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Fundraising Strategy: Cultivating Relationships With Current Students

By Charles Brunette, PhD & Nicholas Watanabe, PhD

Research has shown that donors who feel attached to an institution through their experiences as a student, both through academic and athletic, are willing to donate more often and over a longer period of time. The information presented in this article identifies three types of donors and their potential for giving. The question that is essentially being answered is, when does cultivation actually begin?


It is undeniable that financial contributions are an essential source of revenue for university athletic departments. Though financial contributions may lag behind other sources of revenue, such as those generated from media rights and licensing deals, donations certainly play an important role in the continued growth of athletic department budgets. For example, according to financial data published on the USA Today website, Texas A&M registered record contributions of over $92 million in 2015. Much of these funds were likely directed to help cover part of the $485 million cost to rebuild Kyle Field, a staple in College Station. The $92 million in contributions made up approximately 48% of the Aggie’s total budget ($192,608,876), and represented a 250% increase in charitable giving within a single fiscal year. In this sense, donations to an athletic department can play a vital role in the financing of major facility construction or renovation projects. More importantly, vested and consistent giving from fans and alumni can result in a near guaranteed line item, extending beyond capital projects.


An examination of the finances of Power Five and Group of Five athletic department revenues from 2010 to 2015 shows that on average, contributions made up around 24% of total revenue (25% for Power Five and 23% for Group of Five). With donations making up close to a quarter of their revenue, it may be in the best interest of university athletic departments to continue to improve relationships with current donors, as well as to cultivate future donors. This is especially timely given the passage of the new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act which eliminated the ability for donors to deduct 80% of the value of charitable contributions.


In this new economic reality, there is the potential that the elimination of this deduction could cause a significant decrease in the number of donations made to athletic departments. Further, the allure of tickets to collegiate sporting events and other game day incentives regularly offered to donors may no longer be enough to offset minimum giving requirements without the opportunity to reap the tax benefits. This too, may trickle down to lost returns on ticket sales and reduced revenues generated through event attendance.


Based on these and other challenges which athletic departments and the staff members in charge of advancement offices face in today’s academic environment, there is great need to better understand donor preferences and behaviors that are more intrinsic in nature. For instance, why donors choose to give, where they prefer to give, what experiences drive giving, and what factors are important in nurturing donor relationships.


While there exists a number of studies which have approached the behaviors of current and retrospective donors, one area which has been relatively absent in sport management research is the consideration of identifying and developing potential future donors. Therefore, the purpose of our research was to gain a better understanding of the current student experience and its relationship to intentions for making charitable gifts as alumni. Related research has found that positive donor intentions are a good predictor for making donations in the future. Implications for this research may help universities and athletic departments better understand factors important to the development of alumni donors as well as offer frameworks for strategic approaches to maximize the potential for future giving


A number of co-occurring factors have been implicated in driving university and athletic department giving including both tangible (e.g. tickets, tax deductions) and intangible (e.g. experience of watching a collegiate sporting event in person, a feeling of unwavering fandom) benefits. From the perspective of the research literature, alumni giving is heavily associated with experiential factors that took place during university attendance as undergraduate or graduate students. One factor in particular, university attachment, is thought to be developed during a student’s university attendance and results in a greater likelihood of him or her making a donation as an alumnus. The term attachment can be considered a holistic representation of a student’s university experience and refers to an individual’s sense of belonging or feeling of affiliation with his or her Alma mater.


It is well known that alumni attribute university connectedness to a variety of experiences and regularly identify their exposure to intercollegiate athletic programs as a principal reason for feeling close to their university. Moreover, the types of campus activities, interactions, and social experiences that alumni recollect as students are not only important in forging this feeling of attachment but also in the determination of how alumni may choose to monetarily support their university and its athletics program. From the sport management perspective, alumni can be categorized according to where they choose to provide donations. Stinson and Howard (2004) first identified these straightforward categories as academic, athletic, and split, or those who give to both academic and athletic causes simultaneously. Stinson and Howard (2010) also found that split donors may be considered the most dependable donor type, often giving more consistently and over a longer period of time than other types of donors.


The existing research on university giving relies primarily on understanding feelings of university attachment and donor categorization from the alumni perspective. While alumni can provide important retrospective information about what they experienced as students and what contributed to their feelings of connectedness, this approach does not fully capture the factors that may influence these dispositions as they are being developed in currently enrolled students. Therefore, it has become quite important to bridge the gap and better understand how these features are nurtured in current students.


With this question in mind, we analyzed responses about engagement in university activities, feelings of attachment, and future donation preferences from a sample of 266 students at a Power Five, Division I FBS institution. The study used a broadened definition of attachment called sense of place to capture separate components of university belongingness, namely attachment (positive emotions associated with a university), identification (recognition of self as part of a university), and social bonding (extent of positive social experiences at a university). To measure donation preferences the study collected data associated with donation intention, preferences for which departments to donate to, and familiarity with development offices and the processes for making donations.


Aside from general student experiences, individual participation in sport-related activities were noted as the strongest predictor for heightened feelings of attachment and identification whereas engagement in student or social groups was associated most with social bonding. Membership in student or social groups and attendance at university athletic events specifically were related to greater intentions to donate in the future. In other words, students who were involved in social groups and engaged in sport-related activities as both participants and attendees felt more bonded to their university and had greater intentions for making a future donation compared to students who participated in other types of activities.


When the engagement, sense of place, and donation items were modeled together, place attachment, place identity, preferences for giving to both academic and athletic causes (split donor), and understanding how to make future donations stood out as the most meaningful variables in predicting whether a current student felt they would donate in the future. Notably, these results are very similar to what has been found in alumni samples. From an advancement standpoint, this finding is important because it suggests that feelings of attachment, considerations for giving, and knowledge about making donations begin to take shape during a student’s attendance. More so, engagement in a variety of athletic and non-athletic activities, a strong student-university relationship, and categorization as a potential split donor were indicative of higher levels of intention for making future donations. In simple terms, this puts forward that the development of the most fruitful alumni donors begins when they are students and is influenced by the campus-wide experiences they have as students.


Overall, these findings have a number of important implications for university and athletic department development offices. First, it should be noted that alumni donor intentions are actively being developed throughout their enrollment as students. Therefore, each real time good or bad experience that a student has may positively or negatively influence both his or her feelings of closeness to a university, and their potential to donate in the future. Therefore, continually improving the perceptions and experiences that students have, in both academic and athletic contexts, is an important practical consideration for advancement offices. For instance, athletic development approaches may aim to enhance student access to athletic department facilities, foster student connections with sport programs, or provide students with unique sporting event or athletic department experiences.


Secondly, sense of place is highly related to donation intention and may be determined by the types of activities as well as the quality of social relationships that students have. While athletic activities were a very important factor, what is most interesting is that sense of place was associated with a combination of campus experiences rather than any single event or activity type. From the standpoint of the athletic department, this would suggest that those individuals who may be most willing and consistent as future donors are not just the fans who attend or watch games, but also those who formerly attended the university, played intramural sports, or were part of a well-connected student group. Practically, this suggests that athletic development should broaden their focus when thinking about developing alumni donors. Developing outreach methods that successfully integrates all students, even those who do not participate in athletic activities, could be beneficial to help strengthen student-university attachment and expand the number of potential future donors.


Third, findings from our study also suggest that current students who were considering making donations to both academics and athletics in the future had greater intention to donate. That is, students who stated they would donate to just athletics (or just academics) expressed a lower willingness to donate to the university in the future. Based on this, students who were more willing to donate were individuals who seemingly place value on both their academic and athletic experiences simultaneously. Therefore, rather than having separate development initiatives, athletic department and academic advancement offices may consider a cooperative approach to yield greater future benefits for both groups.


One final implication from this study is that students who expressed a higher awareness of how to make a donation in the future had higher levels of donation intention. Therefore, athletic and academic development offices may be served well if they provide education about how and where gifts may be provided. In addition, education outlining the benefits and outcomes of alumni giving to current students may help students better understand not only how they can give back to their university in the future, but also plant the seed for why it is important.


Athletic programs serve as important tools in providing rich experiences to students. However, they are not the only campus department that strengthens the student-university relationship or donation intentions. In this manner, it may be in the interest of both a university and its athletic department in the long run to strategically work together to develop future alumni donors. By instilling a feeling of institutional attachment, across an array of departments, activities, and experiences, students may be more willing to donate to both academic and athletic causes in the future. As mentioned, split donors have been shown to give more often and over a longer period of time than donors who restrict gifts to only one department. Thus, the most consistent fundraising approach to develop alumni donors may hinge on providing students with memorable academic and athletic experiences, positive emotions, and feelings of inclusivity that allow them to develop a meaningful relationship with the university and its athletic department as one.


*This article is based on article published in Journal of Issues in Intercollegiate Athletics, May 17, 2017