletic directors share their ideas for making financial home runs

By James Paterson

Lewis University’s women's softball team celebrates a home run.

WELCOME HOME: Lewis University’s softball team celebrates a home run. Through crowdfunding campaigns, softball and other sports have raised $200,000 in three years.

Picture a skinny field goal kicker standing next to a 350-pound defensive lineman. That's how sports fundraising at NCAA Division II and III institutions compares to universities in the Division I power conferences. In 2016, Texas A&M University raised nearly $67 million from private donors for its athletic programs. Nike co-founder Phil Knight has poured $300 million into University of Oregon athletics, helping his alma mater become a sports powerhouse.

Athletics gifts are less plentiful at institutions like Division III DePauw University in Indiana, which enrolls about 2,300 students-and doesn't charge admission to sporting events. Or Division II Academy of Art University in California, an NCAA institution better known for producing Oscar-nominated artists than athletic phenoms.

Such institutions will never compete with sports behemoths like the Universities of Oklahoma or Alabama (plenty of Division I institutions can't match the financial muscle of the powerhouses, either). Yet smaller institutions are still successfully raising funds to build bigger, better facilities and field competitive teams. Yes, yes-their athletic departments are feeling pressure to satisfy cash-strapped administrators who want sports teams not only to win but also to generate revenue and cover more of their expenses. But that pressure can be positive, says Matthew Donovan, senior associate athletic director of development at the University of Indianapolis, a Division II institution with 5,400 students: "It means we have to be proactive and smart."

Here are six smart ways that Division II and III athletic programs are winning fundraising victories.

Queens College women's basketball team huddles during the NCAA tournament.

BRING IT IN: The women’s basketball team of New York City’s Queens College huddles during the NCAA Tournament. Improved advancement efforts allowed the athletic department to erase a $1.3 million deficit.
1. Team Up with Development

At DePauw, athletic director Stevie Baker-Watson does plenty of fundraising work on her own. She hosts special events (such as a hall of fame dinner), religiously attends games, and talks to dedicated fans about the best ways to support athletics.
"It's important for me to listen so that I can help align people, passion, and projects for the best outcome," she says.

But Baker-Watson has also developed a mutually beneficial relationship with development staff. Given her athletics background, she knew little about development, she says, so staff members helped her build relationships with donors, ask for support, and create giving programs. The development team also helps with mailings and planning special events.

Baker-Watson returns the favor by encouraging sports boosters to engage with the entire university. She often serves as the sports program "content expert," as she calls it, providing information on everything from the success of an athletic program to the players to the need for equipment, scholarships, and facilities. She's also attended meetings between the advancement staff and a prospective major donor who loves sports and encourages development officers to attend games and events.

"That way they can speak personally about the programs and people donors are interested in," she says.

Diana Barnard, director of development for athletics at the University of California, San Diego, plays a similar role. She assists the development office by hosting top donors at games, giving them tours of sports facilities, and introducing them to coaches.

"In some cases," she says, "athletics bring an individual to the university who wants to know more about our school of medicine, or we may have an existing donor one of my colleagues in development is interested in."

2. Boost Budgets with Booster Clubs

In 2012, Baker-Watson created DePauw's Tiger Club, which raises about $125,000 annually. Donors can allocate 100 percent of their financial commitment to a general fund for athletics or 50 percent to a sports program of their choice, with the other 50 percent going to the general fund. Many Division II and III institutions allow gifts to be siloed, since donors often feel connected to a particular team, though most smaller schools prefer unrestricted funds to help support sports that bring in less revenue, Baker-Watson says.

Giving levels for the Tiger Club range from $1-$99 to $40,000 and above. For Baker-Watson, the various levels help build relationships with first-time donors. "Each dollar counts, and small donors may grow to be involved at higher levels later," she says, noting that many Tiger Club donors have increased their giving levels.

The University of Illinois Springfield's Star Club offers membership levels ranging from Young Alumni ($25) to Champion ($5,000-plus). Benefits for Champion donors include a road trip with the team of their choice and golf or dinner with a coach. The club has 529 members-up from 172 in the 2012-2013 academic year-and the annual gift total has grown from $46,331 to $105,409 during that same period.

University of Indianapolis football team taking the field.

FIELD OF DREAMS: The University of Indianapolis football team takes the field. By having development and athletics coordinate efforts, UIndy has cultivated athletic donors into academic donors.
3. Understand the Secrets to Crowdfunding

At Lewis University in Illinois, which enrolls about 6,500 students, the Flyer Friends and Family Crowdfunding Campaign has raised about $200,000 over its first three years, says Brian Sisson, associate athletics director for external relations. The family part of "friends and family" can be critical: Softball player Kelsey Ullrich raised more than $1,000 through a gift from her parents. Each sport is challenged to raise $5,000 through its own minicampaign, which they promote through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, along with more traditional techniques like phone banks and special events. The athletic department awards $500 and positive publicity to sports with the best results.

The highly ranked Queens College men's tennis team in New York City recently raised $2,350-the goal was $2,500-using the GiveCampus crowdfunding website. Queen College's page shares the team's success (headed to the national finals); features a spunky two-minute video (clips of the team practicing, doing pushups, and mugging for the camera), and a request for funds to support "key improvements outside of our normal operating budget."

Since crowdfunding campaigns are short (typically no longer than four weeks), the objective needs to be obvious, says Danielle Melman, assistant athletics director for external relations at UCSD. That's why a UCSD crowdfunding campaign for women's tennis focused on a  narrow target: Sending the team to Hawaii for a tournament (and yes, the campaign reached its $10,000 goal). Other campaigns focused
on buying equipment for the men's tennis team (an $80 donation will supply the team with a case of tennis balls for the season) and replacing a boat for the men's rowing team. The pages for each campaign appear on the development office's Crowdsurf platform.

The athletic department also partnered with the university to offer academic internship credit for student-athletes who execute crowdfunding campaigns for their teams. Melman provides students with guidance, and the interns learn skills such as writing solicitations, marketing a campaign, and setting up donor meetings. For a campaign to buy new oars for the women's rowing team, an intern's solicitations resulted in two donor meetings and two gifts: one for $1,000 and the other for $3,000. "Many students do not get that kind of fundraising experience in higher education," Melman says.

4. Host Your Hall of Famers

At Lewis University, Sisson recently resurrected a popular but defunct hall of fame induction ceremony, reestablishing it as the Flyer Red Dinner. The 2017 event honored four new members of the hall of fame and also featured a silent auction and a cocktail hour before
the dinner. About 300 former and current athletes, alumni, and supporters attended. The cost was $100 per person-sponsorship levels ranged from $1,500 to $7,500-and Sisson sent handwritten letters to families of athletes, former athletes, and previous donors, asking them to purchase a table for 10 guests. In addition to raising funds, Sisson says, the event builds relationships between current and former athletes, his
office, and the school's development office.

"It is great to connect with our fan base and have them interact with our student-athletes away from a sporting event," he says.

DePauw University athletic director Stevie Baker-Watson rings the Monon Bell.

RING IN THE WIN: DePauw University athletic director Stevie Baker-Watson rings the Monon Bell, the prize for DePauw's victory in the annual football game against Wabash College in November 2016. Baker-Watson regularly attends games to talk with fans about supporting athletics.
5. Endow Coaching Positions

At Augustana College in Illinois, the head wrestling coach position was endowed in 2008 thanks to an initial gift of $500,000 from a former star wrestler. The Rochester Institute of Technology launched an endowment for the coach of its successful women's hockey team in 2015. When fully funded, it will be worth $1.7 million. The endowment was initiated with an undisclosed gift from trustee emeritus Bruce

Bates, who joined the RIT board in 1970. The first recipient is head coach Scott McDonald, who signed a five-year contract extension in 2015.

"I got involved in a lot of different ways over the years with RIT," Bates said when the endowment was announced. "After a while, you get to love a place that tends to think you are OK and gives you opportunities to love [it] back."

6. Highlight Athletes More than Victories

Winning is everything, right? Not necessarily. Whether it's marketing materials or private conversations with potential donors, your message should focus on the athlete, says Baker-Watson. Team success can fluctuate-and coaches can leave-so messages about athletes are often more stable and more impactful than merely highlighting a winning record.

"Any time you spend money, that changes the experience of the student-traveling differently to minimize missed classes; providing access to tutors, technology, and additional staff-that resonates with many donors," she says. Student-athlete wellness is an important message, she says, pointing to a large donation to Indiana University for a new facility that will "offer comprehensive support with the use of cutting-edge technology; protect their health, safety, and wellness; maximize their athletic potential; help them develop leadership and life skills; and build a culture of trust and respect."

Donors repeatedly tell China Jude, athletic director at Queens College in New York, that they want to hear about athletes' success in school and after graduation. And at the University of Indianapolis, Donovan's most successful fundraising material includes images of-you guessed it-athletes graduating.

Winning Plays

Institutions must be resourceful if they want to grow athletic fundraising. Small colleges, especially in locations where there aren't other spectator sports and the teams enjoy a regional fan base, have a built-in advantage, says Kent Stanley, vice president for university advancement at Minnesota State University. He recommends those responsible for fundraising be highly visible, attending games and other events and having informational material at all sports-related functions, because they can't always know where support might come from.

Donovan and others also suggest making contacts with donors as personal as possible. Some smaller institutions are trying priority points, where levels of financial gifts can accumulate points for sporting event tickets and seating and special events. Others are looking for ways to involve younger alumni, including family- friendly events.

"Everybody is looking for money," he says, "and while you can't expect returns right away, it can pay off in athletics if you are creative and develop a sound plan with support. With some time, it can be a huge asset to the sports teams and to the university."

Who's in Charge of Fundraising?

Responsibility for athletic fundraising can vary widely from one Division II or III institution to another. At DePauw University in Indiana, the athletic director manages sports fundraising. At other universities, fundraising is managed by coaches, or the function is split among development staff. Regardless of the structure, coaches often play a key role in raising money, says Natalie Winkelfoos, associate vice president for athletics advancement at Oberlin College in Ohio. Coaches frequently have engaging personalities, they're passionate about their programs, and they know what they need. The downside? The dual role can increase the burden on coaches already under pressure to win. And just because they're experts on X's and O's, doesn't mean they're experts on fundraising.

"I wouldn't expect a coach to give me a clipboard and let me coach," says Kent Stanley, vice president for university advancement at Division II Minnesota State University. He's also wary of too many people launching separate fundraising efforts. Among the problems: Funds might not be handled appropriately or efficiently, and the same donors might be solicited multiple times.

"A lot of well-intentioned people want to raise money, but it only will pay off if there is structure," he says.

Development and athletics working collaboratively is key. Development staff should understand what the athletic department is doing so they can talk more intelligently about the program, which is often of interest to alumni. Likewise, athletics staff can generate support for the institution. "I want to tell our story and inspire our alumni to be philanthropic," Winkelfoos says. "I use fundraising not just as a way to make money for sports but to engage our alumni, parents, and friends and create a hardwired connection to our campus community."

Such coordination is how you turn sports fans into academics supporters. At the University of Indianapolis, some donors who first connected with the athletic department have become members of the board of trustees, says Matthew Donovan, senior associate athletic director of development. One booster even became the primary donor for the honors college.


From Deficit to Surplus

When China Jude arrived as athletic director at New York City's Queens College in 2011, she inherited a $1.3 million deficit. Six years later, the deficit has been eliminated. How did she do it?

First, Jude learned about the college-from its academic history to its successful alumni (such as comedian Jerry Seinfeld) to the workings of its bureaucracy. Only 20 percent of the Division II sports program's income came from the college, so making ends meet required better fundraising. To do that, she created the position of assistant athletics director for external relations to oversee marketing, sponsorships, and branding. The new assistant director, who had 10 years of experience in marketing, led a variety of initiatives, including upgrading the marketing materials, boosting athletics' social media presence, establishing partnerships, and signing sponsors (he regularly attends Chamber of Commerce meetings), all of which heightened the profile of Queens athletics in the city and increased ticket sales.

Queens also obtained $15 million in state funding to upgrade its athletic facilities. That investment has led more high schools, sports leagues, and AAU tournaments to rent the facilities, according to Jude. In addition to an increased focus on alumni gifts and stewardship, Jude also started a commemorative gift program. For $500, supporters' names are placed for two years on a men's or women's basketball player's locker ($750 will get you four years). For $250, a donor's name can emblazon a seat back in the arena for two years. Other areas for commemorative gifts include the baseball dugout, a bench in the gym lobby, and trophy cases.

To learn more about how Jude transformed Queens College's athletics funding, read her article in the April 2017 issue of Athletic Management.

About the Author

James Paterson is a Delaware-based writer. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Baltimore Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, and several other publications.