Marrying Athletics & Institutional Advancement: Arkansas State’s Jason Penry

By Jason Penry, Ph.D., Arkansas State

Like coaches, fundraising professionals have numbers attached to them. We are expected to raise more each year. Because our fundraising “record” is so visible, most of us have a great sense of urgency in our work.


There comes a point, however, when we cannot continue to raise record numbers each year with the same human resource capacity. Routinely creating new major gift officer positions is obviously not feasible, but there’s another effective solution. In a resource-short environment, collaborations are key. That’s why I promote university advancement and athletics working closely together, in a practical fashion. The main idea is not about revamping your fundraising operations; it is simply about teamwork.


Having experience in both athletics and university advancement, I have found that not every university is blessed with a mutually beneficial relationship between the two departments. At some universities, the two entities are, in fact, adversarial. When the language “us” and “them” is used between the groups, it’s a sure sign of room for improvement. These adversarial relationships stem from a lack of understanding; many chief advancement officers don’t understand athletics and many in athletics don’t understand advancement. Similarly, faculty can have ill-founded concerns about athletics siphoning money away from academic programs.


It doesn’t have to be this way. Athletics has so much it can contribute to the overall mission of university advancement, which, in turn, can boost efficiency and effectiveness of athletics fundraising. The best indicator of a major gift prospect is someone who has given previously, no matter the level. It is extremely rare for a prospect with no history of giving to have their first gift be a major one. Athletics excels at bridging this gap due to the transactional nature of its relationships with season tickets, tailgating passes and the like. Athletics also plays a sizeable role in getting alumni and friends to make campus visits, which research shows are a major precursor to principal gifts.


University advancement professionals love leaders across campus with grand vision and big aspirations. These can very often be found within the athletic department. From facility renovations to endowed coaching positions to sport additions, advancement can help raise big money with compelling projects as a starting point, one principal reason a collaborative relationship should be nurtured.


At Arkansas State, we are fortunate to have an athletic director in Terry Mohajir who truly understands how athletics is part of a broader campus ecosystem. As a result of his willingness to share plans with the university advancement team to name A-State’s generically-monikered convocation center, our development staff included the naming rights on a menu of options for potential donors. Terry’s willingness to not be insular with athletics fundraising efforts undoubtedly facilitated and expedited closure of a five million dollar gift for the arena’s marquee.


One of our goals here at A-State is to have a diversified relationship portfolio for each potential major gift donor. Having all social capital for an individual donor tied up in one advancement officer can put a department in the precarious position of going back to square one, should that staffer leave the university. It is imperative to involve multiple people in cultivating the relationship with a prospect, which is why we encourage a coordinated effort among a myriad of parties that can include athletics administrators, coaches and student-athletes. This fosters trust across campus by showing others outside of the advancement office that advancement believes they too can represent the university in the best possible light.


Another reason this is so important is that we approach prospective donors with a wide range of giving opportunities, in order to allow them to find one with which they feel personally invested. Many donors can be disconnected through time or distance, which means we must outline compelling projects and ideas across the spectrum, in order for them to give at the highest levels.


Our office has university-wide goals, so it behooves us to make personal connections from many different departments with potential donors. Just because an individual chooses to provide a gift for an academic project, does not mean that individual will not feel inspired to give a gift to athletics in the future. As such, developing and maintaining a variety of relationships is crucial toward fostering continued engagement. It also emphasizes to athletics and advancement alike that we are all rowing the boat in the same direction.


We have a three-pronged method for evaluating our staff: number of donor visits, number of proposals and dollar amount raised. The first two can be controlled and are non-negotiable; we must see the right people and ask for gifts in a respectful way. The amount of money we can raise is directly tied to the relationships we develop. Ironically, this can be one of the biggest sources of friction between athletics and advancement, especially as the latter concerns itself with coordination of outreach.


To smooth this potential friction, we ask members of both departments to engage in keeping the lines of communication open. Overlapping proposals look unprofessional and do not inspire confidence in potential donors, so we must remain on the same page regarding gift proposals and anticipated ask information. We do this by sharing, at least quarterly, an extensive excel file with ask and expected ask data, down to the exact date future asks will happen, which also helps hold our own people accountable.


We will do what it takes to get everyone on the same page, but we emphasize efficiency of communication. One-sentence e-mails or texts, quick phone calls, or briefly popping into the office of a colleague in the other department to give them the courtesy of a visit on their turf can go a surprisingly long way.


While the immediate focus is always on how to best benefit the institution, successful collaborations can also serve as résumé builders for those aspiring to the role of Director of Athletics. The ability to cite examples of athletics/advancement collaboration, as well as the experience gained through interaction with university advancement, will surely elevate one’s professional profile among diverse search committees.


Open communication between athletics and advancement will lead to trust between the two groups. Sharing of information is a sign of respect and a professional courtesy, which we all can appreciate. Strong communication leads to stronger relationships, which ultimately leads to success. I often say to friends in athletics that advancement may not be the starting shortstop on your fundraising team, but we can certainly be viewed as a pinch hitter that can deliver a grand slam in a crucial moment.